In Translation: The abusive Egypt-Saudi relationship

Over the past week, the most serious crisis in Egypt-Saudi relations since the June 2013 coup against Mohammed Morsi has taken place. It is likely to be well-short of the divorce many have argued is impending (after all only last month Saudi Arabia deposited $2 billion into the Central Bank of Egypt), but is nonetheless significant enough to have raised tensions in the media on both sides of the Red Sea. In addition to vocal Saudi attacks against Egypt in the media, Saudi Aramco has suddenly suspended delivery of oil products (at low costs), a form of in-kind support that has been going on for over three years.

The immediate cause appears to have been Egypt’s UN Security Council vote in favor of a resolution on Syria proposed by Russia. However, Riyadh has been souring towards Cairo for several months, between frustration with the Sisi regime’s lack of support in Yemen, its outright opposition to an anti-Assad position in Syria (Egypt being concerned with the potential rise of Islamists there and generally aligned on Russia’s position), and the occasional incident such as the anti-Wahhabi line Cairo has espoused, most recently in at a conference of Muslim scholars in Groszny, Chechnya (note the Russia thread in these elements.) More generally, there have been grumblings that Saudi Arabia, itself under financial stress due to low oil prices, isn’t exactly impressed with how Sisi has decided to spend aid estimated at over $40 billion in the last three years.

There has been much discussion of all this in Egyptian and Saudi media, but the attention our Egyptian friend Amira Howeidy was piqued a few days ago when she noticed an anti-Saudi piece in El Watan, a daily newspaper known for its proximity to the Sisi regime and security services in particular. We have translated this piece below, as an example of the media wars between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It would be a war that one would think Cairo can ill afford at a time of tremendous economic stress (supply shortages of basic goods, runaway inflation, restrictions on bank transactions, the collapsing value of Egyptian pound on the black market - think Argentina in 2001-2002), and indeed Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has rushed over to Riyadh to clear the air and President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has reiterated his deep commitment to the security of the GCC (the loose codeword for “we got your back in the case of a coup, against Iran or if the Americans betray you”). And he denies the oil thing has nothing to do with the UN vote. But the Egyptian media (at the higher end, even) mostly hovers between a defense of Egypt’s autonomy, veiled threats about having an Iran option, and assurances that Egypt-Saudi relations are unassaible even as it indulges some good old fashioned Saudi-bashing.

How long can this all last? I tend to see less of a turning point and more of a tiresome, ongoing negotiations. The relationship is based on a kind of asymmetric passive-aggressive perpetual renegotiation. What Egypt is saying, in effect, is: “I am an unreliable, disrespectful client that openly takes you for granted and jibes against you at every possible turn, but I know you will eventually come back to me because you are more afraid of my weakness and nuisance capacity than of my potential strength. So when is that next check coming?” Egypt has gotten away with it in its relationship with the United States for at least the last 15 years, after all, so why not Saudi Arabia?

Our thanks go to Industry Arabic for making this feature possible.

Saudi Arabia paying the price for harboring terrorism and violent armed groups

Abdel Wahhab Issa, El Watan "السعودية تدفع ثمن احتضانها للإرهاب وجماعات العنف المسلح"), 12 October 2016

The era of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, witnessed a fierce war against terrorist organizations and groups, during which the kingdom staved off the influence of al-Qaeda, Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab region and the Gulf. This came after Saudi Arabia had spent decades undertaking sponsoring these groups, especially during the war in Afghanistan. Before his death, the efforts of King Abdullah culminated in the publication of a list of banned terrorist groups, on which the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda came first. However, when King Salman bin Abdulaziz took over the reins of power in Saudi Arabia, terrorist groups were able to obtain financial and military support directly from the kingdom. It reverted to harboring these extremist organizations, granting them material and military support, especially in Syria and Yemen, and abolished the list of terrorist organizations. By contrast, when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz assumed power in Saudi Arabia, he began with an all-out war against terrorism, especially following the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, during which tensions were heightened in the existing relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood. This came as a result of the Kingdom's discovery, according to the opinion of political researcher Yousri al-Azabawi, of the Brotherhood's role in the fragmentation and division of the Arab states. As such, the kingdom began to co-operate cautiously with the organization while closely monitoring the situation. Following the June 30 Revolution, the discord between the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia reached a breaking point after King Abdullah gave his blessing to the popular revolution that overthrew the group. In fact, this lead to Saudi Arabia banning the Brotherhood and regarding it as a terrorist organization. King Abdullah did not stop at combating the influence of the organization, but rather he also began to support the military maneuvers launched by the international coalition against ISIS. This led to the organization carrying out several terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabian territory in retaliation against King Abdullah and his war against terrorism. King Salman took power as the successor to King Abdullah with a view to bringing about total change, with Saudi Arabia turning away from the war on terror strategy in favor of supporting al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood in Syria and Yemen. In Syria, King Salman has given military and material support to the al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, under the pretext of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. A report in the newspaper The Independent, citing Turkish officials, stated that Saudi Arabia is sending funds and weapons to the al-Nusra Front and that Turkey is facilitating the group's entry into Syria. It was also indicated that there was an agreement concluded early last March between the two countries, after a meeting in Riyadh attended by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and King Salman bin Abdulaziz. The first proposal was that the two countries should work to "fill the vacuum of failed Western intervention in Syria,” especially after the failure of Western nations to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. It was also proposed that the two countries extend support for the armed opposition there – in reference to the al-Nusra Front – in what is the first such agreement between Saudi Arabia and Turkey following strong discord between them during the days of the late king. The Brotherhood's relationship with Saudi Arabia has improved considerably under King Salman inasmuch as, according to Brotherhood sources in Saudi Arabia, they have undertaken to mediate a reconciliation between the two parties. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has hosted the leader of the Brotherhood in Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi, president of the Ennahdha Party, more than once. With its funds, Riyadh has become a fertile breeding ground for all leaders of terrorist groups, receiving them in the royal palaces, whether it is the Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, or [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal, among others. As for Yemen, Saudi Arabia has supported the Brotherhood there against the Shia Houthi group, with the kingdom having led a Gulf alliance in launching a military operation named “Decisive Storm.” Co-operation between the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia was also clearly evident in Yemen, after everyone in al-Qaradawi’s International Union of Muslim Scholars, the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, the Syrian and Jordanian Brotherhood and Ahrar al-Sham declared their support for Operation Decisive Storm. Saudi Arabia is now paying the price for harboring terrorist organizations both in the past and currently, at the hands of King Salman, especially al-Qaeda, who are responsible for the events of September 11. This follows the passing of legislation in the United States Congress this past September, which allows families of victims of the September 11 attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government for damages. This had previously been obstructed by the White House, after the US President Barack Obama used a presidential veto to block the bill. However, the United States Congress overrode his veto.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,