October has seen some milestone events in the Middle East. One of the major Arab nations, Egypt, has fallen out with another great Arab power, Saudi Arabia, and has buddied up with Russia.
The Egyptian-Saudi coalition in Yemen has fallen apart, while with the Russians the Egyptians organized large-scale maneuvers in El Alamein near the Libyan border (500 men are quite a big contingent and are, hopefully, a proof that the sides are truly committed to cooperate). And, on top of that, Egypt was one of the few nations that supported Russia’s resolution on Syria at the UN.
The Saudis took that as treason. They have run deep into the sand in Yemen and need a hand. They have a lot of money to buy arms but few people to fight. So, in their military campaigns they generally rely on hirelings. One of the key suppliers of “legionaries” has so far been Pakistan, who is also the guard of the Saudis’ nuclear arsenal. But when the Saudis invaded Yemen, the Pakistanis refused to interfere.
So, the Saudis were forced to send there a freakish coalition of hired troops from the Gulf monarchies and Sudan. The only efficient force there was a contingent from Egypt. In exchange the Egyptians required money (in order to restore their currency), stable navigation in the Red Sea and a springboard in the Horn of Africa. This all resulted in a quite stable Egyptian-Saudi coalition.
But that alliance fell apart once the Saudis failed both in Yemen and on the oil market. Though still having a lot of money, they are experiencing problems in their public and banking sectors and this is affecting their construction and trade. As a result, the stock index of Saudi Arabia has plummeted to the crisis level of 2009. The Saudis’ economy is staggering. No coincidence that they were quite compliant during the last OPEC meeting. All that forced them to cut their support to friendly regimes. A few months they stopped subsidizing Egypt. But now that fuel and food prices are low, the Egyptians have become much less dependent on external support and much more able to maneuver.
The Houthis have shown that if continued, the conflict in Yemen will curb navigation in the Red Sea. Even though the rebels are not attacking trade ships, they have anti-ship missiles and this cannot but make threats for Egypt and the Gulf monarchies.
Egypt is not the only ally that has sabotaged the Saudi coalition. Oman and the United Arab Emirates are also acting ambiguously. All this is turning the Saudi anti-Houthi bloc into a snake pit.
Regarding Egypt, the key concern is how stable its alliance with Russia will be. The Egyptians need money, arms and anti-terror guarantees. The Russians can help them with arms. But can they help them with money. Before the revolution, the Americans provided Egypt with $3bn annually. In other words, Egypt is an “expensive” country. The Russians can afford such a sum, especially if they have guarantees that part of the money will go back into economy as Egypt needs not only arms but also food and machinery.
Egypt is a strategic spot. It is the gates into the Persian Gulf and a good foothold for dominance in Syria. That country has a strong army and a big market. So, you need a lot of money to be Egypt’s ally.
Here we should keep in mind that the Russian-Egyptian rapprochement will face desperate resistance from the United States, who seeks to control as many sea hubs as possible, and the EU, who would not like to have a “fence” of Russia’s allies all along its eastern border. But the key loser here will be Saudi Arabia, who will have to give up its ambitions to be the Middle East’s “great power.”
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau