Saudi – Iranian competition in Egypt Saudi – Iranian competition in Egypt
By Bennie Lloyd
In this article I aim to focus on respectively Saudi Arabia and Iran’s practical possibilities for political influence in Egypt. That is with regard to the competition between those two countries and the ways those two rivals use in today’s Middle East.
From the time of the anti-Shah revolution in Iran in 1979 the Saudi Arabia – Iran relationship has been very controversial and under numerous fluctuations. Both countries have claims of leadership in the Muslim world. However both countries, each has its own interpretation of Islam and its own version of how Islam should be kept alive.
One of the most controversial points in those two countries’ relationship is their vision and their different approach towards the West in today’s world. The relationship with the U.S. has particularly been a crucial criterion of how one of those two countries should deal with the other country.
This tense full relationship has had many negative consequences not only for the political life in both countries, but also for other countries in the region, which have been scenes for this competition or are used as the means in the direction of either Iran or Saudi Arabia’s interests.
For three years ago Andrew Terrill a Research Professor of National Security Affairs had written “Saudi Arabia and Iran have viewed themselves as serious rivals for influence in the Middle East” (Terrill, 2011).
In relation to Egypt, in any case, in the current situation both the rival countries follow the events more determined than in the past.
It causes a more polarization of the political forces in Egypt after the military takeover in June this year. For three years ago Terrill believed that “both Iran and Saudi Arabia remain uncertain over how Egypt’s foreign policy fundamentals might evolve” (Terrill, 2011), but the situation today is different.
Those fundamentals are still unclear, but after all, today for Saudi Arabia and Iran is clear for example that which of them will support and which of them will be against the biggest political organization, i.e. Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
In a like cold war between those two rival countries in the Middle East, there is a very important parameter with a decisive role. It is an ideological hostility, which is combined with the already political competition between the two countries.
The background for the competition
Saudi Arabia has a significant political role in Egypt and it has also multiple reasons for that. One of the reasons that Saudi Arabia generally is trying to play a more active role in different Middle Eastern countries is that it competes with Iranians’ expansionism policies in the region.
After all, Saudi Arabia, especially after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, tried to fill the vacuum that was caused by the lack of a “contra Iran” power.
Saudi Arabia also tries to present and stabilize it self as the most deserving to be advocate, representative and propagator of Islam in the entire Muslim world.
By following a special interpretation of Islam that is rooted in the Sunni Wahhabism Saudi Arabia strives in developing, promoting and assisting its own ideological representatives and employees the world over. That interpretation of Islam is tied to the structure of political power in the Saudi society, exactly like the interconnection of a unique version and interpretation of Islam and the political structure in Iranian society.
Iran’s policy toward Saudis in the recent thirty and several years, from the time the Islamic government came to power, has had many ups and downs. That policy in the recent years has reflected unfriendly and occasionally a real hostile relationship between those two countries than earlier. One of the latest serious cases was an accusation against Iran of involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in USA. With all the contradictory statements, including doubts about the accuracy of that accusation, it had an impact in creating of new tensions in the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran considers itself as the central base for Shiite activities. It naturally seeks to promote the growth of Shi’ism in the world.
Which direction tends Egypt?
In the current political situation in Egypt, where the country is suffering of crises and political chaos, it is maybe not so relevant to talk about the directions of the foreign policy in that country. Therefore, in a country that is grappling against its internal political problems, there seems also irrelevant to ask questions such as, what political orientation the country adopt in its relations with other countries. It can be said that a country’s international policy is a reflection of what goes on in the internal political relationship. It can also be said that at least, the domestic politics have a major impact on the international policy so that Fearon (1998) argues “domestic politics is typically an important part of the explanation for states’ foreign policies” (Fearon, 1998). So until the internal problems remain unresolved in Egypt, it is doubtful whether there can be talking about a consistent and logical foreign policy in that country?
