Saudi-Egyptian Relations: Fault Lines of a Future Conflict

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In this handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency, Bahrain Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (L) meets with Egypt's interim president Adly Mansour (R) on 2 September 2013 in Cairo. (Photo: AFP -EGYPTIAN PRESIDENCY)

By: Ibrahim Alloush

Published Thursday, September 5, 2013

The new Egyptian government is politely asserting its differences with Saudi Arabia over a military strike on Syria, disrupting what appears to be a convergence of interests between the two in getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal came to the Cairo meeting of the Arab League on September 1 hoping to convince his counterparts to officially give their consent for a US military strike on Syria, but his plans were diplomatically foiled by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.

The meeting’s closing statement did condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria and held the regime responsible, but called for the matter to be put before the UN, which should respond as it sees fit. This not only benefits Damascus in proscribing any action outside the UN, it also had the effect of encouraging other countries to object more strongly to the Saudi position.

This new Egyptian approach is a departure from the days of Hosni Mubarak and the days leading to the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood, when Cairo simply tailed Riyadh on the Syrian crisis. Today, the new government in Egypt is trying to plot its own course while at the same time making sure not to alienate the Saudis, who have poured billions of dollars into the country to shore up its economy at this critical stage.

In recent months, the Saudi government has taken a series of steps to take the lead on the Syria file, marginalizing the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and those countries where they have influence, such as Turkey and Qatar. Riyadh was also one of the more enthusiastic supporters of the ousting of Mohamed Mursi for essentially the same reasons.

For the Wahhabi kingdom, the Muslim Brotherhood represents the most serious and credible alternative to its influence both internally and across the region. Both sides find themselves competing over the same constituency (Sunni Muslims), with the Brotherhood having the advantage of being more marketable, particularly after dressing up their rhetoric with liberal democratic terminology to gain favor with the West.

Riyadh’s greatest fear is for Egypt to move in a more independent direction, freeing itself from the clutches of Washington, and once again playing the central role it once did in the region’s affairs. The Saudis know the extent of Cairo’s power from recent history, when they waged a regional cold war with Nasser in the 1950s and 60s that turned into a deadly hot war in Syria and Yemen.

Under Anwar Sadat, the spread of Wahhabi and Saudi influence went a long way to cut Egypt’s role down to size. Mubarak continued this trend, keeping the country on Saudi Arabia’s good side for nearly three decades.

In short, the Gulf monarchy knows that their regional ambitions cannot be realized without keeping Egypt under their control, thus the generous injection of $12 billion that Cairo received from the Gulf following the June 30 uprising against the Brotherhood. Just as the Zionist lobby did its best to prevent Washington from withholding military aid to the new government, desperately hoping to keep Cairo under America’s thumb, which in turn safeguards Israel’s security.

The nightmare scenario for the Saudis is for Egypt to take its own course on the Syrian crisis, realizing – as many Egyptians already know – that its national security is intimately linked to what happens in the Levant. The destruction of the Syrian army and the fragmentation of the country could very well be a prelude to subjecting Egypt – the Arab world’s largest nation – to the very same catastrophe, thus weakening it before the Zionist enemy.

Therefore, Saudi’s rulers are today pursuing a dual strategy in containing Egypt. On the one hand, they are working to undermine any independent course that the Muslim Brotherhood may take, in an attempt to subordinate them to Riyadh’s priorities in the region. At the same time, by showering the new government in Cairo with billions in aid and diplomatic support, it is hoping to keep Egypt under US-Saudi influence.

For the time being, the Egyptian government is doing its best to avoid any tensions with the Gulf kingdom, building on their mutual antagonism toward the Brotherhood and hoping to buy time until the country gets through this delicate transitional period. In the end, however, there is no avoiding the day when Egypt stands on its own, and conflict seeps back into its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


The Saudis are not so stupid to give money to a governement which does not obey them ...and USrael. This military governement is now fighting against muslim brothers but in the same time it is fighting against workers who are on strike and most of its ministers were already ministers at the time of Mubarrak. Nationalism is then just an appearance to divide Egyptian Left which military needs now against muslim brothers. But it is a purelly tactical alliance. The alliance with Syria is also just a tactical and provisionnal one against muslim brotherhood in Egypt, Syria and Hamas in Gaza. At the very end Egypt will be a new military state linked with Saudis and USrael against its own people and other Arabe people. Or a new revolution will happen unifying radical Leftists and grassroot islamists against capitalism and conservative islamism.

Agree. I hope the true revolution happens soon too

What we are seeing is a clash between Nationalism and Islamism. This parallels the ideological and economic conflict we see in the West between nationalism and neoliberal corporatism.

Both Islamism and Neoliberal Corporatism are overarching dogma that are not incompatible in their basic configurations. Nationalism is the assertion of tribe, region and country self determination against outside dogma.

What we are seeing are the Islamists and Neoliberals cooperating both militarily and diplomatically to defeat local and national interests and impose their ideologies on country after country.

Egypt now has a "Nationalist" government. The KSA is only supporting this regime to counter the Muslim Brotherhood which, as the author noted, competing for the same demographic of Muslims.

The author is absolutely on target with this piece and the likely fall out between Egypt and the KSA in the future. The current regime in Egypt and the KSA are, in the end, have diametrically opposed goals.

Your affinity for the coup regime in Egypt is glaringly obvious. So according to you, Sisi must be biding his time right now before he whips out his anti-imperialist agenda to thwart the Saudis? Why are you pseudo-leftists so delusional?

Not at all delusional. Reports today that US is considering sanctions on Egypt. Sisi's gov't can read the signs (that its their turn after Syria) and is already taking the appropriate steps, as in Sinai.

Reports from where exactly? ONtv? MENA? I didn't know they broadcast Okasha in India. So you're telling me that the 2nd largest recipient of US military aid in the Middle East (backed by the lobbying power of AIPAC) is about to get sanctioned soon? How many rocks you got in that pipe?

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