Q & A: Why Saudi Arabia loves the Egyptian military


CAIRO, EGYPT - JULY 26: An Egyptian Army Apache helicopter flies over a crowd of pro-military demonstrators at Tahrir Square on July 26, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. Congress is divided over cutting off the $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt. Much of the money is used to finance the purchase of American military equipment.


Ed Giles

Saudi Arabia, the United States and the rest of the Middle East are all in some way entangled and invested in Egypt's bloody struggle.

But last week Saudi Arabia quickly emerged as the Egyptian military's heaviest backer, offering billions in aid while also supporting the violent crackdown that reportedly killed more than 1,000 people.

GlobalPost interviewed F. Gregory Gause, III, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, about the Saudi interests most at stake. Editor's note: answers have been edited for clarity.

Why did Saudi Arabia risk supporting a military that just killed hundreds of people?

There are a couple of reasons why the Saudis were very quick to support the military government. First, they’ve seen — at least since the Gulf War of 1990-1991 — the Muslim Brotherhood as an unfriendly group on a couple of grounds.

The Brotherhood supported Saddam Hussein, or at least they didn’t support the Saudis, a move the Saudis saw as going against what in the Fities and Sixties had been a pretty strong relationship with the Brotherhood.

The Saudis are also nervous about an elected Islamist government in their world, and that’s what the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt represented. The Saudis have always claimed to speak for Sunni Islam, and when you have an elected Islamist government, some people inside Saudi Arabia may start to think, “Why can’t we have an elected government?”

Secondly, the Saudis, at least for the last few decades, looked to Egypt as their most important Arab ally. And particularly in the last few years, Egypt was their most important Arab ally against what the Saudis saw as the Iranian threat.

But then Mubarak fell, and the Saudis felt they’d lost their strongest regional ally in their effort to balance against Iranian power. Now, I don’t think the Brotherhood government in Egypt was particularly pro-Iranian. But the Saudis are a lot more comfortable with the military government, or a military-supported government that will go back to being anti-Iranian.

Why, in thinly veiled remarks directed at Qatar, had Saudi Arabia accused its neighbor of "fanning the fire of sedition and promoting terrorism?" What is the conflict between these two nations?

The Saudis and the Qataris for the past, I’d say, 10 years have had a rivalry of influence in the Arab world. First, Qatar established Al Jazeera, which opened the [Arab] information field. The news outlet was given a fairly wide berth to talk about things in every Arab country, except Qatar. That made the Saudis and a lot of other governments angry.

Qatar also made a strategic decision that the future of the region was going to be Islamist. So Qatar was supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis didn’t like that. They saw the Brotherhood as a potential threat, and thus they saw Qatar as supporting their threat.

All that is combined with the fact that the Saudis have always thought the smaller Gulf states should just follow their lead on political issues.

To what extent is Saudi Arabia's move to support Egypt's military-led government against the Muslim Brotherhood about a domestic concern to maintain stability and the monarchy's power?

The Saudis have a real opposition to any movement that calls into question monarchy and its legitimacy in the region. They have a real aversion and fear of democratically oriented Islamist movements.

Their opposition to the Brotherhood is partly the result of the second issue. But at the same time there’s another issue here that I think might even be a longer-term issue: The Salafi movement. (Editor's note: the Salafis are ultra-conservative Islamists.)

The Salafi movement in Egypt participated in democratic elections and won 25 percent of the seats in parliament, which was later dissolved. To see them in democratic politics is in many ways more dangerous for Saudi Arabia.

If the Egyptian Salafis participate in democratic politics, then why shouldn't Saudi Salafis? So for the Saudis, the notion that not just the Muslim Brotherhood would be involved in elections, but that the Salafi Islamists would be involved too is going to be a real long-term challenge.

More from GlobalPost: Hosni Mubarak is one step closer to freedom