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Why Saudi Arabia is taking a risk by backing the Egyptian coup

January 24, 2014 at 6:22 am

King Abdullah fears the Muslim Brotherhood, which challenges the kingdom’s claim to be the protector of Islam

It took almost 60 years for the CIA to own up to its role in the British-backed coup that overthrew Iran’s prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh on August 19, 1953. But Saudi Arabia’s backing for the recent Egyptian coup, which its head of intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had worked so tirelessly to achieve, was instantaneous. When Adli Mansour, the former head of Egypt’s supreme court, was sworn in as interim president, King Abdullah sent him a message praising the Egyptian army for having saved the country from a dark tunnel.

The Saudi monarch followed this up last Friday with a speech whose bluntness was atypical of the man. “Let the entire world know,” he proclaimed “that the people and government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stood and still stand today with our brothers in Egypt against terrorism, extremism and sedition, and against whomever is trying to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.” This was unusual, not only because Abdullah was aiming his words at his other ally, the United States, and the Gulf state’s regional rival Qatar, whom he accused of “fanning the fire of sedition and promoting terrorism, which they claim to be fighting”. It was rare because the monarch, who prefers behind the scenes diplomacy, was so explicit.

The kingdom has backed its words with money, and oil. It has already put together an $12bn (£7.7bn) aid package along with the UAE and Kuwait which is four times as much as the military and economic grants from the US and the EU combined ($1.5bn and $1.3bn respectively). On his return from meeting the French president at the weekend, the foreign minister, Saudi al-Faisal, vowed to compensate Egypt for any loss of EU or US money. Barack Obama’s impotence in the Middle East is being paraded by the US’s closest Arab military ally.

Prince Bandar has also been to Moscow. Being on opposite sides of the civil war in Syria (the kingdom is seeking the fall of Bashar al-Assad, who Russia supports militarily) was no impediment to a productive visit. Both sides agreed to keep the oil price high, found common ground in their hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood, whom top Russian Arabists in the ministry of foreign affairs equate with Islamic extremists. Russia feels it has every reason to fear political Islam, with a population of indigenous Muslims from the Caucasus, which is rising as a proportion of the Russian Federation’s total population, and expected to hit 19m or 14% of the population by 2020. “Are you mad?” an MFA official told his US counterpart “to support the guys with beards over the guys with ties?”.

Why has the kingdom, famed for its caution on the diplomatic stage, put all its eggs in one basket, which, considering the volatility in Egypt, remains fragile and unpredictable. Who knows which side in Egypt will prevail, and if that is so, why back the coup leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi so publicly? Sisi thanked the kingdom in fulsome terms. He said that the Saudi intervention was unprecedented since the Yom Kippur 1973 war with Israel. Praise indeed.

For Dr Maha Azzam, associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, the kingdom’s fire-breathing support for the coup comes as little surprise. Not only had they been astonished by Washington’s abandonment of the kingdom’s closest regional ally in Hosni Mubarak, a point they made very clear during his trial. They had seen him replaced, at the polls, by the Brotherhood, which challenged the kingdom’s claim to be the protector of Islam.

Azzam said: “What they had was a lethal equation, democracy plus Islamism, albeit under the Muslim Brotherhood. That was a lethal concoction in undermining the kingdom’s own legitimacy in the long run. They know full well they do not want democracy, but to have another group representing Islam was intolerable.”

King Abdullah has good reason to fear the Brotherhood, which has been getting unprecedented support in Saudi Arabia since the 3 July coup. Sympathy for Mohamed Morsi has filled Twitter feeds in the country. Support for Morsi on social media has its own emblem, a four-fingered salute, known as the sign of Rabaa

It is one thing to upset the middle class and the intelligentsia, but quite another to have the country’s religious scholars denounce you. A group of 56 of them did so, by issuing a statement describing the events of 3 July as “unquestionably a military coup and an unlawful and illicit criminal act“. The king has also been attacked in a sermon by a sheikh at the al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina, Islam’s second holiest site.

The royal family have responded to the campaign they are facing on social media by sacking a Kuwaiti TV preacher with Brotherhood links. Tareq al-Suwaidan, who has more than 1.9 million Twitter followers, was told that there is no place for those who carry deviant thoughts at the Al Resalah channel

But this is a dangerous strategy. As president, Morsi resisted calling his regional enemies out for the money and support they gave to Egyptian opposition politicians, parties and private television channels for good reason. Up to 2 million Egyptians are employed as guest workers in the kingdom and their remittances were important for an economy on its knees. He feared that the Saudis would kick them out if he accused them of undermining his presidency. However today, Egyptian ex-pats are not the Brotherhood’s problem or responsibility. What could well follow is an unrestrained campaign by its members to destabilise the Saudi and UAE regimes.

Azzam said: “For the US and EU, there is very little grey area. Either you have authoritarian regimes, including Assad or you have the Arab spring. The authoritarian regimes are saying: ‘If we use enough force, we can quell the tide of democracy.’ For Washington it means that there is no regional player that can now mediate with the Egyptian military. No one that can play the role of good cop.”

The battles lines have now been clearly drawn throughout the Arab world. The military coup in Egypt, and Saudi support for it, represents an attempt to turn the clock back, to halt the wave of democratisation heralded by the toppling of Arab dictators. It is unlikely to be the final word or battle in what promises to be an epic struggle.

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