Saudi-Egyptian relations have transformed since the 1962 North Yemen Civil War, but they still do not constitute a full-proof alliance.
By: Patrick Hoover
“Each one of their shoes is more honorable than the crowns of King Saud and King Hussain”, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser said during a speech on December 23, 1962 in Port Said, Egypt. Nasser was referring to the 136 Egyptian soldiers killed so far in what became known as the North Yemen Civil War. Just three months before Nasser’s Port Said speech, a group of Yemeni officers called the Free Officers Movement successfully staged a coup to oust the Saudi-backed Imam of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. Nasser, who came to power the decade prior in the 1952 Free Officers coup that dethroned Egypt’s British-backed monarchy, sought to mold Yemen as a member of his pan-Arab dominion in the region.
Military historians often label the eight-year proxy war as “Egypt’s Vietnam” due to the length of the conflict and its immense drain on the Egyptian economy. More than 10,000 Egyptian soldiers died and hundreds of millions of dollars of war debt were incurred. It is often cited as one of the reasons why Egypt lost so devastatingly in the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967. Current developments in Yemen reflect the polar opposite: While Egyptian forces are back in the war-plagued Gulf republic, they are fighting on the side of the very monarchical family that Nasser had vehemently sought to undermine – the House of Saud. In September 2015, about 800 Egyptian soldiers arrived in Yemen in support of Operation Restoring Hope, the Saudi-led initiative aimed at reversing the Houthi militia’s advances across the country and restoring deposed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The operation appears to be a success so far, with the Sunni coalition claiming to have taken back most major cities and destroying the Houthis’ conventional forces in the south.
Nonetheless, Egypt’s participation in the coalition does not constitute a fool-proof alliance with Saudi Arabia. In fact, there are inherent flaws in the relationship that may not precipitate a strong Egyptian-Saudi relationship and regional stability. On July 30, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Mohamed Bin Salman announced the signing of the “Cairo Declaration”, which seeks to enhance economic and security cooperation between the two countries, including investments in energy and transport sectors, as well as the establishment of a joint Arab military force. According to estimates, the Gulf monarchies have given Egypt $20 billion in aid in exchange for active Egyptian participation in its coalition, which Saudi Arabia hopes will counter Iranian aggression in the region.
However, committing military forces abroad under Saudi auspices to counter Iranian influence may potentially draw Egypt into regional conflicts that are not necessarily in its best interests. The divergence in interests is emblematic of broader cleavages in the Egyptian-Saudi relationship. Egypt’s chief national security concern is containing Islamist groups – from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic State (ISIS)-affiliated Wilayat al-Sinai – not Iran. To al-Sisi’s dismay, the Saudis have re-established links with the Islah Party – the Brotherhood’s Yemeni wing – in a possible effort to recruit the party as political allies for Hadi. Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal visited Riyadh in July, further proving Saudi Arabia’s softening stance on Brotherhood-affiliated parties in an attempt to garner greater Sunni support across the region and sideline Iranian influence. A reinvigorated Brotherhood worries al-Sisi, who sees the re-emergence of the movement as an existential threat to his regime.
While Saudi Arabia frames its hostility towards Iran in sectarian lens, Egypt’s approach resembles a bounded rationality. In April, Egyptian diplomats welcomed the nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – between Iran and the P5+1. On July 29, Egyptian Oil Minister Sherif Ismail stated he had no objections to importing crude oil from Iran. Despite reluctantly accepting American assurances over the nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia views a sanctions-free Iran as a legitimate threat to its regional influence. Similar to how it built its relationship with Saudi Arabia, Egypt also seeks to benefit from a stronger, more liberalized Iranian economy.
Just days after Saudi Arabia launched its first airstrike in Yemen; Egypt had proposed the formation of a joint Arab military force. While this joint force appeared to support Saudi efforts to counter Iran, the idea of such an entity under the auspices of the Arab League would have limited Saudi Arabia’s ability to dictate strategy and operations. Instead, Saudi Arabia – with no Arab League decree – pursued an informal, ad-hoc coalition of Sunni nations. This minimized Egyptian capacity to exert any operational influence without full Saudi approval, confining them to an ancillary role in a coalition largely dictated by the Saudis. In this way, Saudi Arabia does not have to depend on a single partner, especially one with clear differences in ideological and national security interests.
The less successful Saudi Arabia is in Yemen and elsewhere, the more it will have to depend on Egyptian assistance. However, this assistance may prove limited due to the divergence of interests from Iran to the Brotherhood. Then again, if Saudi Arabia feels confident enough to pursue its military strategy independently, Egypt will have more leeway and flexibility in undertaking its own foreign policy.
Patrick Hoover is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, where he earned a bachelors of arts in Foreign Affairs and Arabic.
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