Last week, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, announced that the Saudi government would make up for any deficit in the Egyptian military budget caused by the withholding of aid from Western countries. This announcement came in the wake of Obama’s recent decision to cancel joint exercises with the Egyptian military, and coincides with the upcoming meeting of European foreign ministers to discuss the potential course of action of the EU in Egypt. Al-Faisal’s announcement underscored Saudi Arabia’s regional ambitions and interests, which align with those of the West to some degree; however, the announcement itself has undermined America’s bid for influence in Egypt.
Al-Faisal, and the Saudi government for which he stands, represent one of the many regional powers in the Middle East who have steadily supported the Egyptian military in the wake of the overthrow of the Morsi government. Kuwait, Qatar, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates have all increased their aid contributions, despite entreaties from Washington to urge the Egyptian generals towards a more moderate approach to dissidents. Aside from not wanting regional volatility, the Gulf nations have supported the Egyptian military because they do not want the Morsi supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power, since this might give revolutionary ideas to their own people. While the military has not prioritized democratic values such as accountability, transparency, and nonviolence in their attempt to return to power, they will eventually be at the head of a nation which will push forward an agenda that appeals to its neighbours. In all likelihood, the military-backed government would honour peace agreements with the Israelis, would not facilitate the spread of militant Islamist ideology to the Saudis and Qataris, and would crack down on internal terrorist activity; none of these outcomes are assured with a populist government in power. Thus, for Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia, the outlook towards Egypt’s revolution must be strictly Machiavellian.
In stating “the Arab and Muslim nations are wealthy with their people and resources and will not shy away from offering a helping hand to Egypt,” al-Faisal has reiterated that Egypt is a priority for the Gulf nations. From a Saudi standpoint, the example of the Egyptian junta is important for maintaining stability in its own kingdom. In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Saudi government implemented a series of moderate reforms, and was able to stave off the discontent that made itself known in almost every other country in the Middle East. Yet Saudi Arabia remains one of the most restrictive societies in the region; this, when coupled with the immense national wealth, makes the ruling elite a target for Islamist revolutionaries who might be inspired by the rhetoric of a populist government run by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Despite their positive relationship with the West, the Saudis have little reason to align their position with that of the Obama administration. The unfolding situation in Egypt has demonstrated that the Americans have adopted a more flexible approach than they have in the past. Rather than intervening on ideological grounds, Obama has decided to maintain a certain distance from the conflict, until action is absolutely necessary. This is of no benefit to the Saudi government, which stands to lose big if the Islamist factions succeed in overthrowing the Egyptian junta. The announcement of al-Faisal, and the blank cheque to which he has alluded, have rendered America impotent. Not only does the American contribution seem laughable in the face of the monolithic sums at the hands of the Gulf nations, but the continued unwillingness of the US to adopt a definitive standpoint and take action has made a mockery of the notion of America as a global power.
The Saudi announcement has revealed the problem with Obama’s soft-power approach to Mideast politics: it depends on the reputation of America as a military and economic giant, and leans heavily on the assumption that its wishes will go unchallenged. Admittedly, political realism must be employed when considering America’s actions in Egypt: the 1.3 billion dollar aid package is the only real leverage Washington has, and it should only be used when the situation absolutely demands it. But while the conflict in Egypt will undoubtedly get worse, the time for ineffectual politics is long gone. American hegemony has been called into question since the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic crisis has only added to the prospect of its decline. In undermining the political will of America so publicly, the Saudis have set a damaging precedent that can only be rectified through decisive U.S. action in Egypt and in the Middle East as a whole.
– Katherine McNamara
Featured photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Creative Commons, Flickr