TEHRAN, Iran — Riyadh is engulfing Cairo — this was the perception when King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud visited Egypt for five days early last month. During the visit, many treaties and agreements were signed, including the transfer of Egypt’s sovereignty over the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest the island transfer. More broadly, many questions were raised about the timing and the meaning of the visit.
Saudi policy toward Iran is currently making up the core of its foreign policy. As such, Riyadh’s regional diplomacy and maneuvering should be seen in that context, which is supposed to widen and enhance its regional strategic choices. Egypt is, meanwhile, more focused on combating terrorism and instability in the Sinai Peninsula and Libya, while enhancing its economy.
With a partnership between a wealthy and aspirant Riyadh and a weak and needy Cairo — like any sort of partnership between a weak and a mighty actor — it can be assumed that there will be an even more assertive Saudi regional role followed by Egypt. But is there a regional partnership between the two? Given Egypt’s regional priorities and its policy toward the Syrian and Yemeni crises, it is hard to say that Cairo is complying with its assumed role. Moreover, what would any change in the Saudi-Egyptian relationship mean for Iran?
Tehran favorably perceives Egypt’s potential role in the Middle East. For Iran, a more independent and active Egypt that can squeeze the Saudis is nothing to be worried about. History tells Tehran that Egypt's assertive role in the region is not tolerated by Saudi Arabia. That in turn tells Tehran that a more active Egypt would mean a more balanced Middle East — or at the very least, more balanced Arab politics.
Although Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has focused on domestic affairs, he has been eager to demonstrate his different approach toward regional crises compared with President Mohammed Morsi, whom he ousted. Trying not to be so vocal, Sisi’s government's stance toward the Yemeni and the Syrian crises bear such differing tones that it has made the Saudis nervous in their endeavor to bring Egypt within their track. That is to say, Egypt has been trying to balance its rapprochement with Gulf Cooperation Council member states on the one hand and its independent policy toward Yemen, Syria and Turkey on the other. This balancing act is far from standing at odds with Iran's regional policy. In fact, Egypt has never been so close to Iran on Syria since Sisi became president.
Within this context, the Saudis are trying to bring Egypt onboard against Iran. They want Sisi to prioritize the so-called Iranian threat in his regional agenda. The Saudis believe this will change the regional balance of power in favor of Saudi Arabia against Iran. There have been plenty of reports indicating Saudi attempts to forge a triangle with Turkey and Egypt to counter Iran. While this is supposed to be bad news for Tehran, it has not received that much attention. Yet this does not mean that Tehran is not concerned with any sort of change in the regional balance of power. Rather, it suggests that Iran does not take Saudi–Egyptian rapprochement seriously. There are four reasons for this posture.
- Maintenance costs: Having Egypt onboard against Iran would mean huge Saudi investment and bailouts offered over a long period in return for Cairo refraining from opening up to Tehran and to adhere to Riyadh’s line — or at least to keep silent on controversial issues. In addition to the huge amounts that the Saudis are assumed to continue spending, Riyadh has to focus a good part of its foreign policy on managing Egypt’s differences with other Saudi partners, and especially with Turkey. Along with other implications, this means an even lesser focus on confronting Iran in favor of managing Egypt’s regional rivalries and conflicts.
- Internal preoccupation: The Egyptians are more concerned with their domestic challenges rather than Saudi Arabia’s regional aspirations. As such, they are less inclined to back the Saudis. Additionally, the Egyptians have made it clear that they have their own agenda when it comes to the Middle East. Thus, they can only go along with the Saudis on understandings made by agreements. These sorts of regional understandings cannot however survive in the long run. Cairo knows its value for the Saudis and will thus ask for a dear price for even something such as not going in the “wrong direction” in the view of Riyadh. Indeed, Sisi needs to swap something for getting more Saudi investment and funding. Accordingly, this dynamic leaves Tehran with little to be worried about.
- Avoiding confrontation: Does Egypt even want to confront Iran? There is no clear cut answer to this question, although its regional policy and strategic choices toward Middle Eastern hotspots — such as Syria and Yemen — show a tendency for rivalry with Riyadh and especially Ankara rather than any sort of inclination to confront Tehran. Although there is no such thing as regional cooperation between Egypt and Iran, confronting Iran is not on Sisi’s agenda. The Egyptians are reflecting Riyadh’s rhetoric toward Iran obviously for economic reasons, but the economic dimension has its limits in shaping politics, especially when it comes to strategic choices.
- Limited potential: What can Egypt add to Saudi’s regional effort against Iran? The answer is “not much.” In fact, Egypt’s strategic potential in the Middle East is so limited that it couldn’t stop Qatar from backing the Egyptian opposition. Although having Cairo within its anti-Iran camp would have some political ramifications, Riyadh is putting a lot of effort into getting more than just political backing from Sisi. Faced with a lack of a much-needed strategic — and effective — ally, Riyadh is struggling to create one out of Egypt. Yet on a cost-benefit analysis, Egypt is perhaps too much of a cost for Saudi Arabia to raise any concern in Tehran.
In general, any attempt to create a major Arab coalition against Iran in the Middle East hits a sensitive nerve in Tehran. Nevertheless, Iranian strategists are more concerned with the practical ramifications of a rapprochement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia rather than its political propaganda. For the reasons explained above, it is hard to imagine that any anti-Iran coalition headed by a Saudi-Egyptian alliance will be effective. The Saudi-led war on Yemen has shown the limits of the Saudi alliance-building potential. As such, the Saudi maneuvering toward Egypt is not expected to bring about a tangible change in the regional balance of power.