However, many of those who are interested in the Middle Eastern countries’ international relations follow closely the events and even make predictions regarding what direction Egypt’s foreign policy goes after the recently events, especially after the June military coup. It raises questions such as:
Can Egypt continue with its so-called “non-alignment” principles? Can the country still play a significant role in the Middle East? How will interferences from different sides in Egypt shape this country’s adaptations of its international stances? How will the relationship between different internal political forces affect the Egyptian foreign policy?
It is clear that both the Egyptians and various states and international organizations have interests in how the patterns of the country’s foreign policy will shape. External stakeholders are often concerned about their economic and political interests, regardless of whether or not there will be a real democracy in the country. Therefore, those exogenous factors focus on having as significant as possible role in the political affairs in the country.
What are Saudi Arabia and Iran’s potential influences in Egypt?
One of the most debatable and perhaps the most important strengths in the current political situation in Egypt are Salafi groups. They have been tremendous visible in the period after the so called “the spring revolution in the Arabic world”.
The reciprocal relationship of “Salafi Muslims’ position and status in Egypt” on the one hand and “political relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia” on the other hand is worthy to note.
The two facts – “Salafism in Egypt” and “Saudi-Egypt relationship” – can be seen as an equation relationship, so that in a political analysis neither the one nor the other side of the equation can be ignored. One can neither focus on the relationship between the two countries without an analysis of the Salafis’ status and role, nor can one define this status and role without a consideration of the scope of political relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
There are many rumors among the people that Saudi Arabia is trying to affect the Egyptian revolution in the direction, which is in accordance with its interests. One of the ways in this direction is lending. It can lead to affect on the political decision-makings in Egypt, because those debts come to connect themselves with political conditions. Against this background the Egyptian’s economic foundations can eventually become dependent on foreign debts. Despite that in one case – before the military takeover in June – The Supreme military Council had refused to get into debt, but the proposals were continuing.
Another way is a broad support to the Salafi movement in Egypt by the Saudi state. These supportive efforts to the Salafis in Egypt are something that have been existed before “The Arabic Spring”. Within the last 25 years Salafi communities and groups have received many donations from Saudi Arabia. Those flows appear under different titles and coverage. Thus, the Salafis in Egypt have satellite TV channels, incredible number of mosques and charities.
Abdul Aziz Ghattan, Saudi ambassador in Egypt in an interview with Al Arabia network in August 2012 rejected the charge regarding the Saudi’s financial support to the Salafis in Egypt.
Whether in how far those allegations are true and to what extent those are exaggerations, there are many Egyptians who are dissatisfied with the Saudis’ efforts in relation to support the Salafis.
Ahmad Shaban the representative of “Al Dimoqrati” (Democratic Party in Egypt) in interview with “Al Moraqib” in July 2012 had stated that Salafi movement in Egypt was the result of illiteracy, poverty and culture deficit, and that it was an appropriate factor in order to spread false ideas among people. He said the financial support to the Salafis by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States had taken place both before and after the Egyptian revolution with the aim that they could dominate a large part of Egyptian society.
In addition to the carrot policy, Saudi Arabia uses occasionally the stick policy. Of the important means one can mention the restrictions in relation to Egyptian workers, who were employed in Saudi Arabia. It was used a while ago before the military takeover in order to put pressure on the government in Cairo.
Those policies all applied in order to pave the way for own political influence in Egypt. The problem was finally solved in that way that “an agreement has been reached between the Egyptian and Saudi authorities over new procedures for Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia” (Ahram Online, 30 May 2013).
By pointing to the Saudi Arabia’s avoiding to renew the work permits of thousands of Egyptian workers who work in this country in order to put pressure on the Egyptian government, Karim Al-Johari at the ceremony of introduction of his book – The Diary of Arab Revolution – in Berlin said the Saudis have no interest in the success of efforts for a fundamental transformation in the Arab world.
