Iran and Saudi Arabia Compete For Influence in Egypt

Sarkis Naoum explores the background of the Saudi Arabian-Iranian conflict, and why the two are competing for Egypt’s favor. Winning over the largest Arab country would be a great strategic victory for two countries vying for regional supremacy. Saudi Arabia has won the first battle by convincing the new president to visit the kingdom first.

al-monitor Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud speaks during a news conference in Jeddah Photo by REUTERS/Susan Baaghil.

Topics covered

expansionist plan, wahabis, shiitism, shah rule, muslim brotherhood, muslim, islamic revolution

Jul 16, 2012

Saudi Arabia and Iran have never enjoyed good relations. The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the toppling of the shah’s regime in 1979 was a matter of concern for Saudi Arabia due to two main issues. The first issue stems from Iran’s decision to export its Islamic revolution to the other Arab and Muslim countries. This meant the end of Saudi Arabia’s role in Islamizing the region. Saudi Arabia was replaced in this regard by a regime that focused on the Iranian people, rather than a family that has confiscated the will of the Saudi people. 

The second issue is the fact that the majority of Iranians — as well as Iran’s Islamic revolution — belong to the Shiite sect. However, the leaders of the revolution were keen not to give their revolution a sectarian trait; they strictly applied an Islamic label instead. However, this sectarian issue still raises decades-long concerns  between Sunnis and Shiites. This is in addition to the strained relationship between the Saudi Shiites and the Sunni ruling family, an issue that might provide a breeding ground for the Iranians to intervene in internal Saudi affairs.

Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries’ apprehensive attitude toward Iran were reflected in their large support for the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein during his wars against the Islamic Republic from 1980-1988. The Arab Gulf countries later regretted this, but not because they believed that they had been unjust to Iran by prematurely judging Iran’s intentions. They had regrets because they lost great sums of money when they gave it to Saddam, who was not able to end the Iranian revolution or prevent the Iranian regime from exporting it.  The Gulf countries also realized that Iran will not forget such an injustice and that it will strengthen its power and continue its expansionist plan.  It is worth noting that during the reign of Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Saudi Arabia and Iran attempted to normalize and strengthen relations. However, the grave contradictions between the agendas of these two countries, i.e. between the Iranian offensive project and the Saudi defensive one, swiftly led to the annulment of the efforts made by Rafsanjani and then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz [current Saudi king].

Why raise the issue now?

The Arab region and the Muslim world are currently witnessing a conflict between two political and Islamic ideologies that have contradicting interests. Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently pulling the strings. The Arab Spring that started in Tunisia and arrived in Syria has started to seriously threaten Iran’s strategic project, especially as Iran continues to be hit by harsh international sanctions. If Bashir al-Assad’s regime, the Syrian government or the Syrian entity at large falls, the direct and indirect consequences for Iraq will also threaten the Islamic regime in Iran.

Amid the ongoing conflict, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are trying to reinforce their influence in the Arab world by attracting the largest Arab country, Egypt, to their side. If it were not for Egypt, Iran would not have been able to infiltrate the Arab world and control Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Likewise, Saudi Arabia would not have been able to preside over the Arab world. Based on this, observers of the Iranian movement justify Tehran’s support for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) bid for authority and for the MB’s victorious presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi. Iran’s cooperation with Egypt under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood will ease sectarian tensions in the Arab and Muslim world and pass the Arab leadership role back to Egypt. This will lead to marginalizing Saudi Arabia and limiting its role in the region. Under such circumstances, Egypt’s Al-Azhar will be able to play a pivotal role.

Saudi Arabia is also attempting to attract Egypt to its side, as evidenced by the swift invitation that Morsi received to visit the Saudi king. Also, Saudi Arabia proposed to supply Egypt with billions of US dollars to solve its economic difficulties. The kingdom was able to overcome the trauma caused by the success of the revolutionaries in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in toppling Saudi Arabia’s former number-one ally, Hosni Mubarak. Saudi Arabia also succeeded in rising above the lasting disputes between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahabis.

Who will win this game of polarization?

Political observers do not believe that Iran will win Egypt over for nationalist, sectarian and financial reasons, especially since Iran no longer has the same financial capabilities as before. Observers highlight the fact that the Egyptians and their institutions are afraid of the Shi'ism of Iran. It is worth noting that the international community also has influence on Egypt’s decision in this matter. it will not allow Morsi or any other leader to abandon Saudi Arabia and side with Iran, which constantly defies the international community. Furthermore, observers note that the polarization will have no value or importance if Egypt is entrenched in its own chaos after it allows private and factional interests to triumph over the national interest.

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