There is and will continue to be an edge of rivalry in Egypt’s relations with the dominant Gulf Arab powers. This paper will focus primarily on the Egypt–Gulf relationship during the Sisi era.
Strategic strings attached to Gulf support
The Gulf’s generous financial support to the Sisi administration and the close and multi-layered economic ties between Egypt and the Gulf are part of a wider strategic relationship, involving both common and conflicting interests. Egypt’s rulers since the days of Mohammed Ali Pasha have harboured a strong sense of their country’s geopolitical importance. However, Egypt’s efforts to project power beyond its borders have tended to end in costly failure, and the nationalism espoused by its modern leaders has served the primary purpose of consolidating power and privilege at home, rather than providing the basis for expansionism. The appetite for power projection among Gulf Arab states has been a relatively recent development, originating in the post-1973 oil boom. The influence of Egypt relative to the Gulf Arab states has also been affected by the regional interests of external actors, in particular the US, the Soviet Union (and more recently Russia), Europe and China, as well as by the actions of regional powers such as Israel, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Ethiopia.
Since the 1970s Egypt has sought to leverage its geostrategic importance for financial support. This was evident in President Sadat’s peace overtures towards Israel, which were rewarded with billions of dollars in US aid (although the military component was a mixed blessing, as it was initially provided in the form of loans that became a heavy burden when interest rates shot up in the 1980s). The transactional aspects of the aid provided by the Gulf are less clear-cut. The Gulf Arab donors have judged that a collapse of the Egyptian economy would not be in their interest, owing to the risks of regional destabilization, and the UAE in particular has viewed with alarm the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood entrenching its control over Egypt. At the same time, there has been an implicit commitment that the Egyptian armed forces would be ready to step in if any of the Gulf states faced an urgent security threat, although this has rarely been put to the test. As host of the League of Arab States summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2015, Sisi sought to breathe life into the idea of setting up a joint Arab military force, but little has been heard of this since. Egypt is a member of the Saudi- and UAE-led Arab coalition formed in 2015 to restore to power the government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Yemen, but has not played a conspicuous combat role. Its participation has been sanctioned by the National Defence Council as being ‘to defend Egyptian and Arab national security in the Gulf, Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab areas’. Egypt has also largely steered clear of the Syria conflict, while maintaining discreet contact with the Assad regime.
In Libya, Egypt has played a more active role, in light of the security threat emanating from Islamist groups in the border area, including a number of Egyptian jihadist commanders. Egypt has provided arms and political support for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), but the country’s involvement has been less hands-on than that of the UAE, whose forces have played a direct role in the conflict on the ground and through airstrikes on behalf of the LNA. According to the UN Panel of Experts on Libya, which is tasked with monitoring adherence to the arms embargo established under Security Council resolution 1973 of 2011, the UAE (along with Jordan) has been responsible for the bulk of the arms transfers to Haftar’s forces, while Egypt’s role has been less conspicuous. A recent UN report, issued at the end of 2019, stated that Turkey, Jordan and the UAE ‘routinely and sometimes blatantly supplied weapons, employing little effort to disguise their source’. It notes that the panel has sent 26 letters to the UAE authorities with queries about such transactions, of which 16 are listed as unanswered, while only four letters have been sent to Egypt, two of which were unanswered. There is a record of Egypt transferring transport helicopters to the LNA in 2016, along with eight MiG-21 jets prior to 2015, and Egypt has been suspected of providing indirect support for the UAE’s operations, for example through allowing warplanes to refuel.
Egypt, for reasons of geography, has little option but to remain engaged in Libya, but Sisi appears to be increasingly convinced that this should be a multilateral exercise.
In the political and diplomatic spheres, Egypt has adopted a higher profile. This was evident in the summit on Libya arranged by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin on 19 January 2020. Sisi attended in person, and was actively involved in the discussions among the political leaders present. The UAE had a more low-key presence, represented by the foreign affairs minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, although Mohammed bin Zayed held separate talks with Merkel on the eve of the conference. Despite efforts deployed at the Berlin conference, the Libyan conflict has intensified, and taken on wider regional dimensions, with Turkey stepping up its role with the deployment of fighters from areas of northern Syria under its control. Egypt, for reasons of geography, has little option but to remain engaged in Libya, but Sisi appears to be increasingly convinced that this should be a multilateral exercise. The UAE may eventually conclude that, as with Yemen, it may be prudent to trim its Libyan ambitions.
