Egyptian–Saudi relations are witnessing an apparent renewal. Seemingly unshakeable in the immediate aftermath of the military-backed removal of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, ties between the two countries have been notably tense since the beginning of 2015. But grudging necessity, not trust or shared policies, is likely the driver of the renewed ties.
On July 30, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman announced the signing of the “Cairo Declaration,” which aims to strengthen cooperation between the two countries in light of regional developments. Among other points, the declaration commits to developing military cooperation and establishing a joint Arab military force, which Egypt had previously proposed at an Arab League summit in March. In a follow-up speech, Sisi emphasized the importance of the Egyptian–Saudi relationship, stating that the two countries were the “wings of Arab national security.” The declaration and speech signaled the two countries’ renewed confidence in their relationship.
Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf States, has supported Egypt since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The oil-rich monarchies have poured billions of aid dollars into the country—as much as $20 billion, according to estimates—and made further pledges after Sisi became president. In return, Saudi Arabia expects Egypt to act as a physical force in Saudi-led military escapades and serve as a Sunni bulwark against Iranian influence. The continued fight against the Brotherhood a priority for Riyadh, amid rumors that the two sides were moving to end their rift over the summer. For its part, Egypt seeks assurances that Saudi Arabia will continue its financial and ideological support for Egypt in its fight against terrorism. It is becoming clearer that Egypt is unwilling to become too constrained by Saudi Arabia and is uncomfortable playing the role of a physical force for Saudi Arabia.
When King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ascended to the throne in January, Egyptians began to doubt his commitment to them, particularly as the $12.5 billion in financial aid that the Gulf States pledged to Egypt during the March 2015 Economic Development Conference never materialized. Egypt has instead had to rely on domestic sources to finance Sisi’s national projects. Rumors also spread that King Salman’s shift in focus to Iranian containment meant he had a softer stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood.
Not sharing Saudi’s concerns about containing Iran, Egypt’s primary foreign and domestic policy concern since 2013 has been to combat and contain Islamist groups, which it views as an existential threat to the Sisi regime and the country as a whole. Not only has Egypt been battling an escalating Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula for the past two years, it also launched retaliatory airstrikes against Islamic State strongholds in Libya in February. In a bid to reinvigorate Egypt’s standing as a regional power, Sisi also moved to establish stronger ties with Russia, regardless of whether he had Saudi‘s blessings.
Egypt began to subtly express its misgivings about Saudi policies in the region—evident in its reticence to fully back Saudi Arabia militarily in Yemen while it conducted March 2015 airstrikes in Libya, where Riyadh favors a political solution—leading Saudi Arabia to cut off financial aid to Egypt in summer 2015. The kingdom has displayed far more flexibility toward the Brotherhood, both in Egypt and in the region as a whole, altering its position depending on context and the country in question. In July, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal visited Riyadh, indicating that the two sides could move closer together in the near future. The possibility of a softer Saudi stance on the Brotherhood was worrisome to Sisi, as it could possibly lead to a resurgent Brotherhood that presents a serious domestic challenge to the regime.
On Iran, Sisi has remained somewhat indifferent—or at least not actively hostile—preferring to take a more pragmatic approach to the issue. Moreover, Egyptian diplomats stated as early as April that the country welcomed the nuclear deal between Iran and the West and would pursue open policies with Tehran once the deal was finalized. For example, Egypt’s Oil Minister Sherif Ismail announced on July 29 that his country has “no objections” to importing crude oil from Iran.
Egypt’s unwillingness to prioritize the same issues as Saudi Arabia has undoubtedly frustrated the latter. Although unconfirmed reports suggested on September 9 that Egypt had deployed around 800 ground troops in Yemen, Saudi Arabia had hoped Egypt would provide the bulk of the ground forces in the operation. This comes after Egypt had proposed the formation of a joint Arab military force at the Arab League summit in Sharm El-Sheikh shortly after Operation Decisive Storm began in March. The force, which would be able to deploy rapidly to defend the sovereignty of member states from external threats, appears on the surface to support the Saudi goal of Iranian containment. But Egypt had hoped its role in forming and contributing to a joint force under the auspices of the Arab League would allow it to play regional protector and shift its relationship with Saudi Arabia from one of financial dependency to one of mutual benefit. Egypt sought to take advantage of the worsening situation in Yemen to make Saudi Arabia reliant on the joint forces for a military offensive. However, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes two days before the Arab summit and only informed Egypt a few hours before it began. From Egypt’s perspective, this lowered any potential benefits, as it would end up being a junior partner in a war it does not fully endorse.
Despite a general initial agreement from Arab League members, Saudi Arabia was initially disinterested. Saudi Arabia may not have viewed the proposal seriously, at the time confident of a swift victory in Yemen. Riyadh has favored an ad-hoc coalition in Yemen—launching air strikes with the support of other GCC countries but no Arab League mandate—to avoid depending on any one particular partner.
Recent developments, however, have forced Saudi Arabia ’s hand regarding Egypt. Since the P5+1 and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on July 14, Saudi Arabia’s options in the region have been severely restricted. Despite accepting U.S. assurances over the Iran deal, Saudi Arabia is still concerned that it allows Iran to improve its socio-economic standing and strengthen its regional influence. The conflict in Yemen has dragged on for months without a clear end in sight, which Saudi Arabia sees as shifting the regional balance toward Iran, making it more desperate for a victory in Yemen. Riyadh can no longer afford rifts with regional allies such as Egypt, despite any past tensions, for fear of losing even more of its regional influence.
The more Saudi Arabia is involved in Yemen, the more it will need Egypt as an ally, both militarily and politically. Whereas in March Saudi Arabia felt confident enough to pursue its military goals alone, it now needs Egyptian support. This shift in regional dynamics plays into the Egyptian regime’s hands. Sisi will be able to maintain a degree of independence in foreign affairs without alienating its strongest regional backer. For example, in Yemen, Egypt will be able to guarantee the security of the Bab El-Mandab Strait, which impacts control of the Suez Canal traffic. More noticeably, Egypt’s Foreign Minister recently welcomed Russian military involvement in Syria, a position that directly counters that of its Saudi counterpart. Saudi Arabia’s scramble to ensure it maintains as many healthy relationships in the region as possible will likely make it more accepting of Egypt’s differing policies, especially those regarding Islamist actors in the region.
* Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Mohammed bin Salman as the Saudi Foreign Minister. He is the Minister of Defense.