Egypt and Saudi Arabia: A Rift Across the Red Sea

Early this month, Saudi Arabia suddenly halted their fuel shipments to Egypt, a country which relies on Saudi oil to meet their energy needs. This move marks the peak of growing tensions between two countries that, until recently, were moving closer together.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two heavyweights of the Arab world; Egypt has the largest population of any Arab country, and the Saudis trail only the U.S. and China in military spending. Both countries were founding members of the Arab league, and both share a majority-Sunni population. Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup against Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government was warmly welcomed by the Saudi regime, which hates the Brotherhood almost as much as the Egyptian military does. While the history of Egyptian-Saudi relations has had dramatic swings over the last half century, it seemed that the current upswing would remain have some sticking power, particularly after King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz’s successful April visit to Cairo.

Following King Salman’s visit to Egypt, Sisi handed control of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in exchange for substantial investment and development loans by the Kingdom. This unilateral move by the Egyptian government, however, set the stage for the current tensions between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Sisi’s handover of the Red Sea islands sparked protests in Cairo, and by late June Egyptian courts ruled against the handover, nullifying Sisi’s promises to the Saudi government.

While this diplomatic mess tested trust between the two countries, the deepening snafu of the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars tested the relationship itself. In Syria, Egypt has moved closer to the Russian-led pro-government coalition, hosting Syrian intelligence officials and backing the Russian draft resolution in the UN Security Council. Saudi Arabia has been unequivocal in its demands that Bashar al-Assad be removed, and remains a crucial means of support for U.S.-aligned rebel forces and the “Army of Conquest” Islamist coalition. Immediately after Egypt’s support for the Russian revolution, Saudi Aramco, the state petroleum company, suspended oil shipments. Potentially sacrificing a $23 billion agreement with the suspension, this move proves that Syria represents a core interest for Saudi Arabia, one for which they have and will make significant sacrifices.

Syria is not, however, Saudi Arabia’s only focus. Just as important as the Syrian Civil War to the Saudi government is the ongoing Yemeni Civil War, which while not attracting the same amount of international attention as Syria has devolved into a similarly intractable quagmire. Saudi Arabia leads a coalition supporting the ousted government of Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels. The war has stalled, however, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt have decidedly different views moving forward. Saudi leaders view the possibility of Iran gaining a foothold on the Arabian peninsula through its Houthi allies as nothing less than an existential threat, and the continuing spillover of fighting across the border into Saudi Arabia is a guarantee that they will continue to fight until Hadi returns to power.

Egypt calculates their interests in Yemen quite differently. While they pledged to aid the Saudi-led coalition early in the conflict, they have since walked back their promises. While Saudi Arabia supports a ground intervention in Yemen, the prospect of expanding their involvement has long lost palatability for Egyptian officials. Many Egyptian leaders still remember Nasser’s disastrous intervention in Yemen in the 1960’s, which cost Egypt more than 10,000 soldiers and its dreams of leading a regional United Arab Republic. Moreover, the Egyptians are not likely to forget that the Royalist forces that kept them embroiled in Yemen for the better part of a decade were backed by Saudi Arabia.

Now, in a testament to the cyclical nature of history, an anonymous Yemeni official has reported that the Houthi rebels have received military supplies from Egypt, and there are reports that Egypt’s air force has withdrawn from the Saudi-led coalition. Even if Egypt remains in the coalition, the alliance in Yemen has effectively broken down past the point of repair. This breakdown of cooperation, coupled with Egyptian leaders’ increasingly vocal disapproval of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi islam and support for extremism throughout the region point to fundamental disagreements that the countries will have to address in the months to come.

Looking forward, Egypt has begun discussions with Iraq to secure its oil supply, bringing the two countries closer together. Given the Iraqi government’s close ties to Iran, this could signal a dramatic shift of alignment for Egypt. Taken with Egypt’s cooperation with Russia, such a move would only increase Saudi Arabia’s chagrin and deepen the rift between the two countries. Fearing this rift, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE have launched mediation efforts between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Gulf countries recognize that Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s relationship is crucial not just to the interests of both countries, but to the stability of the region as a whole. The push to improve relations is a positive sign, but the deep uncertainty caused by Saudi-Egyptian tensions will continue for the foreseeable future.

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