Egypt’s Outreach to the Saudis

Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, made a pragmatic statement with his choice of a first foreign trip, visiting Saudi Arabia and its oil-rich monarchy, observes former CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

As outside observers try to make predictions about what Egypt’s Islamists will do with their popularity and electoral successes, an additional data point arose this week with Mohamed Morsi’s first foreign trip as president, to Saudi Arabia.

In a way, it was remarkable that he traveled anywhere outside his country this soon after taking office, given that he is in the middle of a constitutional crisis in which he is at loggerheads with the judiciary and the military over whether parliament can meet, not to mention the huge uncertainties over his own office’s powers.

Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. (Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad)

The selection of a destination for a head of government’s first overseas trip traditionally is taken as a symbolic statement, of course, and on the surface it is unsurprising that the most populous Arab state and the most economically influential one would give priority to their relationship with each other.

But there also is a long history of animosity between the two countries — leading the republican and monarchical poles of the Arab world — going back to Nasser’s time and the waging by Egypt and Saudi Arabia of a proxy war in Yemen in the 1960s. The political upheaval in Egypt of the past year and a half has not helped the relationship.

The Saudis were annoyed at the United States for supposedly throwing Hosni Mubarak under a bus, and anything even faintly revolutionary in their part of the world makes the rulers of a medieval family-based political structure nervous.

The overlap of Islam and politics that characterizes both the Saudi regime and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood represents more of a disjunction than a common thread between them. The Brotherhood — given the path it has taken and the electoral success it has enjoyed — is a living statement that a Saudi-style structure is not necessary and that a democratic system is compatible with respect for Islamic principles.

Morsi evidently said enough to put his hosts at ease and to keep his brief visit cordial. The trip suggested that what is more important to him than anything religious (although he did perform the Umrah, or minor pilgrimage) or ideological are pragmatic considerations, especially economic ones.

Saudi investment and remittances from Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia are important ingredients in trying to come anywhere close to meeting Egyptians’ inflated economic expectations.

There also is a wider foreign-policy dimension to the trip. Despite much talk lately about how an Egypt under Morsi rather than Mubarak will move toward better relations with Iran, the trip demonstrated that Iran is not Morsi’s first choice of partners among competitors in the Persian Gulf.

A further pragmatic consideration was no doubt involved here, too, with an awareness of how dyspeptic Washington would get over anyone improving relations with Tehran.

All in all, it is hard to see how anything about the trip would have been different if it had been made by an Egyptian leader not labeled an Islamist and not having “Muslim” in his party’s name.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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5 comments on “Egypt’s Outreach to the Saudis

  1. Pingback: Drumbeat: July 14, 2012 | GREENDUMP

  2. Pingback: The Oil Drum | Drumbeat: July 14, 2012

  3. Pingback: Egypt’s Outreach to the Saudis | ALL News

  4. Saudi ‘royal’ and their western-created monarchy over the two most sacred Islamic cities – is based on politics – to keep Muslim nations divided on religious sectarianism. Saudi ‘royal’ who have Jewish family roots – are trying their best to stop Iran emerging as the new power in the region to replace the United States. Saudis are mostly Wahhabis who despise the rest of the 70 Muslim sects.

    Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is dominated by Hannafi Sunni sect. MB is mainly an Islamic reformation organization. Most of MB’s leaders with the exception of late Sayyid Qutb, don’t believe politics to be an integral part of Islamic Shari’ah.

    Historically and culturally, Egypt is more closer to Iran than any other Middle Eastern nation-state. Fatimid (Ismaili) Shia dynsty ruled Egypt for nearly 150 years. Both Cairo city and the world renowned Al-Azhar University were built by Fatimids.

    Dr. Morsi chose to visit Riyadh – because the Saudis are ‘the guardians’ of US-Israel interests in the region. Furthermore, the all-powerful Egyptian Army elites are very allergic to Iran’s rising power. They would rather prefer Turkey over Iran.

    As Lebanese interior minister, Maj. Gen. Marwan Charbel, claimed on RT recently: “The Zionist entity is the only country which has benefited from the ‘Arab Spring’.”

    http://rehmat1.com/2012/07/11/egypt-and-the-myth-of-arab-spring/

  5. Pingback: News – 2012.07.18 | ArabiaLink