Egypt has shown no appetite to become embroiled in the tensions between the dominant Gulf Arab states and Iran. In April 2019, Egypt pulled out of a US-led initiative to form a Middle East security alliance aimed at containing Iran, expressing doubts as to its seriousness and concerns about the risks of ratcheting up tensions with Iran. These risks have grown following the series of suspected Iranian operations in the UAE and Saudi Arabia since May 2019, which culminated in the 14 September drone and missile strikes on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil installations in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi and Emirati response to these incidents has been notably restrained, as they digest the implications of any further escalation in light of the unreliability of their principal external protector, the US, under the Trump administration.
Egypt’s involvement in the security of the Gulf goes back to the second decade of the 19th century, when, at the behest of the Ottoman authorities, Mohammed Ali Pasha dispatched forces to quell the first Wahhabi-Saudi emirate. The campaign, led by the Egyptian ruler’s son, Ibrahim Pasha, culminated in the capture of the emirate’s capital in Diriyeh and the execution of its leader, Abdullah bin Saud. Egyptian forces remained active in the Arabian peninsula until 1840, as Muhammed Ali Pasha sought to extend his own power independently of the Ottomans. This period has little direct relevance to current Egypt–Gulf relations, but does resonate with nationals on both sides with some sense of history.
In more recent memory was the Egyptian intervention in Yemen between 1962 and 1967. The Egyptian army had initially sent advisers to support republican officers who had seized power from the Yemeni monarchy. The intervention provided an opportunity for the Egyptian military commander, Abdel-Hakim Amer, to showcase the army’s prowess, and thereby strengthen his position vis-à-vis the president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser. As Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US stepped up their support for the royalists, the Egyptian intervention forces became drawn into a taxing and ultimately disastrous guerrilla war, tying down 70,000 troops at the peak of the deployment in 1965. The war was a huge drain on the resources of the Egyptian armed forces, and took a heavy toll on morale and discipline. It was a major contributory factor to the catastrophic defeat of the Egyptian army at the hands of Israel in June 1967. Following the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, Egypt showed a willingness to join Saudi-led efforts to restore the UN-recognized Hadi government; indeed, Egypt is still nominally a member of the coalition formed for this purpose. However, beyond a token show of force by the Egyptian navy, there has been no evidence of any significant military contribution to the Saudi- and UAE-led campaign in Yemen.
The Houthi rebellion came at a sensitive juncture in Egyptian–Saudi relations. Quite apart from the painful historical legacy, Egypt had no clear national interest in becoming embroiled in the Yemen conflict. But Sisi did have reason to be concerned at the risks of offending Mohammed bin Salman, the rising power in Saudi Arabia and one of the younger sons of King Salman (who had ascended to the throne in January 2015 on the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud). The support that Sisi had garnered from Saudi Arabia before and after his ouster of Morsi had been secured through close consultation with King Abdullah’s inner circle of advisers, led by Khaled al-Tuwaijri, the head of the royal court. These advisers were removed on Salman’s accession, and Tuwaijri was among those detained in the Ritz Carlton anti-corruption purge at the end of 2017. Although Sisi would have liaised with the Saudi defence ministry during his time as military attaché, he left Riyadh just before Salman was appointed defence minister in 2011.
Another concern was the tone of the criticism within the new Saudi regime towards the late King Abdullah’s circle over its embrace of Western values, which suggested that King Salman had some sympathy with Islamist politics. Sisi’s relations with the incoming Saudi regime were further compromised by the release of a series of recordings purportedly of conversations between himself and senior military aides within an office at the Egyptian Ministry of Defence. The recordings included references to Gulf aid, conveying the impression that Sisi and his entourage viewed such funding as an entitlement, and that a significant portion could be diverted to the Egyptian military for its own use. In one of the recordings, Sisi was supposedly heard asking Abbas Kamel, his principal adviser and subsequently head of the General Intelligence Service, why he was laughing at the amounts being discussed. ‘They have money like rice,’ the man identified as Sisi said. The Egyptian government cast doubt on the veracity of the recordings, which were issued by Mekameleen, a Turkey-based television channel associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, independent analysis of the recordings suggested that they were likely to have been genuine. The exchanges on the Saudi and UAE aid would have confirmed suspicions among the Gulf donors of the real views of Sisi and his entourage.