The Iranians do not have the same role and influence in Egypt as the Saudis have. Nevertheless, with regard to the popularity degree the Iranians have not a high popularity among the Egyptian population.
According to a 2013 survey by the BBC World there are only 15% of people in Egypt, who support Iran’s influence, while 48% do not look favorably on an Iranian influence in their country (2013 World Service Pol).
With regard to the practical possibilities Iran has a lot of geographical distance to Egypt, which is a determinant factor for a country that is not a high-technological country like the greater powers. In addition in the years after the
Iranian Islamic power takeover the political relationship between Iran and Egypt has been very limited. Finally, the ethnic and language proximity between Egypt and Iran in the face of ethnic and linguistic affinities between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not significant.
One of the important factors in the competing relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran as mentioned above is presence of a predominantly Salafi minority in Egypt.
In the same way, as the Salafi minority in Egypt works in favor of the Saudis, it acts in the opposite direction to the Iranians.
One of the Salafi basic positions is the religion’s hostile viewpoint in relation to Shiite thinking. One can therefore consider the Egyptian Salafists and in somehow their real strength in the Egyptian society as a factor of lack of a really willingness to improving of the diplomatic relations between Iran as a Shiite country and Egypt, which has been cut off after the 1979 revolution in Iran.
Already these factors determine the Iran’s situation far behind of Saudi Arabia’s position in terms of influence on the political scene in Egypt.
The occurrence of the Islamic revolution in 1979 in Iran had a great impact in the diplomatic relationship between Iran and Egypt. “Iran was angered by Egypt’s decision to give asylum to the deposed Shah of Iran” (BBC News, 14 January, 2001). Especially after assassination of President Sadat in 1983 and the Iranian support to that terrorist act, an even more hostile era in the relationship between those two countries began. Andrew Terrill believes that “the future of Egyptian-Iranian relations consequently remains uncertain (Terrill, 2011), but as much as the Saudis were dissatisfied with Mubarak’s fall “the Iranian leadership also saw some potential opportunities” (Terrill, 2011).
The Iranians attempted at least after Mubark’s fall to gain influence in Egypt. Especially after the Egyptian presidential election in which Morsi became the first president after Mubarak’s time, the Iranians tried in order to form a different relationship with Egypt compared to before the Arab Spring.
Morsi’s participation in the Conference of Non-Aligned in Tehran, by many analysts was also interpreted as a beginning of Egypt’s rapprochement with Iran.
Therefore the military “coup” could not be something that the Iranians could see in their favor.
Iranians claim that Saudi Arabia’s immediate reaction after the military intervention and its support of the military takeover of power is due that the Saudis are in fear of the rise of Iran’s power in the region.
Although many countries around the world expressed their concerns after the military coup on July 3, Saudi Arabia was among the first countries that recognized the new Egyptian government and congratulated Adly Mansour the new president.
Riyadh’s position in relation to the internal strife is now quite clear. Under the Muslim Brotherhood Riyadh cut off its aid to Egypt, but just after Morsi’s fall it paid 12 million dollars as a financial support to the military and the Egyptian new government.
The Iranians in turn condemned the coup and expressed their desire to Muslim Brotherhood’s return to power.
For Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Egyptian battlefield at this time it is Saudis, who evidently are winners.
Nevertheless, as the world has been witnessed the events in the last two years, also on the basis of the current internal tensions in Egypt at a such high point, no one can assess that the country has received, or in the near future will have a political calm and stability. Therefore, any sudden occurrence at this time can be expected.
Now after the latest events and moving towards of polarization of political forces and their new stances, it is still too early to assess which direction the Egyptian foreign policy will go.
· 2013 World Service Pol
· Fearon James D., 1998. Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy, and Theories of International Relations , Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 1: 289-313 (Volume publication date June 1998)
· Terril Andrew, 2011. The Saudi-Iranian Rivalry and the Future of Middle East Security, Strategic Studies Institute, 2011.