If those wishing to ruin Egyptian-Saudi relations were aware of the solid, multidimensional, and strategic nature of these relations, which not only serve their own national interests but the interests of the Arab people as a whole, they would doubtless spare themselves the trouble.
Their efforts would inevitably be in vain. The strategic nature of the Egyptian-Saudi relationship is not the stuff of wishful thinking or hyperbole used to give it a boost. Instead, it is a reality that is grounded in history and that has always managed to overcome any temporary problems that may have arisen between the two countries.
Let’s begin from a point in the relatively distant past. When the 23 July Revolution occurred in Egypt in 1952, overthrowing the monarchy that had up to that point run the country, some thought it would end the close cooperation that had existed between the Egyptian and Saudi royal houses.
However, exactly the opposite occurred, and the cooperation between the two countries grew closer. Saudi Arabia stood by Egypt during the gruelling battle that then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser fought against the British-inspired Baghdad Pact in 1955. Moreover, it proved a more stalwart supporter than Syria, which followed a more ambivalent line until the regime in Damascus was replaced with one with a more Arab nationalist outlook.
This outlook firmly opposed all attempts on the part of the Western powers, and Britain in particular, to advance their ambitions in the Arab region. The Arabian Peninsula figured prominently in their schemes.
After Egypt’s victory in that battle, Israel, France, and Britain launched the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956. The purpose was to punish Egypt for nationalising the Suez Canal and backing the Algerian liberation movement. Riyadh’s support for Egypt on this occasion was not just political and diplomatic, as Saudi soldiers volunteered to fight in the ranks of the Egyptian resistance, among them children of then Saudi King Abdel-Aziz and including the current Saudi monarch King Salman.
Although Egypt and Saudi Arabia then had a falling out over Yemen, to which we will return in a subsequent article, they stood side by side in their opposition to the Iraqi claim to Kuwait on the eve of Kuwaiti independence in 1961. Thanks to their united stance, the Arab League succeeded where the UN Security Council had failed and sent in an Arab peacekeeping force that safeguarded Kuwait’s independence.
A major juncture in the relationship was the June 1967 War, which delivered a crushing defeat at a time of sharp inter-Arab political polarisation. Egypt and Saudi Arabia were on opposing sides on the question of the Yemeni Revolution of September 1962 and the Civil War in that country. Those unfamiliar with the strategic nature of the Egyptian-Saudi relationship might have thought that the 1967 defeat would have given rise to mutual accusations and attacks. Instead, in fewer than three months after the defeat, the Arab leaders came together in the “Steadfastness” Summit meeting in Khartoum.
For Riyadh, this steadfastness was more than simply rhetoric. After the summit meeting, Saudi Arabia, like Kuwait, and Libya, was one of the foremost supporters of subsequent Arab efforts to reverse the effects of the Israeli aggression.
At the same time, Cairo and Riyadh resolved their differences over the Yemeni Civil War. This step was extremely important, as it signified that the demands of the central conflict between the Arabs and Israel overrode any inter-Arab conflicts or disputes. This is essential to the concept of Arab national security, and it played an important part in ensuring support for the Arab resistance through the War of Attrition after 1967 to the October 1973 War with Israel.
In fact, this war was the epitome of Arab national security and was launched in accordance with a joint Egyptian-Syrian plan that saw it fought on two fronts at once. Forces from nine Arab countries took part in the war, and Saudi Arabia led the Arab oil-exporting countries in the first ever use of the oil weapon in support of Arab interests.
After the Arab-Egyptian rupture that followed the 1977 Peace Agreement with Israel, Iraq again laid claim to Kuwait. This time, that claim was not just made in words, but was carried out in the form of an actual invasion that took place in August 1990. Although Egypt at the time was a member of the Arab Cooperation Council, a body founded on the basis of an initiative by then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the Egyptian leadership did not hesitate for a moment to support and protect legitimacy and other cardinal principles of the Arab order. Egyptian forces fought in the war to liberate Kuwait under Saudi command, just as Egypt placed its forces at the service of the Saudi-led Arab peacekeeping force in Kuwait in 1961.
I would like to underscore this point, because those seeking to undermine the Egyptian-Saudi relationship interpret the tensions that occasionally occur between the countries as being somehow symptomatic of their rivalry over Arab leadership. Nothing could be further from the truth. Egypt’s Arab role is a historical constant. It is fully conscious of its Arab responsibilities as these are integrally connected with Egypt’s national security. It is similarly aware of the changes that have taken place in the Arab regional order and understands that the responsibility for addressing the current challenges that threaten Arab security is a collective one that must be borne by all the Arab countries, each in accordance with its ability, in order to advance Arab national interests and the interests of all the Arab states.
I come now to a crucial episode in Egyptian-Saudi strategic relations, which occurred during the wave of grassroots uprisings that swept across the region at the outset of the second decade of this century. Egypt, like other Arab countries, was hit hard by the adverse repercussions of this wave, prime among them being the Muslim Brotherhood’s monopolisation of power after June 2012 and the anarchy, destruction, and terrorism it unleashed on Egypt after the grassroots uprising to overthrow the Brotherhood a year later.
The economic situation became critical, and Egypt faced a harsh political situation abroad because of claims that the Egyptian people’s revolution against Brotherhood rule had in fact been something else. No Egyptian will ever forget how their Arab brothers, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, stood by them in those difficult times. It is impossible to forget the unstinting support that then Saudi King Abdullah gave to Egypt both politically and economically.
That support was instrumental in helping Egypt to overcome the huge challenges of the time. A former Egyptian ambassador to a major European country told me that the Saudi ambassador to that country had told him that Riyadh had issued a directive that the Saudi position in any international forum should be the same as Egypt’s.
*The writer is professor of Political Science at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly