New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 20, 2013
CAIRO » Saudi Arabia has emerged as the foremost supporter of Egypt's military rulers, explicitly backing the violent crackdown on Islamists, using its oil wealth and diplomatic muscle to help defy growing pressure from the West to end the bloodshed in search of a political solution.
As Europeans and the United States considered cutting cash aid to Egypt, Saudi Arabia said Monday that it and its allies would make up any reduction — effectively neutralizing the West's main leverage over Cairo. With Egypt's economy in free fall, the country's authorities might not have survived international outrage at a crackdown that has left as many as 1,000 dead and 4,000 wounded without the deep pockets of its Persian Gulf allies.
In recent days, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has publicly condemned the Muslim Brotherhood, sent field hospitals to Egypt and in rare public comments vowed continued support. The foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, traveled to Europe where he pushed back against efforts to punish Egypt's rulers. And Saudi Arabia delivered a blank check to Cairo, promising to shower it with money as needed.
"The kingdom stands with Egypt and against all those who try to interfere with its domestic affairs," King Abdullah said Friday in a televised speech.
Saudi Arabia, which itself is a close ally of Washington, has not only undermined Western efforts to press for compromise, but it has revealed diminished United States influence across the Arab world. The United States and Europe have been unable to persuade Cairo - or to convince Riyadh to press the generals toward moderation, as well.
Saudi Arabia, which historically preferred to work its checkbook diplomacy from behind the scenes, jumped at the chance to help reverse a revolution that it opposed from the start.
The Saudis complained bitterly when President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally, was forced from power, and even more bitterly when the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as Egypt's primary political force. And its leaders may have been comfortable with Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who had served as the Egyptian government's military attachi in Riyadh, according to the general's official biography on the Egyptian military's website.
"The Saudi monarchy is absolutely afraid of an Islamist-based democracy movement," said Amanda E. Rogers, a lecturer in Arabic at Emory University in Atlanta and contributor to Muftah, a blog about the Middle East and North Africa.
The Saudis have long wielded their great wealth in regional causes. But even by Saudi standards, its efforts in Egypt stand out. Within a week of the Egyptian military's July 3 takeover, they had announced a $12 billion rescue package that dwarfs direct military and economic grants from the United States ($1.5 billion) and the European Union ($1.3 billion) combined. The Gulf Arabs' deep pockets made the United States' contribution seem important largely for its symbolism.
Within hours of the king's speech on Friday, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal, was on his way to Paris, where he said the French president, Frangois Hollande, supported the Egyptian generals' road map. That seemed to contradict the statements of other European countries condemning the new government for failing to control the violence.
Back in Saudi Arabia by Monday, the prince boasted that France had come around to its point of view because of "truths and not assumptions." It was unclear, however, if the French government shared that interpretation.
"Concerning those who have announced stopping their assistance to Egypt or threatening to do stop them, the Arab and Islamic nation is rich with its people and capabilities and will lend a helping hand," Prince Faisal said, in a statement carried on the Saudi Press Agency's website.
Saudi Arabia blamed the United States and other allies for failing to support Mubarak in 2011 when Egyptians took to the street provoking his ouster. But their criticism was mostly in private, and low-key. Even after the new government of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi was elected, the kingdom responded quickly to keep the treasury solvent with a substantial $5 billion in aid.
By July 10, one week after the military takeover, the Saudis had put together a package of aid totaling $12 billion, including $5 billion from the kingdom, $3 billion from the United Arab Emirates and $2 billion from Kuwait.
Unlike American aid, much of the Saudi assistance goes directly into Egyptian coffers with no strings attached. Much of it is cash transferred directly to the Egyptian Central Bank, with the rest grants of free or subsidized oil products, which frees an equivalent amount of money for Egypt to budget as it wishes.
By contrast, U.S. and European governments have insisted - often for legal reasons under their own laws - that aid is monitored and often channeled through nongovernmental relief groups.
There is a strong rivalry between Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States allies of the Egyptian military, on the one hand, and Qatar and Turkey, on the other, both of which are big supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has often outspent even the Saudis in pursuit of its foreign policy goals, and has put much of its money into Arab Spring causes like battling governments in Libya and Syria.
The Saudis, on the other hand, have championed shoring up the established order, which in Egypt is represented by the generals.
"The Saudis feel they need to create a diplomatic and economic bloc to support Egypt, or it will collapse," said Hussein al-Shobokshy, a Jeddah-based Saudi columnist who often writes on Egyptian-Saudi relations. "Prince Faisal is taking the pole in championing the cause right now; he is carrying the banner for Egypt," he said.
Anwar Majid Eshki, the chairman of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, a Saudi-based research center, said that Saudi officials were buoyed by what they perceived as Prince Faisal's success in France. "We are getting that message out to the friends of Saudi Arabia, in Europe and the United States, this is our assessment of the situation," he said.
Over the weekend, however, the European Union officially condemned the violence and blamed the military regime for doing little to stop it.
Ordinary Egyptians have long had something of a love-hate relationship with Saudi Arabia. Some 1.5 million to 2 million Egyptian guest workers are employed there, but many come back soured by the experience.
Last year, rioting outside their Cairo embassy forced the Saudis to close it; protesters were angry at the decision to sentence an Egyptian human rights lawyer, Ahmed al-Gezawi, to prison and 300 lashes. The Saudis claim he was a drug smuggler; Gezawi's supporters say his lawsuit against King Abdullah, challenging human rights violations against Egyptian guest workers, was the cause of the prosecution.
Now, however, on the issue of financial aid, at least among the sizable anti-Muslim Brotherhood camp, there is plenty of applause for the Saudi stance. "I would lick the floor rather than take that aid from America," said Mahmoud Salama, a businessman in Cairo and a recent returnee from Australia.
"I don't agree with many things in Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis know that Egypt is their back, their biggest neighbor, and that they should support us when we need support."