When Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian military on 3 July, Saudi Arabia was one of the first nations to express its support for the new regime. The interim president, Adly Mansour, told a newspaper that Saudi’s King Abdullah was the first world leader to congratulate him, in a message that said that Egypt had “emerged from a tunnel”. The wealthy oil state put its money where its mouth is, too, giving the interim government $5bn much-needed aid, and leading a foreign diplomacy effort with western nations on behalf of the new government.
That relationship was cemented this week, as Mansour made his first foreign trip as president. The destination, of course, was Saudi Arabia, where he was greeted at Riyadh airport by Crown Prince Salman, who is also the country’s defence minister.
Of course, a close relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia – two of the region’s powerhouses – is nothing new. In 2012, Saudi Arabia was also the destination for Morsi’s first foreign visit as president. But the relationship soon soured after Morsi softened relations with Iran, Saudi’s long-time adversary. This exacerbated Saudi’s existing suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement which Morsi represented. Subsequently, the Egyptian president moved closer to Qatar, the tiny but wealthy Gulf state, which bestowed $8bn of aid on his government.
The visit by Mansour demonstrates that Egypt’s foreign policy is, yet again, realigning, with closer ties between the two nations being re-established. After the meeting, the state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted King Abdullah as saying that his kingdom is “standing against any attempts to touch Egypt’s internal affairs, especially by the terrorists”. This echoed a speech he gave in August, when he said: “Let the entire world know 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”. Officials in the Arab Gulf often refer to members of the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists; in their own countries, they see members of the pan-Arab movement as a threat to their established monarchical power structures. This terminology strikes a chord with the new Egyptian regime, where more than 2,000 members of the Brotherhood have been arrested, mainly on charges of inciting or partaking in violence.
Against this backdrop of long-held suspicion of the movement Morsi represented, it is easy to see why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (including the UAE) are backing the new Egyptian regime. The victory of the Brotherhood in Egypt had encouraged support for the movement within Saudi and other Gulf states, which are now in the midst of a crackdown on supporters. But to lay his cards on the table so openly is unusual for King Abdullah, who is known to prefer behind the scenes diplomacy. It is also worth noting that his various statements on Egypt have included pot shots at his ally, the United States, for failing to stand by their long-time ally, deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak. He has also criticised Qatar, his regional rival, for “fanning the flames of sedition and promoting terrorism, which they claim to be fighting”, in funding the Brotherhood.
Is such unadulterated support for the interim government the best plan? The situation in Egypt is fragile at best: a volatile and unpredictable pressure cooker with violent clashes between the opposition and the armed forces erupting frequently, and the number of people dead and imprisoned rising every day. Even now, three months after the coup, it is impossible to know which side in Egypt will ultimately prevail, and Saudi’s influence could be undermined if the Brotherhood or an associated group is returned to power. Moreover, in offering such fulsome support (which the head of the army, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has said is unprecedented since the 1973 war with Israel), Saudi is failing to pressurise the Egyptian regime to deliver the inclusive political situation it promised on seizing power. Driving the Muslim Brotherhood back underground, as is happening aggressively in Egypt, will help no-one in the region.
In August, the Guardian’s David Hearst warned that Saudi Arabia was pursing “a dangerous strategy” and that “what could well follow is an unrestrained campaign by [the Muslim Brotherhood’s] members to destabilise the Saudi and UAE regimes”. He continues that “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.” But as the protracted and bloody civil war in Syria demonstrates, turning the clock back is no simple proposition.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.