Egypt-Gulf Ties and a Changing Balance of Regional Security

In the volatile post-Arab Spring landscape, Gulf Cooperation Council states have sought to influence developments in Egypt through aid and diplomacy.

In the volatile post-Arab Spring landscape, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have sought to influence developments in Egypt through aid and diplomacy. Such efforts illustrate the rise of the Gulf states as assertive regional actors possessing not only the intent but increasingly the capability to project (and protect) their interests, however defined. The dramatic fall in oil prices, however, will test the resilience of Gulf pledges to Egypt along with other transitional states. This bottom line might push GCC states to re-examine the blurring of their domestic and regional interests.

The regional security balance in the Middle East has evolved in significant ways in the eighteen months since Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government was ousted from power. Half of the GCC—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait—offered immediate political and financial assistance to General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s interim regime in Cairo. This represented a break from the close ties between the Mohammed Morsi administration and Qatar, which had become a cause of considerable tension both in Egypt and the GCC.

The maelstrom of post-transition politics in Egypt provides a case study of Gulf states’ emergence as assertive regional powers. Their growth as visible participants in regional and even international politics predated the Arab Spring but accelerated and acquired a forceful new dimension once the initial shock of the 2011 upheavals had subsided. GCC states took the lead in responding to the initially wide-ranging political and economic challenges triggered by the Arab Spring. The scope and scale of Gulf assistance to Egypt provides a clear example of the practical and policy implications of this process. It also highlights how Gulf actors were far from impartial actors in picking sides and distributing aid. Gulf support differed significantly from more conventional forms of international assistance by being linked indelibly to particular political currents rather than being tied to outcomes, such as reforms to governance or improvements in transparency.

The three years after the Arab Spring thus saw the Gulf States align their growing capabilities (in the political, economic, and security arenas) with a far more expansive policy intent. This was as evident within the Gulf itself, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE led GCC forces into Bahrain to restore order following Manama’s Pearl Roundabout uprising, as it was in policy responses to the escalating violence in Syria and the uncertain aftermath of regime changes across North Africa. As concerns mounted in the GCC at the apparent indecision in Western capitals, developments both in Syria and in North Africa indicated that Gulf officials were prepared to act unilaterally or, at best, as a loose regional bloc to secure their interests in transition states. Their actions in post-2011 Egypt, Libya, and Syria demonstrated how Gulf power players were far less inclined to listen to what they perceived as discredited Western-centric approaches that, in their view, merely exacerbated instability in transition states. This reflected GCC policymakers’ alarm as the Obama administration not only withdrew support from its longstanding regional ally in Cairo but also appeared to welcome the empowerment of political Islamists through the ballot box.

From the start of the uprising that culminated in the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, official and public opinion in the Gulf States viewed events in Egypt as a barometer of the turbulence sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa. This was attributable in part to the constant television coverage streamed live by Qatar-based Al Jazeera from Tahrir Square in Cairo and reflected also the historic centrality of Egypt in Arab politics. The potency of Mubarak’s ousting became evident in the mobilization of calls for change that immediately cascaded across the Arab world in the following days and weeks. Moreover, the escalation of demonstrations in Bahrain rapidly disabused any notion that the political upheaval might bypass the Gulf as demonstrations also began in Oman and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

While policies toward the unrest in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen as well as Bahrain) were generally coordinated and more multilateral in nature, no such uniformity extended toward developments in North Africa or, indeed, Syria. The uprisings in North Africa did not present a material or ideological threat in quite the same way as a revolt against a fellow ruling family or a proximate Arabian Peninsula state with a long, porous boundary with Saudi Arabia. That said, GCC states moved quickly to back competing interests that highlighted the very divergent visions regarding the reordering of Egyptian (and Arab) politics. Thus, after Mubarak’s fall, Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed Cairo’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) with financial support and diplomatic recognition. In the sixteen months that followed the uprising, Saudi and Emirati officials opted for regime-type continuity in a bid to limit the impact and contain the overspill of such rapid and unexpected change.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s narrow victory in the June 2012 presidential election abruptly cooled Cairo’s relationships with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The UAE had initially pledged $3 billion in aid for Egypt in 2011. Then delivery was put on hold when the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate prevailed in the presidential balloting. Likewise, in June 2012, before Morsi took office, Saudi Arabia pledged $430 million in support from the Saudi Fund for Development and gave Egypt access to a $750 million line of credit to import oil products. That same month, SCAF Chairman Mohammed Hussin Tantawi pointedly was accorded a prominent position in the funeral prayers for Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz; he was seated next to King Abdullah himself. After losing the election, Morsi’s opponent, Ahmed Shafik, departed for Abu Dhabi. A rising chorus of voices in the UAE, in particular, disparaged the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to regional security and allegedly aiming to overthrow the Gulf monarchies.

Qatar took a diametrically opposed position to its Gulf neighbors. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani extended a comprehensive package of assistance to the Brotherhood-led government in Cairo. This was consistent with Qatar’s support for Muslim Brotherhood organizations elsewhere in North Africa and Syria as well as Hamas in Gaza. During Morsi’s year in office, Qatar transferred more than $7 billion in emergency loans and direct financial aid to Egypt. Hamad bin Jassim pledged in September 2012 to invest $18 billion over five years in tourism, industry, and infrastructure projects to revive the economy, although little, if any, of the promised investment materialized in practice. In one of his final acts prior to succeeding his father as Emir in June 2013, Qatar’s heir apparent, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani directed Qatargas to supply up to five free liquefied natural gas shipments to keep the Egyptian power sector functioning until mid-2014. Controversially, Al-Jazeera set up a dedicated Egyptian channel, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which attracted widespread criticism for its allegedly slanted coverage of Egyptian politics.

