How the Saudi Rift With Egypt is Spiralling Out of Control

Decision makers in Riyadh are gritting their teeth at Cairo. What are the ramifications of the growing rifts for both countries, the conflict in Yemen and Red Sea security?

Saudi Egypt Rift getting out of control
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) speaking with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz during a military academy graduation ceremony in Cairo, last July. (Photo: The Arab Weekly)

By Gregory R. Copley,

Saudi Arabia’s rift with Egypt is spiraling out of control, with major strategic ramifications for both countries, as well as for the Yemen conflict and other Red Sea security challenges.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait had built solid economic and political ties following the election victory of Pres. Abdul Fatah Saeed Hussein Khalil al-Sisi in May 2014, with promises of extensive economic support for Egypt as Cairo’s relations with the US Barack Obama Administration withered. But Saudi Arabia and the UAE failed to make good on their promises of economic aid to, and investment in, Egypt, while at the same time the Saudi Government put immense pressure on Egypt to support its military offensive in Yemen.

The crisis began over Pres. al-Sisi’s refusal to accept the dominance in the Saudi-Egypt relationship of Saudi Minister of Defense & Aviation and Deputy Crown Prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) — the son of King Salman bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud — and particularly over the issue of the use of Egyptian troops and intelligence officers to help MBS become King and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the head of the House of Saud, outside the succession process (even though this is King Salman’s real wish).

This would circumvent the nominated heir to the Throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayif bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud, in much the same way that the Sudeiri side of the House of Sa’ud circumvented — with help from US Pres. Barack Obama — the rôle and future of Prince Muqrin bin Abd al-’Aziz, who became Crown Prince to King Salman after the death of King ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud, 91, who died on January 23, 2015.

Crown Prince Muqrin was stripped of his position on April 29, 2015, nominally by King Salman, in order to elevate his youngest son, MBS, to a position — even as Deputy Crown Prince — of unparalleled power of the military and economic policy of the Kingdom.

Egypt resisted attempts by MBS to insist on support by Cairo for the consolidation of his power and to commit militarily to the Saudi-led Coalition fighting in Yemen, a conflict which the Egyptian Government felt was ill-advised. Riyadh started financial pressure. Pres. al-Sisi got angry and defiant. Saudi Arabia, which had not made good on its financial promises from 2014-15, cut off oil supplies and other aid to Egypt.

So now, in Yemen, the Egyptians are supporting their own Sunni factions along the Red Sea coast, fighting more the pro-Saudi forces than either the Zaidi Shi’a Houthis or the jihadists. Indeed, the nascent reflowering of the Egyptian-Iranian relations blossomed in direct proportion to the souring of Egyptian-Saudi relations, particularly during 2016. Indeed, hope for an improvement in Saudi-Egyptian relations vanished after the visit by King Salman to Egypt beginning on April 7, 2016, when Pres. al-Sisi offered to return the Egyptian-occupied Saudi islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Gulf of Aqaba, a gesture subsequently overturned by the Egyptian Administrative Court on June 21, 2016.

As well, Egypt and Iran each disagree — for different reasons — with the Qatar-, Saudi-, and Turkish-sponsored plans to overthrow the Syrian state, and thus have a common position at odds with Riyadh. The Cairo-Tehran modus vivendi creates a gap in Saudi hopes to dominate Yemen and the Red Sea (and motivates Riyadh and the UAE to attempt to rebuild relations with Ethiopia and Djibouti). Saudi Arabia and the UAE are working to bolster relations with Sudan (and put pressure on the outgoing US Barack Obama Administration to normalize US-Sudanese relations) in order to hinder Cairo’s ability to pressure Ethiopia.

Hence Cairo’s move to rebuild relations with South Sudan to get behind Sudan.

All of this has placed a very significant economic burden on Egypt, which is also strongly at odds also with Riyadh’s other main partners, Qatar and Turkey, but Cairo has felt impelled to revitalize its efforts to project power down the Red Sea. This has meant a revival of Egypt’s security relations with Eritrea, and in support of Eritrea’s objectives to destabilize Ethiopia by funding and arming dissident groups — particularly the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) — inside Ethiopia, at a time when the Ethiopian Government, dominated by the Tigré Popular Liberation Front (TPLF), was facing significant public unrest from Oromo and Amhara groups.

Cairo has also courted the Government of South Sudan, previously on very good terms with Addis Ababa, to help with Egypt’s [White] Nile water strategies, thereby opposing Ethiopia’s plans to dam the Blue Nile with the hydro-electric scheme of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) (aka the Millennium Dam). South Sudan Pres. Salva Kiir visited Cairo in mid-January 2017 in response to a surprise invitation from Pres. al-Sisi; they discussed bilateral relations and agreed to work together to support Egypt in its campaign against building dams on the Nile.

