Is Saudi Arabia abandoning al-Sisi?

September 25, 2019

While Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is facing one of his toughest challenges, he has found nothing but complete silence from Saudi Arabia, his powerful regional ally.

Immediately after the protests, Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, showed solidarity with al-Sisi. On Twitter, Gargash said that the demonstrations were supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and aimed at Egypt’s security and stability. He considered that the Brotherhood’s organised campaign against Egypt and its stability have failed miserably, and that the media platforms directed and supported by the Brotherhood are challenged by the real popular support that exists in favour of the Egyptian state and its institutions.

Gargash’s statement is a continuation of the UAE’s declared support for the al-Sisi regime since it came to power after a military coup against President-elect Mohamed Morsi.

In the past Saudi Arabia has also strongly supported al-Sisi, and has not missed any opportunity to show its support for al-Sisi, but this time the silence from Riyadh has been deafening.

Observers say Riyadh is no longer interested in supporting al-Sisi as the general has repeatedly disappointed the Riyadh princes during his years.

Support for nothing

Saudi Arabia has supported al-Sisi financially and politically since Morsi’s ouster, and has continued to do so even after al-Sisi took office.

In exchange for that support, al-Sisi has repeatedly said that the support of his regime and army for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will never be delayed. But al-Sisi began his rule by not aligning with Saudi Arabian policy on Syria.

Al-Sisi has repeatedly expressed support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria against the armed opposition that Saudi Arabia supported. On Yemen, al-Sisi did not respond to Saudi Arabia’s requests to join the Arab alliance.

Al-Sisi merely expressed political bias towards the legitimate government and President Abd Rabbo Hadi Mansour, but did not push Egyptian soldiers into Yemen, as Sudan did.

In Libya, al-Sisi intervened recently, but the intervention was in his favour, and he also paid a lot of money for his soldiers and aircraft to support Khalifa Haftar.

Libya shares a long border with Egypt, rich in oil wells, and teeming with armed groups that al-Sisi sees as a threat to his regime, so his entry was not in Saudi Arabia’s interest, but for his own regime.

Withdrawal is not an option

In fact, moving away from al-Sisi’s support was not an option or a choice for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia, which is suffering economically after Aramco’s attacks and halving its oil exports, can no longer support al-Sisi.

Moreover, Riyadh is beginning to believe that its allies (Egypt and the UAE) always benefit from the kingdom, while they never are useful to KSA.

Disagreements between the UAE and Saudi Arabia have erupted in Yemen – Abu Dhabi has its own agenda there, and KSA is also frustrated with Cairo.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt agree on a number of policies, the most important of which are the blockade on Qatar, pressure on Turkey, and attracting new regimes in countries in transition, such as Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria and others. But in all of these dossiers, Cairo shares the profit, not the costs.

Qatar, for example, supports Cairo’s opponents, so al-Sisi is happy to be part of that siege. And while Saudi Arabia has lost the support of its Gulf neighbour and suffers from the embargo, Egypt does not share a border with Doha.

In Sudan, Tunisia, and Algeria, Saudi Arabia pays support costs to its men, while Cairo reaps the benefits of such support when it succeeds. Even in Libya, the dossier that links Saudi Arabia to Cairo directly, Saudi Arabia is no longer concerned about escalation against the internationally recognised government. In fact, KSA is not as much involved as Abu Dhabi or Cairo, for example.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia is no longer convinced of Haftar’s ability to resolve the battle in Libya, especially in light of his decline, despite all the support directed at him.

In practice, Cairo was only a burden on Riyadh, it was not useful apart from the fact that it serves al-Sisi’s interests and no more.