Skip to main content

Signs of unease surface in Egyptian-Saudi ties

Sisi appears to be engaged in a balancing act with Egypt's fluctuating foreign policy, but the Saudis may not stay on board unconditionally
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz talking with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi upon his arrival to Riyadh, on 1 March (AFP/HO/SPA)

Signs of tension between Saudi Arabia and Egypt over their policies in the Middle East have surfaced lately with an apparent squabble taking place this past Sunday during the Arab League summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

During the summit, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked for a letter written by Russian President Vladimir Putin to be read out, drawing the ire of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who lashed out at its contents.

In the letter, Putin criticised the Saudi-led strikes in Yemen calling for "the resolution of all the problems the Arab world faces through peaceful means, without any external interference".

In response, Faisal accused Putin of hypocrisy, as the Russian leader "speaks about the problems in the Middle East as though Russia is not influencing these problems," adding that Moscow's policies are "the main part of why there are atrocities befalling the Syrian people".

In contrast to the previous Arab League meeting, no one representing the Syrian opposition attended which some have interpreted as another Egyptian step towards stronger ties with Russia, which backs the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Media wars

Official Saudi and Egyptian statements do not reflect a rift between the two states and Riyadh had continued its financial backing of Cairo since the 3 July, 2013 overthrow of elected President Mohamed Morsi.

However, prominent media figures from both countries have recently been engaged in a tit-for-tat public spat, highlighting policy differences that are not acknowledged on an official level.

A number of private satellite TV anchors have been increasingly vocal in their criticism of Riyadh under the reign of King Salman, who came to power in January following the death of King Abdullah, who was known for his strong support for Cairo. 

Egyptian critics of King Salman were unhappy with the apparent warming of ties between Riyadh and Ankara following the recent visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been a vocal supporter of Morsi.  

The visit has been interpreted as signalling some change in Saudi foreign policy.  

Shift in Saudi foreign policy

"Saudi Arabia has moved on from 'the obsession' with the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Gulf states should follow suit," Jamal Khashoggi, an informed Saudi columnist and General Manager of Alarab satellite TV, told MEE.

Khashoggi acknowledged that there has been a shift in Saudi Arabia's foreign policy priorities, with a focus now on what Riyadh sees as growing threats from the Islamic State (IS) and Iran.   

Egyptian commentators, meanwhile, have been calling for better ties with Iran and Syria, whose governments are backed by Russia. Moscow has already been strengthening ties with Sisi.

Commentators like Ibrahim Issa and Yousef al-Hussaini have been particularly bold in their criticism of Saudi Arabia under King Salman, most recently over Yemen, drawing criticism from Khashoggi who accused Egypt's media of being a mouthpiece of "the regime".

In response, Hussaini mockingly advised the Saudi columnist to learn from the United Arab Emirates media on how to comment on Egyptian affairs.

Frictions over Syria

While some observers see Egypt's two media figures as doing Sisi's bidding by spreading his views without attributing them to the Egyptian president, as previous leaks have suggested, other analysts argue that such stances genuinely represent the thought of Egypt's left.

"Egyptian media is rich in hosting various views and orientations," Mohammed Mohsen Abo El-Nour, political analyst and researcher in international relations and Iranian affairs, told MEE adding that Egypt's leftists have traditionally been anti-Saudi.

However, Abo El-Nour noted that although Cairo still enjoys strong support from Riyadh, with King Salman personally attending the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, Egypt's adopting of "a neutral position with regards to the conflict in Syria may cause frictions with its Gulf partners."

"King Salman made some adjustments to Saudi Arabia's foreign policy, including the restoring of balance to the Sunni orbit to counter the Shiite orbit, led by Iran," added Abo El-Nour.  

Cairo-Moscow ties: Reviving Nasserism?

Egypt's improving ties with Russia have been attributed to a number of factors, but analysts warn against overblowing the implications of the bilateral relations between Cairo and Moscow.

"Sisi would like to present himself as the new [former Egyptian President Jamal Abdul] Nasser, whose military had relied heavily on Soviet arms," Peter Oborne, former chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, told MEE.

The Egyptian president is trying to appear independent from the West, but both Washington and Moscow back Sisi's proclaimed "war on terror," particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, added Oborne, citing previous US-Russian points of agreement, including the view towards the war in Chechnya.

"Sisi's military education has been shaped by the Americans, not the Russians," Kal Abraham, a London-based analyst, told MEE, adding that "the purpose of his courting of Moscow is only to get Washington jealous so as to secure an unreluctant US support".

If this analysis is accurate, then Sisi's policy of accommodating Moscow, as well as seeking to 'diversify' Egypt's arms providers by purchasing weapons from France and Germany, appears to have worked.

US lifts freeze on F-16s bound to Egypt

On Tuesday, the White House announced that the US freeze on delivering a dozen F-16 aircraft to Egypt, enforced since the ousting of Morsi and subsequent deadly government crackdowns on protesters in 2013, would be lifted.

The Egyptian military industry is mainly dependent on the United States for the spare parts of its equipment and artillery, according to Abo El-Nour.

The US announcement came as Amnesty International published a report on capital punishment in 2014, where Egypt came second only to Nigeria in the number of death sentences - 509 - handed down, although Cairo has only carried out one execution so far.

The announcement also came following a recent report by the European Commission criticising Cairo's record on human rights and personal freedoms, yet still viewing Egypt as a "key foreign policy partner".

"Egypt made limited progress… especially on deep and sustainable democracy," said the EU's Neighbourhood Country Report, which condemned Cairo's "restrictions on civil society and peaceful demonstrations," as well as its "continued use of death sentences".

One reason why some states are willing to overlook Egypt's rights violations, some observers note, is the threat of terrorism that officials in Cairo repeatedly say they are fighting. The Egyptians also appear to have secured Gulf backing over the latter's fear of the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood back home.  

Winds of change in Yemen

However, as fears of the Brotherhood have reportedly dwindled in the new royal court of Riyadh, in the face of IS expansion and Iran's boasting of its reach in the region, Cairo appears to be seeking to promote its worth to Saudi Arabia by swiftly backing the Saudi-led operations in Yemen.

The Egyptian move was reportedly a change of policy towards Yemen amid reports of secret contacts between Cairo and representatives of Iran's backed Houthi militia to counter the influence of Yemen's Brotherhood-inspired al-Islah party.    

The Saudis, in turn, have reportedly backtracked from their initial policy - under King Abdullah - of countering the influence of al-Islah, to establishing contact with the Yemeni party.

The Saudi-Islah communication comes ahead of an expected visit to Riyadh by Hamas, much to the displeasure of Cairo. The visit comes at a time when relations between the Palestinian movement and Iran are struggling to return to their peak prior to the March 2011 Syrian uprising, which Hamas and the Saudis support – while Iran and Russian fiercely back Assad.

Joint Arab force amidst 'vast differences'

Another area where the Saudis and Egyptians are likely to disagree on in the future is the recent proposal by Sisi for the 22-member Arab League to establish a joint force, despite current welcome by Riyadh. 

"The notion of a truly joint Arab military force still remains an aspiration rather than a reality," Frederic Wehrey, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told AFP, adding that it faces "political distrust amongst the [member] states".

Wehrey's view is shared by James Dorsey, a Middle East analyst with the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"I don't think there is a lot of substance to this force," Dorsey told AFP. "Despite the statements of unity, there are vast differences between the Arab states," he added.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.