While most of the world is ambivalent about the overthrow of a democratically elected president in Egypt by the Army this week, the Saudi royal family is enthusiastically endorsing the generals’ move. The kingdom hopes the coup marks the beginning of the end of the Arab awakening and a return to stability and autocracy across the Arab world.
Saudi King Abdullah issued a public endorsement of the coup just two hours after Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced that President Mohamed Morsi had been deposed and the Constitution suspended. The king’s congratulatory message was addressed to the new president appointed by the Army, Adly Mansour. The Saudis were the first foreign government to back the takeover publicly. The king followed up the message with a phone call to al-Sisi, which the kingdom also made public.
Al-Sisi is well known in Riyadh, where he served as military attaché before being promoted to be chief of Egyptian military intelligence. There are widespread rumors in the Middle East that Saudi intelligence provided funding and support for the downfall of Morsi’s government and encouraged the growing popular opposition to his government. They are also reported to have promised al-Sisi that they would replace any military or economic aid cut off by Washington in the aftermath of the regime change (as they did in Pakistan in 1998, when that country tested nuclear weapons and Washington cut aid). The kingdom has a long history of covertly funding regime change around the world, and the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar, is a master of intrigue. It is difficult to evaluate how much is real in these rumors, as is usually the case, but the kingdom’s unhappiness with developments in Egypt since 2011 is very clear.
The Saudis were appalled at the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011; Mubarak had been a longtime friend of the Saudis, who sent two divisions of troops to defend the kingdom in 1990 from Saddam Hussein. The royals were even more dismayed when President Obama called for Mubarak to step down, which they saw as a betrayal of an American ally with ominous implications for themselves. They were shocked that the Egyptian revolution set in motion revolutions across the Arab world calling for democracy. Abdullah responded in part with over a $100 billion in payoffs to the Saudi people to ensure stability at home.
In Bahrain, the Saudis intervened with force to put down a revolution against a fellow monarchy with the active military assistance of the United Arab Emirates, which is also rumored to have worked with Saudi intelligence in Egypt. The Kingdom and the U.A.E. both are vocal opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere in part for its backing of Iraq back in the 1990s. Today Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see the brotherhood as a dangerously subversive and popular enemy. The Saudis have also moved to back up other endangered monarchies like Jordan. In Yemen, they have tried to guide the revolution away from dangerous waters and toward keeping a pro-Saudi government in office.
In Syria, of course, the Saudis have backed the revolution against Bashar al-Assad, but they are not eager for Assad to be replaced by a democratic reformist regime. They would prefer a new strongman in Damascus, but one who is a Sunni Arab who will tilt the country toward Saudi Arabia and away from Iran. In the Syrian case Bandar and Saudi intelligence are deeply involved in providing arms and money to the Sunni opposition.
Riyadh’s backing for the coup in Cairo puts it somewhat at odds with its rich little neighbor Qatar, which has been Morsi’s biggest backer, providing some $8 billion in aid since the 2011 revolution. The Saudis always see the Qataris as meddlesome interlopers playing a role over their appropriate place in Arab politics, so a little humiliation for Doha is an added benefit of the coup. But even the Qataris are reported to have become more and more fed up with Morsi. The two Wahhabi states do work together albeit with some friction in Syria.
The Saudis and their Gulf allies now have the opportunity of course to actually help the Egyptian people with generous aid and subsidized energy to help the country get back on its feet and, even better, to prosper. Al-Sisi will need to demonstrate quickly that he can address Egypt’s enormous economic challenges better than Morsi could. The general undoubtedly has already made his needs known. Now we will discover if the royals are ready to put the big bucks behind helping Egypt. They will certainly not condition any aid on a rapid return to democracy and free and fair elections. They would prefer al-Sisi have a long run as Egypt’s next pharaoh.