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What lies behind the Saudi-Egyptian media war?

Back-and-forth criticism comes after Riyadh vows to stop providing unconditional foreign grants
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (Illustration by MEE Creative)

The recent eruption of a media war between prominent Saudi and Egyptian figures comes against the backdrop of Cairo’s continuing requests for monetary support and Riyadh’s shifting financial aid policy. Although authorities in Saudi Arabia and Egypt have remained largely silent, the unfolding media battle is being seen as a proxy media war between the two governments.

In late January, Saudi writer Turki al-Hamad tweeted regarding what he saw as key factors driving Egypt towards the abyss: the military’s increasing dominance over the state economy, the country’s aging and change-resistant bureaucracy, and a popular culture characterised by surrendering and waiting for aid.

The tweets by Hamad, who is close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, stirred controversy and drew accusations from Egyptian pro-government figures of interference in the country’s domestic affairs. 

Days later, another prominent Saudi academic, Khalid al-Dakhil, tweeted about the political and economic situation in Egypt. He traced the current crisis back to the rise of military rule since 1952, asserting that this situation did not allow a different political and economic alternative to emerge. 

Some observers still believe that ultimately, the Saudis will be forced to financially support Sisi's regime

Ali Shihabi, another figure close to Mohammed bin Salman, chimed in, tweeting: “Egypt continues to bank on being constantly bailed out, but donor appetite is now greatly diminished. Egypt is a black hole that will never close unless the govt is able to make material structural reforms.” Other Saudi commentators also weighed in, creating a perception that these were Saudi messages to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military establishment, which controls pretty much everything in the country, including the economy. 

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Responding to the mounting criticism, Abdul Raziq Tawfiq, chief editor of Egypt’s state-run Al Gomhuria newspaper, published an article loaded with insults against the Saudis, without actually naming them. Cairo24, a news website reportedly tied to state intelligence, republished the article, supporting the conclusion that it was intended as a direct message to Saudi Arabia. Media outlets in both countries are tightly controlled by their respective governments. 

Tawfiq’s article poured oil on the fire, prompting a harsh response from Abdullah al-Fawzan, secretary general of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue. But as the media war threatened to spin out of control, an invisible hand suddenly intervened.

Tawfiq’s article disappeared from Al Gomhuria’s website and was replaced by a new piece in which he praised the Saudi regime and asserted that Egyptian-Saudi relations were at a historic high, while suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the discord. Likewise, the tweets of several prominent Saudi writers were deleted.

No blank cheques

The media war erupted days after Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said the kingdom would no longer give unconditional foreign grants, noting: “We used to give directs grants and deposits without strings attached and we are changing that … We need to see reforms … We want to help but we want you also to do your part.”

Although Jadaan did not name a specific country, his words were understood as addressing Egypt in particular. The absence of the Saudi crown prince at a January summit in Abu Dhabi, which Sisi attended, reinforced the perception that the message was directed towards the Egyptian president and the military establishment. And this was not the only recent summit that Mohammed bin Salman has missed: he was also absent from Egypt’s El Alamein meeting last August, which included heads of state from the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Iraq

The recent tensions between Egypt and Saudi Arabia can be traced back to the 2021 al-Ula agreement, which ended the four-year Gulf crisis. At the time, the deal was widely viewed as a bilateral understanding between Riyadh and Doha. The other parties to the conflict, including Egypt, were not consulted, and Sisi did not attend the al-Ula summit. 

Mohammed bin Salman welcomes the emir of Qatar in al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, for a summit to end the Gulf crisis in January 2021 (AFP)
Mohammed bin Salman welcomes the emir of Qatar in al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, for a summit to end the Gulf crisis in January 2021 (AFP)

Following the agreement, members of the blockading countries (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain) began charting their own foreign policy paths. Egypt was left alone, having to make its own arrangements with Qatar to normalise relations with the small gas-rich Gulf country. Sisi hoped this would bring fresh financial support, and while that’s exactly what happened, it turns out his self-made crisis was much bigger than what one country - or even a handful of Gulf countries - could handle alone.  

By mid-2021, Egypt’s total debt had climbed to $392bn. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been major funders and supporters of Sisi’s regime; shortly after he took power in 2013, Egypt received around $42bn from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, and their support has continued over the years. Today, the Egyptian government has resorted to selling off state assets to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Riyadh has also been demanding concrete political and economic reforms, a call that has been poorly received by Sisi and the military establishment. 

Last December, an Axios report cited Israeli officials who said that Egypt had stalled the implementation of a deal to hand over two strategic Red Sea islands (Tiran and Sanafir) to Saudi Arabia, just a week before the intended deadline. Many Egyptians, including prominent former military and political figures, opposed the transfer, considering it a surrender of Egypt’s sovereign rights in exchange for financial support from Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi-UAE rivalry

Another factor that might have played a role in the rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Egypt is the new Saudi-UAE regional rivalry. Despite all the support that Saudi Arabia has provided to Sisi, he appears closer to the Emiratis than to the Saudis. A recent tweet by Emirati academic Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, who is often described as being close to the ruling circle, supports this perception. 

In his tweet amid the Riyadh-Cairo media war, Abdulla asserted that “the Arab quartet axis (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain) has ended its role and become part of the past”, adding that the recent Abu Dhabi summit “laid out the foundations of a new Arab axis”.

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Last month, the UAE hosted Sisi again at the 2023 World Government Summit, where the Egyptian president singled out the Emiratis for their early support during his ascendance to power in 2013. He justified the current state of the Egyptian economy by saying he was facing parallel challenges on several levels, without mentioning corruption and the fact that the military establishment controls the economy. Most importantly, Sisi implicitly reintroduced the bogeyman by referring to terrorism and dark forces, noting that without regional support, Egypt “would not have stood up again”.

Although Sisi did not mention Riyadh or Mohammed bin Salman, he attributed recent tensions to tendentious writers and social media, cautioning against allowing this to affect “brotherly ties”.

While the media war seems to be contained at the current moment, the tension between Riyadh and Cairo remains an ongoing issue. Egypt’s crisis is highly unlikely to disappear on its own, especially in the absence of radical reforms. Some observers still believe that ultimately, the Saudis will be forced to financially support Sisi’s regime for two reasons. 

First, if the military regime collapses, most probably Islamists will be the alternative again, and of course Saudi Arabia doesn't want such an outcome, so it will end up bailing out the military regime again. Second, if the military regime collapses, Egypt might slide toward chaos and this would be dangerous for the Saudis and of course for Israel and the US.

So, Saudi Arabia will end up financing the military regime out of fear of its collapse, or Israel and the US will force it to do so. Whether this prediction will be proven right remains to be seen. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ali Bakir is a research assistant professor at Ibn Khaldun Center for Humanities and Social Sciences. He is following geopolitical and security trends in the Middle East, great power politics, small states' behaviour, emerging unconventional risks and threats, with a special focus on Turkey’s foreign and defence policies, Turkey-Arab and Turkey-Gulf relations. He tweets @AliBakeer
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