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Saudi-Egypt relations: Trump the marriage broker? Open in fullscreen

Robert Springborg

Saudi-Egypt relations: Trump the marriage broker?

Sisi meets Trump in Washington on 3 April 2017 [Presidency of Egypt/Handout/Anadolu]

Date of publication: 28 April, 2017

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Analysis: To what extent did the US facilitate a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Egypt this week, and who really benefitted from it? asks Robert Springborg.

The New Arab reported on 24 April that "US President Donald Trump has been the driving force behind Egypt and Saudi Arabia's recent patch up in relations after months of tensions." An "Egyptian diplomatic source" was cited as having provided that information. 

If true, this might be considered at first glance as one of Trump's few successes in the first 100 days of his presidency.

And indeed, his administration has demonstrated a keen interest in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whether through words of praise for their respective leaderships, high level official meetings, tightening of military relations, or intensification of support for the Saudi-led campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen.

So it stands to reason that Trump would very much desire a strong Saudi-Egyptian relationship that could be a core element of the long-discussed, but yet to be fully realized Arab security coalition allied to the US in efforts to contain Iran, Sunni jihadis, Muslim Brothers, threats arising from Arab state collapses, and possibly also growing Russian influence in the region.

He may, therefore, have bestirred himself to "patch up" Saudi-Egyptian relations as the anonymous Egyptian diplomat reported.

Leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether the putative Arab coalition can indeed be forged and effectively serve these various purposes, it should be asked why the Egyptians might have reason to leak this information and whether it is correct, partially or completely overstated, or possibly part of a disinformation campaign.

A key motive for the Sisi regime to assign Trump a pivotal role in its relations with Saudi Arabia could be to cover its recent tracks in giving in to the Saudis. After all, it was the issue of surrendering the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran that stimulated the largest anti-Sisi demonstrations since 2013.

A key motive for the Sisi regime to assign Trump a pivotal role in its relations with Saudi Arabia could be to cover its recent tracks in giving in to the Saudis

Since January, Sisi's government has been working assiduously to undo the Administrative Court's ruling that overturned his decision to essentially trade the islands for Saudi financial support. Those efforts seem about ready to come to fruition. So it becomes essential to provide justification for surrender of Egyptian sovereign territory to the Saudis.

One such justification is that President Trump himself became involved in this relationship, thereby suggesting how vital it is at even a global level. In this context the relative importance of those two uninhabited islands is necessarily reduced.

A second possible motive is to elevate Sisi's status as an Arab, indeed even global leader. Cold shouldered by President Obama, Sisi is now portrayed as central to Trump's and America's calculations for the region and beyond.

Read more: No-islands, no-deal: Saudi Arabia sets conditions for forgiving Egypt

For Trump to become personally engaged in mediating between Sisi, on one side, and King Salman and his ambitious son, Muhammed bin Salman, on the other, is clear testament to Sisi's importance. With the US behind him, it can only be a matter of time before all Egypt's pressing problems are at least ameliorated, if not solved.

A related incentive for the Egyptian government to assign Trump a key role in its dealings with the Saudis, is to elevate Trump's sagging stature among Egyptians and Arabs.

Since Sisi has tied his and his country's fate closely to Trump and his fortunes, it is essential to counter the widespread view of Trump as an Arab and Muslim-hater. For him to be described as working to resolve intra-Arab disputes necessarily belies this image, converting him into an advocate of Arab unity.

Finally, the Egyptian government has incentive to involve the US and its president in what otherwise might be perceived by Egyptians as a brazen sell-out to the Saudis necessitated by their country's near bankruptcy.

In reality, Sisi has been desperately in need of Saudi financial assistance, which has now been restored

With Trump acting as matchmaker, Sisi can be portrayed as being magnanimous and as an equal to the Saudi leaders. In reality, Sisi has been desperately in need of Saudi financial assistance, which has now been restored in the form of oil shipments and possibly also private subventions.

The deal also may have involved a deepening of Egyptian involvement in Yemen, it being reported by the Saudi military spokesman earlier in April that Egyptian troops were now present, a report that caused the spokesman to be removed.

Furthermore Cairo is now desisting from restating its previous position of at least tacit support for Bashar al-Assad, the Russians and Iranians in Syria, although it has yet to fully align itself with the Saudis vis-a-vis Damascus.

The price to Cairo for reconciliation with the Saudis has thus been a high one, so sanctifying it by having it blessed by Trump makes good political sense. 

What in fact transpired in the Trump-Sisi-Salman triangle was that Trump urged the other two to put aside their differences in pursuit of an effective collaborative, if not fully conjoined military 'deterrent' force allied to the US

As for Washington, the chaos of the Trump administration similarly instills doubt in the words of the anonymous Egyptian diplomat.

The State Department, lacking key appointees in crucial positions regarding Middle East policy, is simply not in a positon to either advise Trump or to orchestrate any sophisticated diplomatic maneuvering.

The National Security Council and the Department of Defense are now under the command of retired generals, implying that military considerations are likely to take on yet greater importance in US policy in general and toward the Middle East in particular, an interpretation certainly supported by Trump's rhetoric.

Given the underdevelopment of diplomatic capacities in Washington and the overdevelopment of military influence, one might surmise that what in fact transpired in the Trump-Sisi-Salman triangle was that Trump urged the other two to put aside their differences in pursuit of an effective collaborative, if not fully conjoined military "deterrent" force allied to the US.

As Riyadh and Washington cooperate yet more in the parlous Yemen campaign, and drag Egypt further into it, the prospects for regional and domestic blow-back increase

Given Trump's notoriously short attention span and his lack of grasp of detail of nearly any subject, especially one as fraught and complex as Saudi-Egyptian relations, it seems inconceivable that he would have been involved in working out the details of the reconciliation.

At most then, he is likely to have expressed a desire for better military cooperation, which the Egyptians are now presenting as a more full-blown mediation effort. 

Whether this intensified military cooperation really serves Egyptian interests or not is another matter. At the least it involves serious downside risks for Cairo. As Riyadh and Washington cooperate yet more in the parlous Yemen campaign, and drag Egypt further into it, the prospects for regional and domestic blow-back increase.

Mubarak studiously avoided military adventurism, one of the reasons for his political longevity. Sisi initially parroted his predecessor in this regard, but as evidence of increased Egyptian military involvement in Yemen and Libya attests, he seems now to believe that he is going to have to lend more military support to his backers in Washington and Riyadh than he first thought, in exchange for them keeping him afloat financially and warding off domestic, regional and international criticism.

So this is a Faustian bargain for Sisi, with Trump serving as Faust rather more than as broker of a marriage with prospects of being long and happy.  


Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff

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