One of the key developments in the Middle East in the last few decades has been the growing alliance between Egypt and some of the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates/UAE). For most of the 1950s and 1960s Egypt, under President Gamal Abd al-Nasser, viewed the Gulf’s ruling families as reactionary and medieval regimes whose days were numbered. Meanwhile, the Gulf leaders felt threatened by Nasser’s vision of Arab nationalism and socialism. In the early 1960s Riyadh and Cairo engaged in a proxy war in Yemen that ended in 1967 with the resounding defeat of Egypt in the war with Israel. Since then the two sides have forged a close economic and strategic alliance, marrying the Gulf’s financial assets to Egypt’s political and cultural influence. The ouster of President Mohamed Morsi and the ascendency of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in 2013 reinforced the close partnership between Cairo and the Gulf states, particularly Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Geo-economic and strategic forces driving the alliance
The close and growing partnership between the Egyptian government and those of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and to a lesser degree, Kuwait and Oman, is based on shared economic and strategic concerns and objectives. With more than 100 million people (about one-third of the Arab states’ population) and limited natural resources, the Egyptian gross domestic product (GDP) per capita ($3,020) is much smaller than those in the GCC states (Bahrain $22,504, Kuwait $32,032, Oman $15,474, Qatar $64,781, KSA $23,139, and UAE $43,103). Despite severe fluctuations in oil prices, the Gulf states are not becoming poor. Most of them established sovereign wealth funds to invest their oil revenues. These funds hold substantial financial assets, i.e. Abu Dhabi Investment Authority $579 b, Kuwait Investment Authority $533 b, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund $360 b and Qatar Investment Authority $295 b. Stated differently, Egypt is a relatively poor country while some of the GCC states are among the richest in the world. Cairo needs Gulf money to address overwhelming socio-economic challenges.
The Suez Canal and SUMED pipeline are strategic routes for Persian Gulf crude oil, petroleum products and liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments to Europe and North America. The Suez Canal connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, and it is a critical chokepoint because of the large volumes of energy commodities that flow through it. Total oil flows through the Suez Canal and the SUMED pipeline accounted for about 9% of total seaborne traded petroleum (crude oil and refined petroleum products) in 2019 and LNG transiting through the Suez Canal and SUMED pipeline accounted for about 8% of global LNG trade. About half of the total petroleum transiting the Suez Canal, mostly from Persian Gulf producers, is sent northbound to Europe and North America. Similarly, LNG cargos from Qatar pass through the Suez Canal to Europe. The SUMED pipeline is the only alternative route to transport crude oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea if ships cannot navigate through the Suez Canal.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE perceive Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as existential threats. Iran occupies one side of the Persian Gulf and the other side is occupied by the six GCC states and Iraq. Given Iran’s large size and population, massive resources, strong national identity, powerful military and Shiite majority, its Arab neighbors have always been suspicious of Tehran’s intentions. Furthermore, the UAE accuses Iran of occupying three strategic islands – Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunbs. Iran denies these accusations. The conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen reflect and are driven by Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Given their small size and population, Gulf leaders understand the limitations of their defense capabilities and the need to partner with regional and global powers.
The MB used to be tolerated in most Persian Gulf states. However, this policy drastically changed since the birth of the so-called Arab Spring in late 2010. Some Gulf states were alarmed about the MB’s rising power, fearing in particular the movement’s alternative blueprint for state power derived from political Islam and obtained through the ballot box. In 2013, then Minister of Defense al-Sisi overthrew elected President Mohamad Morsi and made himself president. Given Egypt’s demographic and cultural leverage, al-Sisi’s fight against the MB has become the Saudi and Emirati fight. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi perceive a return of MB to power in Cairo as an existential threat. This explains their strong support for President al-Sisi.
Egypt-Gulf alliance – the way forward
Despite shared perceptions and objectives, the alliance between the two sides faces key challenges. First, it will take some time to accurately assess the full impact of the COVID-19 virus on Gulf economies, but the combination of the pandemic and low oil prices has forced Gulf states to lay off and send home millions of expatriates (including Egyptians) with devastating socio-economic impact on Egypt’s economy and society. In the coming months and years, the scarce jobs available are certain to go to Gulf nationals not to foreigners. The tightening economic conditions are certain to reduce Gulf financial aid to and investment in Egypt.
Second, almost all Egyptian presidents from Nasser to al-Sisi have claimed that “Gulf security is a major Egyptian priority” and vowed to defend Gulf states. But relations between Cairo and Tehran have never been either too tense or too warm. Iranian leaders see Egypt as a major regional power and value its civilization while the Sunni-Shiite divide is less an issue in Egypt than in most Gulf states given that the former has a very small Shiite minority. In short, rhetoric aside, it is very unlikely that Egypt would send troops to fight Iran. Since the disastrous war in Yemen in the 1960s Egyptian public opinion has been strongly against sending troops to fight a long-distance war. This explains why Cairo has not contributed to the Saudi/Emirati war in Yemen ongoing since 2015.
Third, there is no doubt that the MB is down but it is not clear that it is out. Political Islam is a broad umbrella that includes the MB and other Islamic movements. The ongoing fights with some of these movements suggest that al-Sisi’s government has yet to win the war against political Islam. Furthermore, the MB is a regional movement with followers and organizations in several countries including Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco. It receives support from Qatar and Turkey. Finally, in addition to the coronavirus, Egypt faces two major crises – instability in neighboring Libya and the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. It is not clear whether the al-Sisi government will be able to overcome these major crises or if the MB will take advantage and launch a comeback and return to power.
The analysis in this essay suggests that the Egypt-Gulf alliance is fragile and unsustainable. A change in the leadership in Cairo, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi can alter the strategic calculation. For decades Egyptian leaders have presented their country as “too big to fail.” This argument is not completely wrong. A failed state in Egypt would be a disaster for the Middle East, Europe and indeed for the entire world. The problem is that the price is getting too high to prevent Egypt from falling and keep it in the alliance with the Gulf states.
The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the US government or the policies of the Department of Defense.
 World Bank (2020) GDP Per Capita (Current US$) – Middle East and North Africa, available here. Accessed July 29, 2020.
 Sovereign Wealth Funds Institute (2020) Sovereign Wealth Funds – Middle East, available here. Accessed July 29, 2020.
 Energy Information Administration (2020) The Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline Are Critical Chokepoints for Oil and Natural Gas Trade, available here. Accessed July 29, 2020.