Biting the hand that feeds you

I mentioned in passing yesterday that relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt are a little strained lately, so I thought I should explain that a bit. Basically, it’s all about Syria, but it’s also a throwback to a simpler time in the history of the modern Middle East. The Saudis are, as ever, intent on seeing that Bashar al-Assad not continue on as Syria’s dictator. I’m sure you already know this. They don’t really seem to care what form Assad’s removal takes or what rebel group succeeds him, so long as he’s gone. Now, you might expect that Egypt, which is not only the other Sunni Arab powerhouse in the region but is at this point heavily dependent upon Riyadh’s checkbook to keep the lights on, would similarly want to see Assad and his Alawite, Iranian-dependent regime expunged from Syria. Right?

Well, here’s the thing: Assad and Egyptian ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may not practice the same kind of Islam, but they are both dictators and they have both been dealing with opposition from Islamists, from the political (Muslim Brotherhood) to the violent (ISIS, al-Qaeda, and so on). So they’ve got a lot in common. Specifically, the forces fighting Assad are the same forces that would like to toss Sisi out on his ass, and Sisi would really prefer not to see that happen. So he’s not quite so invested in seeing Assad go as his Saudi patrons. Egypt’s official position on Syria is that there should be a political transition, presumably involving Assad, that excludes Islamists of all stripes. Ideally, from Cairo’s perspective, the end of that transition would see Assad sent off into exile, but you get the sense that they’d be OK with Assad remaining in power so long as it kept the Islamists out of power.

Like I said, this hearkens back to a time, in the mid-20th century, when sectarianism took a back seat to more prosaic political concerns in inter-Arab affairs. This was a time when, for example, the Saudis intervened on behalf of the Shiʿa rulers of North Yemen against the Egyptian-backed Yemen Arab Republic, because Riyadh was more interested in supporting monarchies against republicanism than it was in who was practicing which branch of Islam.

This rather stark difference in views came to a head a couple of weeks ago, over two different Syria resolutions in the UN Security Council. One, written by France, called for an end to the air campaign over Aleppo and was presumably fine by Riyadh. The other, though, was written by Russia and called for an international effort to separate the “bad rebels” from the “good rebels,” something that undoubtedly wasn’t fine by Riyadh. Egypt voted in favor of both resolutions because, well, both resolutions were compatible with Cairo’s Syria policy. This prompted the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, to wistfully note that “it was painful to see that the Senegal and Malaysia positions were closer to the Arab consensus on Syria (when) compared to that of an Arab representative.”


In truth, it’s likely that the Saudis were already irritated at Egypt’s flat unwillingness to contribute much more its name to what was supposed to have been a Saudi-Egyptian intervention in Yemen (Egypt has even–allegedly–started selling military hardware to the Houthis). Likewise, Egypt has maintained relations with Hezbollah, which is not exactly on the Saudis’ holiday card mailing list. The Saudis also certainly weren’t thrilled by the fact that the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque/University, which is considered maybe the most prestigious Sunni religious position in the Muslim world, attended a conference in Chechnya in August where it was suggested that Wahhabism is not a legitimate Sunni movement. Oh, and it turns out that Cairo has also been slow-rolling the transfer of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Riyadh, mostly on account of how furious Egyptians have been with Sisi over that whole business. But whatever the Saudis were thinking, they kept a lid on it until the UN vote. Now it’s not only out in the open, but it’s already costing Cairo:

Egypt has not received October allocations of petroleum aid from Saudi Arabia, traders told Reuters, forcing its state oil buyer to rapidly increase tenders even amid a severe dollar shortage and growing arrears to oil producers.

Saudi Arabia agreed to provide Egypt with 700,000 tonnes of refined oil products per month for five years under a $23 billion deal between Saudi Aramco and the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC) signed during a state visit this year by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.

Delivery of the Saudi Aramco products was halted as of Oct. 1 though the reason remains unclear, a trader that deals with the EGPC told Reuters.

“The reason remains unclear.” Yeah, OK. Take low oil prices and a client state that isn’t behaving itself, and I think the reason actually is pretty clear.

Don’t expect there to be a full falling out between the two nations. The Saudis definitely don’t want to return to the days when Egypt was a separate (and, really, stronger) pole in Arab affairs, so it’s in their interest to maintain their patronage. And Egypt, you know, needs the money. Bad. But while Egypt and Saudi Arabia will likely stay on good terms, it’s clear that they’re not always going to be able to remain on the same page.

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