Significantly, all of this impacts the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has now built its Middle East/Africa strategy around the Red Sea and logistics links extending from Djibouti into Ethiopia, down into Africa. South Sudan was to have been an integral part of that logistical network. And the PRC had also committed to an increasingly close naval relationship with Egypt, in part to help reinforce Beijing’s global ports strategy, in which friendly access through the Red Sea and Suez Canal would be critical, linking with, for example, the PRC-controlled port of Pireaus in Greece. Now, the rifts between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia threaten Beijing’s plans.

Meanwhile, with King Salman ailing and Obama gone from Washington, will MBS feel obliged to move more quickly to assume the Throne in Riyadh?

9 thoughts on “How the Saudi Rift With Egypt is Spiralling Out of Control

  1. Excellent article!it reflects the contemporary geopolitical game of middle east/east africa as it happens and its ramifications.with the new american president donald trump it will be more complex because he is anti iran, even anti saudi arabia also anti china on one hand and pro UAE and apparently pro egypt from the early indications of his approach with alsisi.trump will do everything that harms china, saudi and makes it hard as egypt and iran are getting closer though he will definately play the game.perhaps he will not give more credit to ethiopia but he will be highly influenced by UAE and other gulf allies like kuaite and qatar.the good news is as long as he has a good linkage to egypt and UAE, eritrea will benefit easily and the sanction will be removed soon.the eritrean government just need to persaude egypt and UAE to help on this issue and definately it will do as this serves national interest.
    Ethiopia has been covertly helping Mr. machar and salva kir knows it well since the south sudanese civil war broke out, but he could do nothing about it as it is a risky game to harm ethiopian interest while peace negotiations were undergoing and he has no bargaining chip to do so that time, but this time arround he gets egypt which is ready to go far and ethiopia is paying the price now and it will continue to cry.uganda and eritrea will join the game and kenya may join them and for ethiopia things will be difficult to manage as there is also this internal unrest.ofcourse sudan benefits from the differences but the marriage between sudan and ethiopia may not be longer if egypt managed to bring sudan back to negotiations about the egypt-sudan territorial dispute near the red sea cost.eritrea can help to bring sudan to go ahead with consultations and management of disputes with egypt that can help egypt to fully encircle ethiopia.
    Anyhow let’s see how things are gonna unfold as time goes on.

    1. ur calculation is silly and weak,u dont have a slight know how about the geo poletics of the horn and The giant powers like CHINA and USA(they will never hurt each other,for the lose of china is US’S lose too)

      1. Please do not give an emotional response, think slowly. it is not simple to give a complete prediction and insight on what has/is/will happen specially on the horn region considering the conflicting interests of the concerned countries.because some countries are adjusting their alliances for temporary gains while others are looking for actions that could have lasting consequences.the major players are and will be the regional countries and ofcourse the world powers like china and USA will influence the events.america being more proactive as the chinese are far behind about the knowledge when it comes to the geopolitical daynamics of this particular region.with trump in the white house there are posibilities for shifting alliances.saudi-US relations may get deteriorated because of the 9/11 pending cases if you are aware of is very sensitive and it could be a threat for the relationship of both countries.note my word.finally i accept your critisism but, when you critisize you should bring ideas or evidences that supports it and the other party will take a lesson from can you tell me what your understanding about the events, like who will be the winner or the loser and the role of other countries like china and USA?

      1. What is the meaning of BUNNA can use english instead of amharic and speak to your mind not based on some one’s view.i would like you tell me where the fault of this article is?thanks.

  2. The only uncertainty for 2017 was Trump but thanks to people he appointed so far, US policy is not changing as feared by most. Saudi would remain major player for years to come and Egypt is chewing more than it can handle. You can’t be against Saudi and Ethiopia at the same time your economy is crumbling? Eritrea is toothless to be used to destabilize Ethiopia and non of the horn countries would host actors. Saudi is coming to Djibouti and US would allow Saudi to bomb Yemen to ashes while the GERD is due to be completed in July. But we would be honored if the fighting between the two sides would begin, any day now.

    1. Stupid idiot, the weyane’s themselves are destabilizing Ethiopia. They’re the ones to have chewed what they can’t handle, lementi, deqi- lementi. Is Eritrea toothless? Then come and try it, wedi aray beles.

      1. kkkkkkkkk what are u talking.. yes Eritrea is toothless b/c you didn’t take back ur claiming bademe. You always cry to the world. Anyways Just keep your blame to Ethiopia in everything.

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