By Brad Nelson, Guest Blogger
Scholars and policy experts, especially those in the West, have long assumed that Egypt had a tight, inter-connected relationship with Saudi Arabia. Under Hosni Mubarak, there was definitely much truth in such assessments. But what about now that Mubarak is gone? Will the changing political dynamics in Cairo impact Egypt’s relations with the Saudis?
To Saudi Arabia’s rulers, Hosni Mubarak not only presided over a friendly government, but he was their friend. Remember, Mubarak served for so long that was able to cultivate good political and personal ties to the King and his associates. The new democratic government in Egypt, whenever it takes office, with a whole new set of characters and intentions and goals, will be viewed by the King somewhat warily. Let’s face it, the new democratic government just won’t have the longevity or the history with Saudi Arabia to make these inter-state relations as smooth and seamless as they have been in the past. And if members of the revolution—specifically, the political activists who were central to the fall of the Mubarak government—take power sometime soon, there could be some latent hostility between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
It is also becoming evident that Saudi Arabia doesn’t like the new direction in Egypt’s foreign policy. Resetting relations with Iran and re-evaluating its ties with Israel—these aren’t things the Saudis want to see. Yes, even the part about Israel. Why? It leads the Saudis to wonder whether they will be left alone to counter-balance Iran’s bid for regional hegemony as well as any other of its nefarious plots and schemes. If so, the Saudis will feel increasingly vulnerable and insecure, which can trigger a host of negative repercussions for the entire region.
Relatedly, Saudi Arabia must be troubled by Egypt’s new-found confidence. Egyptians of many different stripes—those from economic strata and with different political and religious beliefs—widely agree that Egypt should attempt to reclaim its position of leadership within the region. They look back at the Mubarak era with disgust, in part because they believe he consistently prioritized the interests of Israel and the U.S. over the traditional interests of his own country. Really, in their view, Israel’s and Washington’s interests became Egypt’s interests. With this in mind, we should expect Egypt to try to break free from its so-called era of passivity by acting more assertively and exercising more independence in its foreign policymaking.
A more assertive Egypt under Mubarak surely would be welcomed by Saudi Arabia. For in that case, it would likely mean that Egypt more actively pursues policies that are compatible with, or might even further, Riyadh’s interests. At this point, Saudi Arabia can’t be so sure. In fact, it’s not implausible that post-Mubarak governments will advocate causes and goals that undermine Saudi Arabia’s interests. For instance, a democratizing Egypt could seek to promote freedom and liberty in the region, which is undoubtedly antithetical to Saudi interests. And down the road a more nationalistic Egypt very well could try to challenge Saudi Arabia as the vanguard of Sunni dominance in the region. Some is this is conjecture, to be sure. But don’t think Saudi rulers aren’t aware of these possibilities.
And here’s one more challenge in Saudi-Egyptian relations: Egypt’s revolutionaries and political activists, as well as various Shia and Coptics, believe that Saudi Arabia is funding extremist political groups (specifically, the Salafis) so as to undermine the revolution. That is to say, in their eyes, Saudi Arabia is meddling in their country and in bed with, if not actually leading, the counter-revolutionaries. Not surprisingly, there have been protests at the Saudi embassy in Cairo. Arguably, the more troubling part of this is that the accusations give the Saudis another reason to dislike the revolutionaries, which only complicates further the ties between both countries.
All of this is not to suggest that there will be a complete falling out between both countries. After all, the military is calling the shots in Egypt right now and will play an integral role in Egyptian politics in the future, and that’s an institution with which the Saudis are very familiar and comfortable. Moreover, an Iran-obsessed Washington will use all levers at its disposal to ensure that Egypt and Saudi Arabia don’t drift too far apart. But what I am pointing out is that Egypt-Saudis ties are undergoing a transition, one that might be a bit rocky at times. And this indicates that while Egypt must get its domestic political house in order as effectively and quickly as possible, it can’t overlook relations with other countries, even those with its so-called best friend.
Brad has a Ph.D. in international relations from The Ohio State University and is currently President and Co-Founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a think tank on international politics with offices in Columbus, Ohio, and Jakarta, Indonesia. For more information, check out http://facebook.com/
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