Analysis: A new crack in the Sunni bloc?

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October 16, 2016 05:59

The vacuum left by America’s disengagement has thrown the Middle East into a dangerous state of instability, wherein extremist groups thrive and thwart any hopes for peace.

SAUDI KING Salman bin Abdulaziz, left, walks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Riyadh

SAUDI KING Salman bin Abdulaziz, left, walks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Riyadh last year.. (photo credit:REUTERS/FAISAL AL NASSER)

There seems to be a growing rift between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the twin mainstays of the Sunni front against the major threats of Iran’s terrorist operations and nuclear building on the one hand, and against the rogue Sunni Islamic State on the other. The two countries no longer see eye to eye on a number of regional issues, although they deny it and insist that they are still coordinating their actions.

The Egyptian president has stated on a number of occasions that the security of the Gulf is essential to the security of his country, while the Saudi king wrote to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that any attack on Egyptian security would be seen as an attack on Saudi Arabia.



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Simmering tensions came to the boil at a special meeting of the UN Security Council on Syria on October 8.

Egypt not only voted with Russia to defeat the French proposal calling for a stop to bombing on Aleppo, it also voted for the Russian counter-proposal opposed by the West. The Saudi representative strongly condemned the two votes, which led to a spate of acrimonious articles in Egyptian and Saudi media. Sisi had to intervene; he declared that though Egypt remained committed to good relations with Gulf countries, it had its own interests.


The so-called pragmatic Sunni bloc, which included the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco, emerged during the Mubarak years, and enjoyed the powerful support of the United States. Israel played a significant role behind the scenes, because the Gulf states and Egypt believed that it would be able to pressure Washington into stopping Iran’s nuclear program, while at the same time hoping that Israel might bomb Iran’s nuclear installations and deliver the region from that threat.

Barack Obama’s gradual disengagement from the Middle East, while favoring Shi’ite Iran over Sunni countries, was a game changer. America jettisoned Mubarak, its long-term ally, and welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood; it turned its back on President Sisi and made a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states felt betrayed and lost their trust in the United States, while Egypt, losing political, economic and military American support, turned to Russia and China for sophisticated weaponry and to develop economic projects – including building a nuclear plant to produce energy with the help of Russia. The Russian and Egyptian armies are conducting joint exercises, further testimony to the deepening ties.

In short, deprived of the strong American backing which was the basis of their common policy, Egypt and Saudi Arabia took different paths based on their divergent interests. Egypt, fearing an Islamic takeover, believes Syrian unity must be preserved at all costs, and aligned itself with Russia with regards to Syria, whose goals are similar to those of Iran, which wants President Basher Assad to remain in place in order to ensure its continued access to its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon through Syria.

Riyadh is steadfastly supporting Sunni rebel groups fighting to eliminate Assad and set up a Sunni regime. These groups include Islamic terrorist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and therein lies the crux of the problem. The Brotherhood is still manufacturing terrorism in Egypt, presenting a very real threat and hampering the country’s economic development. As to Saudi Arabia, although it expelled the Brothers following the 9/11 attacks in New York – 15 of 18 perpetrators being Saudi Muslim Brothers – and has declared that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization, just as Egypt did, it is now in the uneasy position of forbidding its activities in the kingdom while supporting them abroad. In Yemen, it backs al-Islah, a “Reform” party which is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, against the Shi’ite Houthi rebels, in the hopes that they will rule the country after defeating the rebellion.

Egypt emphatically does not want that to happen. It reluctantly joined the Saudi-led coalition again the Houthis, but is not taking part in military operations beyond patrolling the entrance to the Suez Canal, which is in its own interests. The situation regarding Libya is similar. Egypt backs Gen. Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, who is battling extremist groups with great success, while Saudi Arabia helps Brotherhood organizations.

In short, for Egypt, the most pressing threat is that of the Muslim Brothers, which enjoy the support of Turkey and Qatar. Saudi Arabia is more afraid of Iran, and therefore reluctantly allies itself with Sunni terrorist organizations it abhors. It has even grown closer to Turkey, a country at odds with Egypt over the removal of Morsi and the overthrow of the regime of the Brotherhood.

Sometimes logic goes overboard: Sunni Egypt and Sunni Saudi Arabia should have been united in condemnation of the relentless bombing of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian planes, driving the Sunni population out of the town with the intent to replace them with Alawites – but Egypt voted against the French resolution to end the bombing.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has given Egypt $15 billion in outright grants, loans or deposits into Cairo’s central bank, in order to bolster the Egyptian economy and currency, and has supplied Egypt with natural gas and oil. Both countries will try to overcome their differences, but it will not be easy. Riyadh is sending conflicting signals. It suspended regular deliveries of refined oil in spite of the 25 year contract signed in May, estimated at $23b.; it also significantly raised the price of visas for the pilgrimage to Mecca.

On the other hand, it deposited $2b. into Egyptian banks in September to bolster the Egyptian currency. A high-ranking Egyptian delegation is soon expected in Riyadh to “discuss regional issues and the implementation of the cooperation agreements signed in Cairo, during the visit of King Salman in April,” as well as the Syrian issue. The Saudi ambassador to Egypt has been called home to prepare for the visit.

The vacuum left by America’s disengagement has thrown the Middle East into a dangerous state of instability, wherein extremist groups thrive and thwart any hopes for peace. The Sunni bloc is in disarray. It is every country for itself. This has led to a quiet strengthening of security and intelligence cooperation with Israel, and even greater economic exchanges. But this is kept under wraps. Neither President Sisi nor King Abdullah of Jordan dared attend Peres’s funeral, as this newfound collaboration does not bode well for the much-touted “regional solution” of the Palestinian issue.

The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.
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