GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Saudi Arabia's and Egypt's Ambivalent Relationship since 2011: Continuities and Transformations after King Abdullah's Death
Paper Proposal Text :
Under former King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (1924-2015), Saudi Arabia has been one of the most important promoters of the current Egyptian military government under General Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi. This support has been based on several political, ideological, economic and geo-strategic interests.

First and foremost, Egypt is seen by the Al Saud as a “Sunni bulwark” against the widespread Saudi “Iranoia” rooted in the Saudi perception of Iran as a general ideological and political threat towards the stability and legitimacy of its own political elite. In Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia feels challenged by Shiite Iran-controlled proxies challenging the Sunni-Wahhabi “role model” of Saudi Arabia. Thus, Egypt under as-Sisi serves as a close Sunni ally in countering the rising influence of Iran within the region.

Secondly, Abdullah doubtfully watched the rise of power of the Muslim Brotherhood under Muhammad Mursi between 2012 and 2013 and the latter’s cautious approaches in reconciling with Iran. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in the Egyptian elections was perceived as a threat to Saudi Arabia’s political system based on the alliance between the Al Saud and the Wahhabi ulama. A model of Islamist democracy established by the Muslim Brotherhood as a political alternative could have attracted parts of the Saudi population and thus challenged the leadership claim of the Saudi regime within the Islamic world. In this regard, Abdullah promoted the coup d’état of the Egyptian military in June 2013 in order to avoid a realignment between Iran and Egypt as well as the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the long-term.

Thirdly, Saudi Arabia’s private sector has been very active in the Egyptian market for decades. However, several projects initiated by Saudi investors during the Mubarak era were stopped on instruction of the Muslim Brotherhood blaming the Saudi conglomerates for corruption and illegal acquisition of cheap land. Therefore, Saudi Arabia’s business community has been affected negatively by these measures. Although some influential Saudi business men watched the economic transformation process implemented by the Muslim Brotherhood aiming at fighting non-transparency and corruption with goodwill, at the end, direct Saudi business interests were harmed.
Taking these strategic interests of Saudi Arabia in Egypt into account, as-Sisi was supported rhetorically and financially by King Abdullah from his very first minute in office. Between 2013 and 2014 approximately eight billion USD have been given by the kingdom in forms of loans, grants and oil and gas subsidies in order to stabilize the tumbling Egyptian economy and save Egypt “whatever the cost”. In addition, economic activities have begun to increase again, legal cases of pending Saudi projects have been settled out of court and Saudi businessmen are expressing the trustworthy relationship and the business-friendly stance of as-Sisi towards Gulf investors. This will be shown in the Economic Investment Conference taking place in Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2015 in which almost 1,000 Saudi businessmen out of 6,000 are invited. Furthermore, Saudi Arabian companies will be very active in the enlargement of the Suez Canal and both governments are seeking to implement an Egyptian-Saudi joint electricity grid and to construct a land bridge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the upcoming years.

However, it remains to be seen whether this strong-linked relationship will continue under the new Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Although Salman expressed his will to continue the policy of his predecessors, he is to be considered a friend of Qatar’s emir which might modify the anti-Muslim Brotherhood policy in Egypt of the Kingdom. This argument is based on the fact that Qatar has been a strong supporter of the Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere for years which has been criticized by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait resulting in the recall of their ambassadors from Qatar last year. At the end of 2014, Qatar was demanded by the other GCC members to stop its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-Islamist propaganda of Aljazeera. Finally, Qatar decided to close the Aljazeera branch in Egypt in order to appease its neighbors. However, tensions are not solved completely. In order to improve bilateral relations, the personal friendship between Qatar’s emir and the new Saudi king could lead to a more conciliatory tone of realpolitik towards the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to find a Saudi-Qatari modus vivendi by dealing with Islamist movements across the region. This might affect as-Sisi’s policy of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Furthermore, the leaking of telephone conversations of as-Sisi with his advisers blaming Saudi Arabia in an abusive way caused tremendous reactions in Saudi media and social networks. Although the authenticity of these talks is not proved yet and as-Sisi tried to calm the waves by calling Salman immediately, Twitter campaigns such as “As-Sisi ridicules the Gulf” in Saudi Arabia started stating to abandon the Saudi financial support of Egypt. For sure, these reactions will not cause a general political turnaround of Saudi Arabia’s strategy towards Egypt. However, several domestic challenges such as rising youth unemployment, lacking work opportunities and the missing diversification of the Saudi economy will affect Saudi Arabia’s Egyptian policy and its assistance for as-Sisi. The dropped international oil price will also limit the capabilities to support Egypt and other allies with financial assistance.
The paper will focus on the most important pillars of Saudi Arabia’s policy towards Egypt under King Abdullah between 2011 and 2014 and the new King Salman since spring 2015. Based on experts’ interviews conducted in Saudi Arabia and Egypt between December 2014 and February 2015, the paper highlights remaining continuities and possible transformations of the bilateral relationship by comparing the political strategies of Abdullah and Salman. What will change in Saudi Arabia’s policy on Egypt, what will remain consistent? In this regard, Saudi Arabia’s economic, political, ideological and geo-strategic interests are taken into consideration as well as the external and domestic challenges Saudi Arabia is facing which might lead to a significant reorientation of its strategy towards Egypt. The paper also analyses concrete Saudi economic projects and the Egyptian perception of Saudi engagement in Egypt.