Understanding Recent Egypt-Saudi Tensions

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently gave a series of interviews to state-owned newspapers, his second such series of interviews with official press in the past three months. The interviews came on the heels of two votes in the United Nations Security Council on resolutions on Syria submitted by France and Russia, respectively. While Egypt voted positively on both resolution’s (neither of which passed), much speculation was made on what Egypt’s support for the Russian resolution might mean for the North African country’s relationship with its long-time backer Saudi Arabia. However, key to understanding the Egyptian position is exploring its own regional and national security interests as well as its desire to walk a balanced line between its allies.

Egypt has signed a number of agreements with Gulf Arab countries over the past few years to import oil and gas supplies. In April, Saudi Arabia agreed to supply Egypt with a monthly 700,000 tonnes of refined oil products for five years. Although Saudi Aramco reportedly halted the supply of refined oil products to Egypt on October 1, some presented the move as a consequence of Egypt’s vote in favor of the Russian resolution on October 8, which Saudi Arabia opposed. While the Russian resolution called for a ceasefire in Syria and more access to humanitarian aid, as did the French resolution, it did not call for a halt to aerial bombardments of Syria. Russia has been engaging in an air campaign in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, whom Saudi Arabia has demanded step down. The French resolution included language that called for an end to air attacks, and was opposed by Russia.

Following the UNSC votes, there were a number of media reports about tensions between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. A Reuters report highlighting a possible “rift” between the two quoted Egyptian sources and Saudi commentators as referring to Egypt’s UNSC vote as “the law straw.” The Saudi UN ambassador notably denounced Egypt’s support for the Russian resolution, calling it “painful” that Egypt’s vote was not in line with “the Arab consensus on Syria.” Some outlets also speculated about a connection between the UNSC votes and a reportedly unscheduled trip by the Saudi Ambassador to Egypt to Riyadh to discuss bilateral relations. Egyptian government sources, however, reportedly told Ahram Weekly that the real source of tense relations between the two allies is the frustration over a deal Egypt made in April to hand over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, which has been delayed, with the final decision tied up in Egypt’s courts.

Nevertheless, after the UNSC vote Aramco denied that supplies of oil to Egypt had been halted, and Saudi sources described the delay in shipments as temporary. However, on October 23, Daily News Egypt reported a source from the Ministry of Petroleum as saying that Aramco has not officially informed the ministry about resupplying Egypt with petroleum shipments in November. A day earlier, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry denied the existence of any tensions between Cairo and Riyadh, saying cooperation remains ongoing.

Whether or not the Aramco suspension was indeed a rebuke by the Gulf power for Egypt’s vote in the UNSC, it is clear that the two allies’ policies on Syria are not in complete harmony. Egypt continues to strengthen ties with Russia, even as tensions between Russia and its other major global ally, the United States, grow amid continued Russian involvement in the carnage in Syria and accusations of Russian interference in the current US presidential election.

Sisi has repeatedly presented Egypt’s stance on Syria as focused on finding a political solution to the crisis that respects the will of the people. His explanation for the UNSC vote in his recent interviews was no different. Sisi reasoned that because both resolutions called for an end to the fighting in Aleppo and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, Egypt’s positive votes were not contradictory. Sisi also denied that the incident had negatively impacted relations with Saudi Arabia, maintaining that “strategic relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not affected by anything and we should not allow anything to harm these relations.”

While Egypt’s emphasis on a political solution in Syria and aid for the Syrian people are generally aligned with US and Saudi policy, they fall short of calling for Assad’s removal, marking a clear point of departure from the official Saudi line on Syria. Furthermore, Egypt’s vocal support for Russia’s intervention in Syria puts Egypt in disagreement with its Gulf ally. Egypt’s support for Russia’s actions in Syria are rooted in its concerns over the spread of radical Islamic groups. Egypt continues to battle Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants, whom Sisi has called an existential threat to Egypt the Arab world, and the West. This puts Russia’s stated goal of intervening in Syria to target ISIS and other terrorists is in line with Cairo’s counterterror objectives (although many acknowledge that Russia’s is targeting civilian populations more than ISIS in Syria).

Indeed, recent meetings between Egyptian defense officials and their Russian counterparts to discuss military cooperation and counterterrorism seem to indicate a sustained effort to maintain coordination on defense issues. And this month, Egyptian and Russian paratroopers participated for the first time in a joint military exercises on Egyptian soil aimed at exploring joint strategies for locating and destroying terrorist forces “in a desert environment.” During his recent interviews with state media, as in those in August, Sisi called relations with Russia “strong and exceptional.”

Moreover, as Egypt engages in talks with Saudi Arabia focused on finding a solution to the war-torn country, it also hosted a high level Syrian delegation in Egypt on October 16. Syrian state media described the visit as an opportunity to discuss “coordinating political standpoints” and strengthening counterterror cooperation. Egypt’s pro-government newspaper Sada al-Balad said the discussions aimed at arriving at a political solution to Syria’s civil war. The head of Syria’s National Security Bureau Ali Al-Mamlouk also reportedly met with Egypt’s head of intelligence during the visit. Days later, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry announced that the Syrian government invited Egypt to coordinate between Damascus and UN agencies to allow humanitarian aid to enter the besieged city of Aleppo.

Needless to say, Saudi Arabia remains a crucial ally for Egypt, especially as the country seeks to fulfill conditions to secure a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. And Egyptian relations with Russia have not been without their ups and downs; the resumption of Russian flights to Egypt, a major priority for Cairo since the 2015 bombing of the Russian plane in Sharm al-Sheikh, has still not come to fruition. Still, given the centrality of Egypt’s security interests and constant power balancing within the region, Cairo will likely continue to balance its ties between its key western and Gulf allies on the one hand and Russia on the other.

Elissa Miller is an Assistant Director in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during an official visit to the Kremlin in 2015. (www.kremlin.ru)