Riyadh Rushes to Support Egypt's New Military Rulers

Following Morsi's overthrow, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are eager to support the new military leaders, possibly to protect Riyadh’s regional interests as well as check Iran's influence.

al-monitor Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah speaks to Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi on his arrival at the Royal Palace in Jeddah, July 11, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Saudi Press Agency.

Topics covered

saudi, morsi, mohammed morsi

Jul 17, 2013

In the wake of the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi by the Egyptian army, Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait, moved to provide Egypt with $12 billion in financial assistance. This is a tremendous amount of support, even by international standards, provided with remarkable speed and within a very short period of time. It is also a step characterized by political pragmatism and prompt initiative. The nature and timing of this effort has been controversial and prompted many questions as well.

Does such generous support indicate that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait back the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Or is it an attempt to support the army’s movement in order to spare Egypt the division and deadlock it had been experiencing? How will Doha — with its new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani — view the position of these three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, a position completely contrary to its own? During the rule of former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar sympathized with the Brotherhood, and following the revolution, especially after that it took power, provided it with significant amounts of aid, estimated at the time in the tens of billions of dollars. Will the situation be similar under the young emir? It appears that way, especially since Al Jazeera did not alter its position during its coverage of the recent events in Egypt. On the other hand, perhaps it is too early for Qatar to change or modify its position or reposition itself. Whatever the case, the divergent opinions of Gulf countries regarding the Egyptian situation constitute yet another example of the lack of a unified foreign policy or one coordinated and harmonized by all the GCC states.

One could imagine what the position of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might be regarding the Gulf support provided to Egypt following the fall of Brotherhood rule. Assad rejoiced at the Brotherhood’s overthrow and considered it a sign of the end of political Islam in the region. Based on this, he might be expected to also rejoice at the Gulf states’ support for the new rulers in Egypt announcing the end of political Islam there. The truth, however, is the opposite.

The Syrian president fears that this support will lead Egypt to adopt a position toward his regime far worse than the policy adopted by Morsi’s government and will thus increase Syria’s isolation within the Arab world. Previously, the Syrian government, especially under late president Hafez al-Assad, used to receive such aid, although to a lesser extent due to the difference in size between Egypt and Syria and the different eras and circumstances. Now, however, this aid is going to Egypt. We now know that the financial support provided to Syria did not lead to political gains [for the GCC states]. Based on this, and in light of the fluid and unstable political situation these days in Egypt, which is open to several eventualities, it is possible that the Saudi and Gulf support provided to Egypt could lead to the same results as it did in Syria.

As with the Syrian regime, how will Iran — which denounced the Egyptian army’s interference and ousting of an elected president — view this Saudi-Gulf move? How can one explain the difference between Iran's position and that of Saudi Arabia regarding the ousting of President Morsi? Most likely Iran is wary of the Egyptian military establishment. It is an institution that underwent structural changes for more than 40 years, during the rule of former presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, who both had strong ties with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, there was a cooperative relationship between the Egyptian military and its Saudi counterpart, and during this period the relationship between the Egyptian military establishment and the United States was consolidated.

It also seems that the position of the military regarding Iran is not that much different from that of the Mubarak regime. Iran's objection to Morsi’s ouster at the hands of the Egyptian army voices this concern. Tehran’s position is not based on its objection to military intervention in politics in principle; Tehran fully and blatantly supports military rule in Syria. Furthermore, Iran exerted its best effort to obtain Egypt’s support during the rule of the Brotherhood or at least to persuade Cairo to adopt a posture less hostile toward the Syrian regime and more accepting of the Iranian vision of the required solution to the Syrian crisis.

It seemed at the time that Tehran had made some progress in this direction, when Morsi submitted his initiative to set up a quartet composed of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Iran to address the Syrian situation. Saudi Arabia, however, quietly withdrew from the quartet after its first meeting. At that juncture, the ousting of Morsi shuffled the cards again as far as Iran was concerned. This was followed in remarkably short order by the Saudi-Gulf financial assistance, a proactive step that threatens to shift Egypt's position against Tehran’s wishes. This is how Egypt, along with Syria and the Gulf, emerged as an arena in the Saudi-Iranian conflict in the region.