By early 2016, the Egyptian and Saudi leaders were ready to rebuild the relationship. In April, King Salman made a state visit to Egypt, during which he signed several economic agreements, including a commitment for Saudi Aramco to supply 700,000 tonnes per month (equivalent to about 180,000 barrels/day) of petroleum products for five years, financed by medium-term credits. At the end of the visit, the Egyptian government announced that it had reached agreement with Saudi Arabia on the demarcation of the maritime border, and that this entailed confirming Saudi sovereignty over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir (see above). There had been no attempt by the Egyptian government to prepare public opinion for the announcement. The decision prompted impassioned criticism in Egypt on the grounds that the case for the islands being part of Saudi Arabia was open to contestation, that the cabinet had no right to pronounce on issues of sovereignty, and that the deal amounted to selling Egyptian territory in return for Saudi financial support.
A group of lawyers launched legal objections to the agreement and secured a ruling from an administrative court to declare it null and void. In October 2016, it emerged that the Saudi Aramco fuel deliveries had been suspended. There was no immediate explanation, but commentators suggested that the legal cases against the territorial deal may have been a factor, alongside other issues, notably Egypt’s voting record on Syria at the UN Security Council and the participation of a high-level Egyptian official delegation at a conference on Sunni Islam in Grozny in Russia (Saudi Arabia had lodged strong objections both to the conference and to Egypt’s attendance). The oil supplies resumed in April 2017 after the Egyptian government decided that parliament should have the last word on the Red Sea islands deal – the maritime demarcation law was passed in June of that year.
Another important development affecting Egyptian–Saudi relations was the election of Donald Trump as US president in late 2016. The announcement in mid-March 2017 by the Egyptian petroleum ministry that the Saudi supplies were to resume coincided with the first meeting in Washington between Mohammed bin Salman (who would be elevated to the position of crown prince three months later) and Trump. There was no overt link between the two events, but it made sense for these two regional allies of the US to present a unified front to the new president. The strength of the new relationship between these parties was symbolized in May when Sisi, King Salman, Trump and his wife, Melania, were pictured laying their hands on a glowing orb at an anti-terrorism event in Riyadh.
Egypt’s relations with the UAE during the Sisi period have been more settled than has been the case with Saudi Arabia. This can be attributed to the strong personal conviction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in the cause of combating the Muslim Brotherhood. This appears to have been instilled in him by the combination of exposure during his youth to the influence of a prominent Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood scholar, and his subsequent aversion to the Islamist group when he became involved in developing a national security agency with the assistance of Fouad Allam, a former senior official in Egyptian intelligence. Allam had worked in the General Investigations Directorate in the Egyptian Ministry of Interior in the 1960s, and had been caught up in a power struggle within the Nasser regime in which the Muslim Brotherhood was implicated. He later rose to be deputy head of the State Security Intelligence Service under President Sadat, before moving to the UAE in the 1980s, where he acted as a mentor to Mohammed bin Zayed. The UAE authorities considered the growing appeal of the main domestic Islamist political movement during the 1980s and 1990s as evidence of a wider Muslim Brotherhood agenda to infiltrate and ultimately take control of Arab countries. The approach of the UAE security services hardened in the early 2000s, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the US, in which two of the hijackers were Emirati citizens. The strength of the support provided to Sisi, both before and after the removal of Morsi, and the brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood are unsurprising given Mohammed bin Zayed’s connections to Egyptian security officials and his harsh attitude towards the Islamist group.
The UAE authorities considered the growing appeal of the main domestic Islamist political movement during the 1980s and 1990s as evidence of a wider Muslim Brotherhood agenda to infiltrate and ultimately take control of Arab countries.
