Support for el-Sisi: What’s in it for al-Saud?

When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and his foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, issued unequivocal pledges of support for Egypt’s military government and its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, their move was widely depicted in the news media as a logical extension of the kingdom’s opposition to revolutionary movements in the Arab world. This simplistic view overlooks the fact that Saudi Arabia has responded differently to different uprisings—it supports the rebels in Syria, helped to crush them in Bahrain—and that aligning itself with Egypt’s new rulers could be a risky strategy.

By backing the government of Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi—a former military attaché in Egypt’s embassy in Riyadh—the Saudis could put themselves at odds with the United States and possibly Turkey. They could stir up opposition at home among the legions of Saudis who endorse the Brotherhood’s agenda. And they could find themselves trapped in an untenable—and expensive—position if the conflict in Egypt metastasizes into civil war, Syria-style.

Saudi Arabia has a long history of ambivalence about individual members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It gave refuge to many of them, for example, when the organization was suppressed by Egypt’s President Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s, and it has provided support to organizations said to be dominated by Brotherhood leaders, such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. On the other hand it has always been hostile to the Brotherhood as a political organization, and its support for el-Sisi is consistent with that pattern.

Prince Saud warned that if Brotherhood supporters demanding the restoration of President Mohamed Morsi were not swept from the streets of Cairo, “the blaze and destruction will not be confined to Egypt, but will affect all those who supported trouble.”[1] Yet the pro-Morsi demonstrators represent little direct threat to the al-Saud, so why did the al-Saud depart from their customary diplomatic and political caution to take a strong public stand on the side of the military government and its violent campaign against the Brotherhood? What does Riyadh expect from Cairo in return?

Khaled al-Dakhil, a well-informed professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University and sometime critic of the royal rulers, seems to be the only commentator who has attempted to answer that question. Writing in an Arab newspaper, he said Riyadh will want “a stable and effective political system” in Egypt—an ambitious goal, given that Egypt is polarized and, even with Riyadh’s financial support, nearly destitute.  Under Riyadh’s tutelage, al-Dakhil wrote, Egypt “will return to playing a regional role as an Arab country that is involved in protecting the Arab arena from interventions on the part of non-Arab countries and against their Arab interests.” That means Egypt will be expected to abandon its budding reconciliation with Iran, Saudi’s Arabia’s great rival for regional influence. Also, according to al-Dakhil, Egypt will join Saudi Arabia in resisting Iranian influence in Iraq and in engineering a transition in Syria to a new government not aligned with Iran.

The rulers of Saudi Arabia have not clearly articulated those or any other objectives in Egypt other than the restoration of order. It is possible that they have not thought beyond the immediate crisis. But the goals suggested by al-Dakhil are clearly consistent with Saudi Arabia’s longstanding overall policies. The al-Saud abhor violence and upheaval, and are willing to use their considerable resources and influence to restore and maintain order. They want a trustworthy ally in Cairo, just as they had during the long years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. They seize every opportunity to head off the influence of Iran. And they have no interest in perpetuating elected governments such as Morsi’s that might be appealing models for the kingdom’s disenfranchised citizens.

How long are the Saudis prepared to prop up el-Sisi’s government? A year, two years, five? They don’t have to decide that yet. If el-Sisi succeeds in restoring peace to Egypt, he will be in their debt. If he does not, they will try something else. What they are unlikely to do is sit in the corner and let Egypt blow itself apart. 


[1] “Arabs Ready to Cover Cuts in Egypt Foreign Aid: Saudi,” Fox News,19 August 2013, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/08/19/arabs-ready-to-cover-cuts-in-egypt-foreign-aid-saudi/.