From this perspective, Riyadh’s position regarding the Brotherhood may not be the single or most important factor behind its rush to support the army’s move to topple Morsi. This may be true for the UAE, but not necessarily for Saudi Arabia. During the reign of Morsi, Saudi Arabia had pledged to provide Egypt with up to $3 billion in aid.

In an article published in the daily Asharq Al-Awsat on Friday, July 12, Radwan al-Sayyed notes that there is a subtle yet powerful relationship between the Brotherhood and Iran. Therefore, one could argue that Riyadh’s support for the coup initiated by the Egyptian army was aimed at blocking Iran’s increasing influence in Egypt. Given, however, that Egypt is in the midst of an unstable revolutionary situation, why would Morsi’s poor political performance not be the reason that led to the clash between constitutional and revolutionary legitimacy? This is a clash that led to a political deadlock, which was exploited by the army to overthrow Morsi, especially considering that the latter was not flexible in dealing with the situation.

Before the army intervened, Riyadh saw that Egypt faced the possibility of serious instability. Riyadh lost a lot with the fall of Baghdad and the collapse of Syria, and it could not afford to see Egypt fall into a state of instability, possibly for a long time. Such an event could also completely exclude Egypt from the regional balance, and thus transform it into an arena for regional and international intervention. According to Riyadh, this would lead to regional chaos, whose consequences it would have to deal with alone. In this scenario, the financial aid provided becomes less costly than the possible consequences of withholding it.

It is clear that Egypt lacks a mature and professional political class. This explains the absence of solutions for every political impasse that the country has witnessed since the fall of Mubarak, not to mention the Brotherhood’s poor governance and propensity for exclusion. Add to this the emergence of the youth movement that sparked the revolution, and this has led Egypt to a revolutionary state with intractable parties. There is a failing political class that belongs to the prerevolutionary period, the youth of the revolution (with no record, leadership or leading organization) and the Brotherhood (which enjoys great popularity but lacks experience in governance).

Under these circumstances, the military has emerged as the only strong and consistent institution capable of finding and imposing solutions to break deadlocks. Without this institution, and given the state in which the country now finds itself, Egypt would be in a chaotic situation similar to that characterizing Iraq under US occupation following the dissolution of the Iraqi military.

Given that Iranian influence was able to infiltrate Iraq amid the political chaos and through the Shiite organizations brought about by the occupation, could not the same happen in Egypt? Thus, from the perspective of Riyadh, stability in Egypt — especially after the fall of Iraq and the situation in Syria — is no longer important for Egypt alone, but also serves Saudi Arabia and, most important, the interests of the region.

Despite all of the above, the question remains: How will the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Egypt be following the Saudi initiative? Does Saudi assistance involve some risk? During the current transitional phase, the second since the revolution, and after the offers of generous financial support, Cairo’s relationship with Riyadh and the Gulf states will be stable, even marked by a high degree of friendliness and cooperation.

Once the transitional phase ends, however, the relationship will not be as clear, because this phase will witness three milestones on whose results the following points will depend: the nature of the political system after the revolution, the map of alliances and balances within this system and the nature of Egypt's regional and international relations. The milestones are reaching an agreement on a new constitution, holding new parliamentary elections and holding new presidential elections, supposing the transitional phase unfolds peacefully and without lasting, as some wish, more than eight months.

If this phase passes without additional deadlocks and does not last longer than expected, Egypt will be in a different state than the one before the revolution. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, along with the rest of the GCC states, will probably return to their old selves, as the world has known them.

How will this change at one end of the relationship, along with almost nonexistent change at the other end, affect the form and durability of this relationship? Why does financial assistance remain the most important mechanism in Saudi foreign policy, even at this stage? We have seen the outcome of this mechanism in Iraq, Yemen and Syria. Will we see the same outcome in Egypt as well? The answer is yet to come.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Khaled al-Dakhil