The UAE and Egypt had a shared distaste for Qatar’s hosting of prominent Muslim Brotherhood- connected figures such as Yusef al-Qaradawi and Ezzedine Ibrahim. During the latter part of the reign of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia sought to ease tensions with Qatar; these tensions had previously flared up in March 2014 when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. There was a partial reconciliation at the end of that year, leading to the return of the ambassadors, as the Gulf leaders sought to close ranks in the face of the alarming territorial advances made by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in parts of the region. In December 2014, Sisi received Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdelrahman bin Jasim al-Thani, an assistant foreign minister, bringing a message from the Qatari ruler. He was accompanied by Khaled al-Tuwaijri from the Saudi royal court (who was also the private secretary to King Abdullah). Two days after the Qatari envoy’s visit, the Doha-based Al Jazeera television station announced the suspension of the operations of its Egypt-dedicated channel, Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which had been accused within Egypt of acting as a propaganda outlet for the Muslim Brotherhood. The station said that the unit would be folded into another channel, Al Jazeera Mubasher al-Aama, and that it would seek permits from the Egyptian authorities for the new operation to broadcast from Cairo. Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr had been broadcasting from Doha since shortly after the removal of Morsi as president in July 2013.
This reconciliation initiative was interrupted by the death of King Abdullah in January 2015. Over the following two years, Mohammed bin Salman steadily built up his power base within Saudi Arabia, and developed a close working relationship with Mohammed bin Zayed. The new Saudi leadership cracked down on the Sahwa Islamist political movement, which had been tolerated under King Abdullah, and at the start of June 2017, in league with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, imposed severe sanctions on Qatar. Later that month, Mohammed bin Salman further strengthened his grip on power by taking over the title of crown prince from Mohammed bin Nayef.
Egypt’s participation in the blockade of Qatar was consistent with Sisi’s strategy of alignment with the two rising powers of the region, with a common denominator of opposing the Muslim Brotherhood in all its forms. However, it is doubtful whether Sisi had any significant input in the decision to escalate the dispute to this level. The blockade came at the high point of the accord between the Saudi and UAE leaders, and was underpinned by a shared conviction that the advent of the Trump administration meant that the US could now be relied upon to take a more robust stance towards both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, in contrast to the more emollient approach during the Obama presidency.
For Sisi, joining the blockade had some risks. Egypt no longer depended on financial aid from Qatar, but the 250,000 Egyptians working in Qatar contributed an important share of the flow of remittances, and any move by Qatar to repatriate its investments in Egypt would have been highly disruptive. It quickly became clear that neither Egypt nor Qatar was interested in aggravating the situation. Qatar provided assurances on the status of Egyptian workers, and the Egyptian central bank governor, Tarek Amer, made clear that there was no question of Qatar’s biggest investment in Egypt, its stake in QNB Alahly bank, being affected. Free passage for Qatari LNG through the Suez Canal was also guaranteed, and Qatar Petroleum maintained its investment in the Egyptian Refining Company project, which will help to reduce Egypt’s dependence on imported petroleum products from 2020 onwards.
One area in which Qatar and Egypt have been obliged to continue to cooperate has been on Gaza. Since the takeover of the territory by Hamas, an Islamist movement with Muslim Brotherhood roots, in 2007, a division of labour has evolved between Egypt and Qatar over managing the successive security crises in Gaza. The Egyptian intelligence services have undertaken the task of political and security mediation between Hamas and Israel, as well as hosting talks aimed at fostering reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the party of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Qatar has underpinned these processes by providing finance, with grudging cooperation from Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In the wake of the 2017 blockade of Qatar, the UAE made a bid to insert itself into this process. Its chosen vehicle was Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah leader who had wielded authority in Gaza prior to the Hamas takeover. However, these efforts made little headway, and at the end of 2017 Khaled Fawzy, who had been the pivotal figure on the Egyptian side, was dismissed from his position as head of the General Intelligence Service. He was eventually replaced by Abbas Kamel, and in late 2018 Qatar concluded a fresh agreement to provide finance for the Gaza administration. Egypt’s priority in its dealings with Hamas has been to inhibit the efforts by the Sinai Province arm of ISIS to use Gaza as a logistical resource for its insurgency in northern Sinai.