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 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?