The events of July 3, 2013 brought the Arab Spring full circle. Mubarak’s ouster shocked embattled regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In contrast, the reimposition of military rule reflected a trend of greater political authoritarianism across the region. While Egypt again found itself under temporary military rule, as it had in February 2011, the regional context in July 2013 was very different. Across the Arab world, no consensual political order had emerged. Instability rocked the transitional states of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen (to say nothing of Syria). The contagious revolutionary fervor that swept the Arab world in 2011 had all but disappeared. Authoritarianism reasserted itself, eclipsing political Islam. Substantial political and financial support from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait powered the emerging strongmen.

The conservative Gulf States rapidly deployed their financial largesse and political support in Egypt. The speed with which Saudi, UAE, and Kuwait backed the restoration of military rule in Egypt with direct budgetary support, shipments of fuel products, and large amounts of bilateral aid spoke volumes. With the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo effectively signaling the end of the Arab Spring, Saudi and Emirati officials moved quickly to seize the regional initiative away from Qatar. The Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Tunisia also came under mounting domestic pressure that culminated in its decision to stand down in September 2013. The region’s ‘counter-revolutionary’ powers rolled back the electoral and participatory gains of the Arab Spring in Egypt just as they clamped down on protest movements within the Gulf itself.

Egypt remained pivotal in the struggle to influence the next phase of the post-2011 regional upheaval. As such, Gulf approaches toward the new Egyptian government continued to have ramifications far beyond its borders. The most visible manifestation of the tensions was the March 2014 decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha in the name of ‘security and stability.’ The decision reflected the deep and continuing anger felt in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi over Qatar’s pro-Islamist policies. The recall was justified on the grounds that Qatar was continuing to give a degree of assistance to members of the Muslim Brotherhood that had escaped Egypt and found refuge in Qatar.

Qatar’s strained relationships with its Gulf neighbors have become a microcosm for the broader tensions between status quo advocates and supporters of political change across the region. By this stage, the Muslim Brotherhood was the central flashpoint in what was being portrayed as an existential struggle for power and influence.

As the initial uprisings of 2011 gave way to protracted, messy and increasingly uncertain political transitions in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood gradually replaced Iran as the bête noir of Gulf ruling elites. This occurred as ruling elites sought to externalize the root causes of political dissent by ascribing them to the manipulative actions of external powers. The GCC was largely successful in imputing Iran-linked sectarian motivations in Bahrain as a means of weakening and splitting the opposition movement in 2011. In other instances, however, this became harder, especially where the majority of dissenters were Sunni Arab members of the national population. Thus, as ruling elites in Saudi Arabia and the UAE intensified their crackdown on local supporters of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, and as political protests by the Sunni-led opposition in Kuwait surged in 2012, Qatar’s supportive policy toward the Islamist movement became even more of an outlier.

Gulf policymakers securitized the menace of the Muslim Brotherhood as a transnational threat that linked internal and external considerations. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE labeled the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and placed it on proscribed lists in 2014. Officials in Kuwait and Bahrain had to tread more carefully owing to the longstanding participation of local Brotherhood affiliates in domestic politics. The escalation of GCC pressure on Qatar also bore fruit with the September 2014 announcement that several prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders were ‘voluntarily’ relocating to Istanbul and London. In addition, Al Jazeera suspended its Mubasher Misr channel in late-December, several weeks after a deal was struck in Riyadh to end the Gulf spat and days after a reconciliation initiative between Egypt and Qatar mediated by Saudi Arabia.

Will the apparent resolution of the GCC-Qatar dispute bring Doha back into the Gulf fold? The answer lies in how policies proceed not only in Egypt but also in Libya, where the UAE has escalated its support for militias associated with former General Khalifa Haftar.

Regional conditions have changed significantly in recent months, with the startling growth of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its takeover of large swathes of Syria and northwestern Iraq. The other significant shift has been the halving of international oil prices, from $115 per barrel in June 2014 to $57 by the year’s end. Both of these developments arguably pose greater and more imminent security threats to GCC states than the Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore, any substantive and prolonged decline in oil revenues will have knock-on effects for an Egypt that is heavily dependent on Gulf assistance. Already, aid from the Gulf to Egypt is beginning to trail off. High-profile pledges of investment, such as the $40 billion announced by the UAE in March 2014 are quietly being delayed.

What would happen if oil prices continue to fall or remain low for an extended period? GCC states will likely refocus attention on domestic issues, such as curbing current expenditures and tackling costly and inefficient subsidies. Such moves would call into question the proactive and assertive role of the Gulf States. In turn, political leaders in North Africa (as well as in Syria and Yemen) will be forced to focus on addressing internal political questions rather than relying upon the expectation of outside support.

Yet, the danger remains that, having intervened so actively across the region in support of short-term interests, Gulf support for Egypt has paradoxically worsened the prospects for legitimate political authority and sustainable economic development and, thus, for a consensual approach to attaining human security for all. The sharpening of identity politics and the scapegoating of Islamist groups have undermined social cohesion across the region and created powerful new narratives and grievances that will not easily be resolved. Moreover, the closing off of mainstream political and public space to most Islamist groups risks driving such movements underground and radicalizing a new generation of radical extremists. As the Gulf states refocus around domestic challenges arising from the plunge in oil prices and the residual threat from ISIS, Egypt and other Arab Spring states face a daunting and uncertain new phase in their tortuous and, as yet, indeterminate, transition.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and an associate fellow at Chatham House.