In Translation: The Saudi Transition and an Anxious Egypt

Ever since King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne a few weeks ago, the Arab press has been rife with speculation that he intends to reset Saudi foreign policy. Some, particularly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, are speculating rather wildly that Riyadh wants to make peace with political Islam after financing the Sisi regime in Egypt that decimated the Brotherhood and encouraged similar anti-Islamist clampdowns elsewhere. Others have pointed to a Saudi refocusing Iran, rather than Islamism as the chief threat – particularly as the Arab Islamists have retreated in many countries. The idea of a Saudi push for a "united Sunni front" against Shia Iran and its regional clients makes some sense after the Iran-allied Houthis took control of Sanaa, leading Riyadh to once again reach out to the Yemeni Muslim Brothers as a counterbalance. 

The Sisi regime and its media has reacted quite badly to all this, particularly since so much of what stands as "ideology" of this regime is based around building the Brotherhood into some all-powerful bogeyman. The dependency of this regime on Gulf financing makes it doubly nervous to see a rapprochement between Salman and Turkey's Erdogan, who is perhaps the only regional leader that continues to call Sisi a putschist. In cutting through all the wild speculation surrounding Salman's intentions and the dual summits he held over the weekend with Erdogan and Sisi, some of the more plausible readings of Saudi intentions have come from Saudis themselves. Khaled al-Dakheel, a prominent columnist in al-Hayat, penned an interesting piece on this a few days ago, which we translate below. Note in particular the paragraph in which he lambasts the Sisi regime's obsession with scapegoating the Brotherhood and its inability to build a coherent alternative around which Egyptians could rally. 

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The Saudi Transition and an Anxious Egypt

By Khaled El-Dakheel, al-Hayat, 1 March 2015

After the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Egypt has clearly been vexed with anxiety, and the source of this anxiety is obviously Egypt’s worries about the political orientation of the new Saudi monarch Salman bin Abdulaziz. The biggest mouthpiece of this concern and anxiety has been the Egyptian media, which expresses doubt that the position of King Salman toward the Muslim Brotherhood is not as firm or decisive as that of the late King Abdullah, and that he may incline toward a rapprochement and possibly alliance with Qatar and Turkey. As a result, his stance toward Egypt would come with boundaries, conditions and requirements that did not exist under King Abdullah. In other words, there is anxiety that Saudi support for Egypt will decline, or that this support will be part of a new political package that the new Saudi crown deems important. Most likely this anxiety was present among Egypt’s leadership before the death of King Abdullah and before it was expressed by the media.

It is only natural and to be expected that Egypt would be worried about a change of leadership in an ally as important as Saudi Arabia and at a time as turbulent as this, especially amid the difficult political and economic circumstances in Egypt. However, what is not natural is the way that this concern has been expressed in the media, where it has reached a level of hysteria.

This was noted by Egyptian writer Mostafa al-Naggar in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 23 February, where he drew attention to the Egyptian media’s complicity in “vile slander against Qatar and in hitting the Saudi regime below the belt.” This indicates that at least some of the Egyptian media is still hostage to the discourse of the 1950s and 1960s, when vile words, veiled threats, and hitting below the belt were used to exert pressure and engage in blackmail. It did not occur to those responsible for this that resorting to such discourse provokes anxiety outside of Egypt, first because it means that Egypt – or at least some people in Egypt – have not changed since the region and the world have changed after the first popular revolution in Egypt’s history.

The second reason it provokes concern is because it suggests that the Egyptian media at least harbors a deep-rooted sentiment that the choice made by the Egyptian state after the 30 June Revolution may be more fragile that it appears. If this is the case, it really does give cause for concern. Amid the current unrest in the Arab world, Egypt’s stability, and before and after it the stability of Saudi Arabia, are no longer just a strategic interest for these two countries alone, but they are a strategic interest for the Arab world as a whole, as well as for the international system. It was on this basis that King Salman Abdulaziz offered reassurance that Saudi support for Egypt would not change.

Where’s the problem then? As I indicated, the problem seems to be in the manner and framework of this support. Some in Egypt would like Saudi support to be in the form of an open-ended royal gift or grant: a blank check, as they say. Saudi Arabia should not seek a rapprochement with Turkey, for example, because they sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood. This view ignores the fact that relations between countries are not based on such a viewpoint, a viewpoint that is sentimental and not political. The more rational, political viewpoint is that Saudi-Egyptian relations should not be contingent upon a certain stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood or a certain stance toward Turkey. 

If the stability of Egypt is a strategic interest of Saudi Arabia – and it is – Saudi Arabia must deal treat the Brotherhood issue as essentially a domestic Egyptian issue, and to approach it from the standpoint of its influence on Egypt’s stability first, then the regional repercussions and thus on Saudi Arabia second. From the same perspective, Saudi Arabia’s continued alienation from Turkey – as wished for by some in Egypt – does not serve regional balances at this stage, as these balances are the main pillar of the region’s stability and thus of Egypt’s stability as well. Turkey is one of the most important countries in the region in terms of economic and military capabilities and political role. This is in addition to the fact that it is a member of NATO and the G20, and enjoys a strategic position between the Arab world on the one hand and Israel and Iran on the other, as a country that possesses a clear political and economic project that is in contradiction with Israel’s settlement project as well as with Iran’s sectarian project. Turkey also is significant as the secular nation-state whose project and regional policies are most likely to intersect with Arab interests. However, before anything else, this presupposes that there is an Arab plan. At this moment, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the Arab countries best poised to consider launching and sponsoring such a project. This is what Saudi Arabia and Egypt should be occupied with, not Turkey’s stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood.

The irony is that in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has become a sort of ideological and political complex, a destructive complex that needs to be deconstructed, and a distinction needs to be drawn against the position towards the Brotherhood and what the country needs on the regional level. Egypt did not accept that Turkey described what happened on 30 June 2013 as a military coup. However, most countries in the world consider it to be a coup. Does this mean that relations should be cut off with these countries too? If it is important for Egypt that the world recognizes that what happened then was a revolution – which is its right – it must back that up politically and constitutionally at home before it tries to do so abroad. Then, if the Muslim Brotherhood issue blows up in this way, it is a natural result of the absence of an Egyptian intellectual and political project for the majority of Egyptians to rally around. In the same context, the scale of the Muslim Brotherhood issue both inside and outside Egypt indicates the continued crisis of governance in the Arab world, and this crisis is the primary reason that Arab countries suffer from stumbling growth and the resulting flare-ups that led to the Arab revolutions and it is because of this that they have hit intellectual and political dead-ends.

Here let us pause and ask: is that everything? Fortunately, it appears that what was impossible to achieve has begun to be achieved at least in part. Today is the second day of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit, and tomorrow begins his official visit to Riyadh. Today (Sunday) Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also arrives in Riyadh. Is this a coincidence or a prior arrangement? It does not look like there will be a meeting between the two leaders in the Saudi capital. However, their presence at the same moment might imply something. In any case, the Turkish premier’s visit represents a shift in Saudi policy in the right direction, and it will be a first step toward an expected change in the political stances of more than one country in the region.

Finally, let me repeat the conclusion I made to an article of mine here last year about the urgent need for a Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Turkey trio, noting that such a trio “in the current circumstances constitutes a strategic necessity for the three parties. These parties complement one another politically and economically, and coordination between them…would restore some balance to the region after the fall of Iraq and Syria, not to mention that it would form a barrier to Iran’s destructive role…It would also be a starting point to lay the foundations for stability in the current turbulent period.” (Al-Hayat, 13 January 2014) Is Egypt tilting even slightly in the direction that Saudi Arabia has already started down?