By Kamran Bokhari
Summary Saudi Arabia is the only major Arab power in the Middle East, but alone it cannot manage the regional chaos. It needs Egypt’s help, but Egypt is dependent on the kingdom to manage its domestic political economy. With their weakening financial position, the Saudis will struggle to keep the Egyptians afloat. Riyadh’s plans to partner with Cairo to deal with collective Arab security needs are unlikely to bear fruit.
Saudi Arabia’s monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, is concluding a rare five-day visit to Egypt today. During the trip, the two countries have announced a number of agreements and investment deals worth $20 billion. These include the construction of a bridge over the Red Sea connecting the two countries, Cairo handing over two strategic islands in the Red Sea to Riyadh and the Saudis pledging $16 billion in an investment fund for Egypt with a specific focus on developing the insurgency-wracked Sinai Peninsula. For Saudi Arabia, the goal is to increase its influence in Egypt and have Egypt play a greater role in maintaining security in the Middle East. But this is unlikely to happen.
A Sense of History
Before we examine this growing closeness between the world’s two main Arab states, it is important to take stock of the historical relations between them. The Egyptians opposed the founding of the Saudi polity in the mid-18th century and sent forces at the behest of the Ottoman Empire, which destroyed what is referred to as the First Saudi State in 1818. Over the course of the next century, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia went from being Ottoman possessions to British protectorates and eventually independent states. With the discovery of oil in the kingdom and the establishment of the modern republic following the 1952 coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the two countries emerged as the principal rivals for the leadership of the Arab world.
Nasserite Egypt was a champion of pan-Arabism, which sought to unify the Arab world under a left-wing secular republican regime. Egypt emerged as a major threat for Saudi Arabia, which was a traditional religious monarchy, especially with similar regimes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Algeria that were undermining Arab monarchies. Furthermore, the Cold War logic further exacerbated the hostility between the two rival Arab states, with Cairo in the Soviet camp and Riyadh a key American ally. Egypt sought to topple the Saudi monarchy by influencing members of the royal family. Conversely, the Saudis backed Islamists opposed to the Egyptian regime.
This situation continued until the decline of the Nasser regime in the aftermath of Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In the 1970s, the situation began to move in the kingdom’s favor. Under Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat, Egypt moved from the Soviet camp to the United States’ side. In addition, the Saudis grew immensely wealthy following the 1973 oil crisis. In contrast, a weakened Egypt not only was forced to give up its pan-Arab ambitions but also became dependent on Saudi financial assistance.
That said, Egypt continued to try and maintain its position as a competing Arab power. After all, Saudi Arabia is only powerful because of its petro-dollar wealth, whereas Egypt is the largest Arab state, the Arab world’s intellectual and cultural center and the strongest Arab military power. Thus, its economic weakness notwithstanding, Egypt’s military-dominated republic was much more stable than Saudi Arabia, which was largely a tribal society steeped in an ultraconservative religious ethos and ruled by an absolute monarchy reliant on American military power for its national security. A balance of sorts existed between the two countries until the 2010s.
The February 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power since Sadat’s assassination in 1981, severely weakened Egypt. The Arab Spring unrest, the chaotic and short-lived democratic experiment in which Islamists came to power and the popularly backed 2013 coup that brought in current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi all took a major toll on the Egyptian economy. Cairo has been heavily dependent on massive financial assistance from the energy-rich Gulf Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia, which has pumped at least $12 billion into the Egyptian treasury.
Egypt’s weakening benefited Saudi Arabia, as the kingdom has emerged as the undisputed leader of the Arab world. However, Egypt’s subordination and the kingdom’s emergence as the lone major Arab power comes at a time when the Arab world is in crisis. Riyadh is having to manage several states in turmoil and the threat from jihadist non-state actors, particularly the Islamic State, which presents an ideological challenge to the kingdom. At the same time, the Saudis are struggling to contain an increasingly strong Iran, especially in the post-sanctions era.
The chronic reality that the Saudis are a weak military power is catching up with them, evident from the way in which they have been unable to impose order in their own backyard in Yemen. For this reason, they have sought to construct an Islamic military alliance, which is essentially a way for the Saudis to get other Arab and Muslim powers to support the kingdom’s national and regional security interests. Not only are Turkey and Pakistan – the two non-Arab Muslim powers – steering clear of committing troops, but Egypt has managed to resist as well. However, it may not be able to resist for much longer, given the latest Saudi investments in the country.
But the Saudis themselves are facing a difficult financial situation with the plunge in oil prices. That the Saudis are moving to borrow billions means their ability to help the Egyptians (much less manage the region) is shrinking. The Saudi priority is to maintain stability at home, but they cannot do that while the region around them is collapsing. From the Saudi point of view, they need the Egyptians to help them manage the chaos.
However, the Egyptians are not in a position to do so and are heavily reliant on the Saudis. The Saudis are also aware that for the Egyptians to be able to partner with them on regional security issues, Cairo’s domestic economic woes must be addressed first. Therefore, King Salman’s trip to Egypt is geared toward both purposes. Given the financial strain the Saudis are under, they are not in a position to provide handouts to the Egyptians, which is why they opted for the investment route.
Should these investments pan out, it would give the Saudis a major stake in the Egyptian state. This would give the Saudis leverage to press the Egyptians to send forces for the military coalition Riyadh is trying to construct. Since Turkey and Pakistan are unlikely to play large roles in the coalition, Saudi Arabia needs Egypt’s support. This would also help Saudi Arabia increase its influence in Egypt.
Until now, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have operated in two separate realms, given their geographies. Saudi Arabia is trying to establish a more organic geostrategic link with Egypt by regaining control of the Tiran and Sanafir islands, building a bridge connecting the Egyptian town of Nabq (located just north of Sharm el-Sheikh) with Ras Alsheikh Hamid in Saudi Arabia and developing the Sinai Peninsula. In theory, all of this could facilitate the kingdom’s efforts to bring Egypt under its control. However, several factors prevent this from actually materializing.
The Saudi objective to have greater influence over Egypt and use it as a tool for its foreign policy objectives faces a number of constraints. First and foremost, the Egyptians will resist domination by Saudi Arabia given their competing national interests. Already, there is a domestic uproar over Cairo’s decision to return the pair of islands back to Riyadh. Second, Saudi investments are unlikely to make much of a difference in Egypt, given the scale of its financial and security problems. Much of Sinai, especially the northern half, is a highly underdeveloped desert area and a jihadist hotbed.
The core of Egypt’s population of 90 million, which runs north-south along both sides of the Nile in the mainland, is unlikely to benefit much from the estimated $20 billion Saudi investments. Even if these investments help stabilize the el-Sissi government, the impact will take a long time to sink in. In a best case scenario, Egypt may move away from the brink, but it is unlikely to be strong enough to help the Saudis project power in the region. Meanwhile, the Saudis have their own domestic scene to worry about, considering the impact of low oil prices.
In essence, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two main countries in the Arab world and both are weak in their own ways. There are serious limits to how far the Saudis can stabilize Egypt. In fact, there are serious questions over Saudi Arabia’s ability to manage its own affairs. Thus, the Arab world is facing a long-term political and security vacuum.