Saudi-Egyptian breakdown: What’s at stake?

“This time it’s personal” — this phrase from the popular movie series Jaws may sum up sentiments by senior royals in the Saudi Arabian government following demonstrations in front of their embassy in Cairo and Saudi allegations of attempts by protesters to storm it.

Protests started following the arrest and sentencing of Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed al-Gizawy to 20 lashes on charges of attempting to smuggle ostensibly over 20,000 anti-anxiety drugs into the kingdom. His relatives said Gizawy’s arrest was due to allegations that he had insulted the Saudi monarch.

The Saudi rulers have never been big fans of the Arab uprisings that have deposed Hosni Mubarak, their close ally in Egypt. Additionally, the Arab uprisings have threatened the survival of the neighboring Bahraini regime. However, as a nod to Egypt’s strategic importance, the Saudi ambassador recently told television host Yosri Fouda that “it is illogical that Saudi Arabia would link Egypt’s destiny to the trial” of the former president — a widespread speculation.

Since the 25 January revolution, Saudi Arabia has promised Egypt financial aid of up to US$3.75 billion and, just a few days before the case of Gizawy surfaced, the kingdom promised to transfer the first installment of $1 billion by the end of April. It has been reported that Saudi Arabia had provided Egypt with an amount of $500 million in May 2011. I have also noted in a previous article for Egypt Independent Saudi Arabia’s significant investments in Egypt, which stood at $10 billion in 2011.

Furthermore, there are a significant number of citizens from both states residing in each other’s countries. A Saudi official told me that, judging by their travel documents, the Saudi Foreign Ministry estimates that there are between 300,000 to 400,000 Saudis who “spend at least eight months a year in Egypt.” Representatives from one Egyptian political party that I met with recently stressed that Egypt cannot jeopardize its relationship with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, due to the large number of Egyptians who work there.

I was told that these individuals, estimated at 1.2 million expats in Saudi alone, remit large amounts of money, and should they return they will be “burdening the state,” which will have to secure employment for them. Egypt’s economic challenges have been exasperated by the return of 1.5 million expats who worked in neighboring Libya due to the country’s 2011 revolution. Saudi Arabia also ranked first in a list of preferred destinations, with 33 percent of aspiring Egyptian migrants between 15 and 29 years old citing it as their number one choice.

Gizawy’s case it not unique in Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights published this month a list of 35 political prisoners imprisoned in Saudi jails without trial among a total of 1,401 Egyptians imprisoned in the kingdom. On the other hand, following the Egyptian uprising of 2011, the Saudi Embassy in Cairo said it was investigating the cases of the 10 Saudi prisoners in Egyptian jails who were allegedly tortured.

Saudi is the second Gulf state this year to witness a setback in relations with Egypt following the publicly played out tensions between the United Arab Emirates and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood officials. However, unlike the UAE, the tensions with Saudi seem to have significant popular support that played out heavily on social media — such as the “Screw you your majesty” Facebook page — whereas the UAE-Muslim Brotherhood spat barely registered among Egyptians. Twitter users wondered why Saudi Arabia did not shut down its embassy in Denmark after controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohamed were printed, but was quick to close its embassy in Egypt following offenses to King Abdullah.

The hostilities between Egypt and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia date back to two centuries ago. Museums I visited in Cairo’s Wikalat al-Ghuriya neighborhood still display anecdotes of the famous Egyptian-Saudi battles of the 19th century that were ignited when ‎Egyptian forces landed in Jeddah in 1812. Tensions spiraled every few decades and perhaps reached a peak during the 1962-1970 Egyptian-Saudi proxy war in Northern Yemen. Relations between Cairo and Riyadh improved significantly under Mubarak, who sent 35,000 Egyptian troops to Saudi during the 1991 Gulf War.

The centrality of Saudi Arabia to the Egyptian Islamist parties became evident when Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsy told a group of Egyptian Salafi clerics who are ideologically linked to the Wahhabi school of thought that the first country he would visit as president would be Saudi Arabia in order to win its backing. The Salafi clerics eventually opted to support Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, perhaps knowing that a president with immediate Muslim Brotherhood affiliations would be met with skepticism in Saudi Arabia due to the hostility toward the group in senior Saudi circles, including that of Crown Prince Nayef.

There is another unique angle to the relationship with Saudi Arabia, the host of Islam’s holiest shrine, in Mecca. As per Islamic rulings, all able-bodied Muslims who can afford the journey must visit Mecca once in their lifetime to perform Hajj. According to The National, as of 2009, the annual Hajj quota for Egyptians stood at 80,000, with expenditures reaching $160 million. Egyptian expenditures during Umra (lesser, non-obligatory pilgrimage), which has no official quota, stood at $200 million. Last year, hundreds of Egyptians who had returned from Umra complained of mistreatment and delays that were justified by Saudi officials by an increase of up to 40 percent in the number of Egyptian travelers.

The closing of the Saudi diplomatic missions in Egypt has, according to the Saudi ambassador, resulted in the halting of all visa issuances to Egyptians wanting to perform Umra or Hajj or to visit relatives, which will certainly raise the ire of many Egyptians.

As Jane Kinninmont reiterates in her latest study for Chatham House, Egyptians not only protested for bread, freedom and social justice but also for national dignity. This may explain the Muslim Brotherhood’s carefully worded statement regarding the withdrawal of the Saudi ambassador. The Muslim Brotherhood called on Saudi to reconsider its decision and stated that the protesters outside the embassy were “expressing their opinion that insulting the dignity of Egyptians abroad is no longer tolerated.”

For Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, the importance of Egypt cannot be over-estimated. Saudi and the Gulf states realize that Egypt is the only Arab state capable of balancing Iran’s threat to their nations. However, the rise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been a bitter pill to swallow for Saudi Arabia. Ironically for such an important Arab nation, the Gulf states still do not have an “Egypt policy” that would see beyond the constantly shifting political scene that must be accepted as part of the social change of post-January 2011 Egypt.

The sooner Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states realize that the “new Egypt” is here to stay and that the Mubarak days are long gone — and adjust their policies accordingly — the sooner they will be able to rebuild their bonds, this time not with the regime, but with the people, whose votes will decide the regime in place.

Sultan al-Qassemi is a UAE-based commentator on Arab affairs.

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