Conspiracy theories are quick to circulate in the Arab world. Often, they are just that – theories – but often, they are ultimately proved to be correct. The geopolitical importance of countries such as Egypt means that they are, indeed, often subject to interference by international powers.
The recent ousting of President Mohamed Morsi is no exception. Al-Jazeera English caused some controversy by publishing a piece on its website last week that outlined a trail of money from the US government to anti-Morsi activists within Egypt. Nor is America, the bogeyman of the Middle East, the only international player to be accused of playing a part in the military takeover.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne is unequivocal: “Last week’s coup d’état was a crucial counter-revolutionary moment, plotted and paid for by the Arab Gulf States. Saudi Arabia has emerged as the leader of a group of repressive and anti-democratic regimes that are determined to shape events in the Middle East as they will.”
Oborne goes on to quote from Israeli website DEBKA: “The Egyptian military high command was not working alone when its operations headquarters put together the July 3 takeover of power from the Muslim Brotherhood: it was coordinated closely down to the last detail with the palaces of the Saudi and UAE rulers and the operations rooms of their intelligence services.” The DEBKA piece claims that Saudi Arabia and the UAE offered money to the military, rather than to protesters (as the US is accused of doing), and that they offered to make up the shortfall if the US cut military aid
Despite his definite tone, Oborne offers no evidence. DEBKA quotes unnamed sources, but goes no further than that. So it is really safe to say that events in Egypt were orchestrated by the Gulf States?
Certainly, they have been quick to welcome the new regime. While the US, UK and EU struggle over whether to call the coup a “coup” or not, and Turkey condemns it as an attack on democracy, Gulf leaders wasted no time in welcoming the new military regime. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were quick to recognise the new government, Bahrain expressed relief that Morsi had been ousted, while even Qatar – the only Gulf state which was actively supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt – sent congratulations to the new leader and said that it respected the will of the Egyptian people.
These states have put their money where their mouth is, already offering big injections of cash to shore up Egypt’s floundering economy. On Wednesday, Kuwait pledged $4 billion in cash, loans and fuel, with Saudi Arabia offering a total of $5 billion and the United Arab Emirates $3 billion.
There are several reasons that the Gulf states are so supportive of the coup. Firstly, these states – particularly Saudi Arabia – had a good relationship with former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and long-standing ties to the Egyptian military. The piece in DEBKA alleges that Saudi’s King Abdullah wanted to seek revenge for the ousting of “his friend” Mubarak.
Secondly, they have a complicated historical relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been exacerbated by the Arab Spring and fears that rebellion would spread. To an outside observer, an Islamic state like Saudi Arabia might be expected to support the Brotherhood. Indeed, in years gone by, it has provided funding and safe refuge for some of the movement’s members. However, this relationship is complicated at best. The Brotherhood, a powerful, pan-Arab movement, does not follow Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam. Some suggest that Saudi Arabia may see this as an ideological challenge. Back in 2002, then Saudi interior minister Nayef Bin Abdel-Aziz said: “All our problems come from the Muslim Brotherhood … The Muslim Brotherhood has destroyed the Arab world.”
Moreover, the Brotherhood has always been a movement of opposition, and so it coming into power in Egypt and Tunisia caused anxiety in the Gulf that Islamist opposition movements in their own states would be inspired. The situation in Syria, where the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is active in the opposition – an opposition which Morsi openly supported – further problematised the relationship.
Analysts have also suggested that the Gulf states feared new regional alliances – for example, between Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar – that would radically change the balance of power in the region. Qatar was the only Gulf state which had strong ties to the Brotherhood. Tellingly, the UAE pledged big investment in infrastructure shortly after Mubarak’s fall, but then put it on hold. The conspiracy theorists would say they were waiting for the Brotherhood to fail.
It is impossible to know with any certainty how active a role the Gulf States played in the actual mechanics of the military overthrow of Morsi. It undermines the very real public dissatisfaction with Morsi and his government to claim, as Oborne does, that the coup was entirely “masterminded” by these foreign powers. There is no doubt that protests against Morsi were genuine and sprung up organically, regardless of additional foreign interests (which no doubt affected how events then played out). However, it is clear that these states have a long-standing relationship with the Egyptian military, and are not displeased that Morsi has fallen. It is arguable that they see some political gain – or at least, the elimination of a threat – in the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood government.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.