Saudi King Salman’s state visit to Egypt this past weekend announced more than the fraternal Arab solidarity he advertised in his speech to the Egyptian parliament. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s agreement to cede two disputed Red Sea islands (Tiran and Sanafir) to the kingdom provoked outrage on Egyptian social media and a small demonstration in Cairo resulting in the arrest of the protesters. To many Egyptian youth, Sisi’s willingness to sacrifice Egyptian territory for Saudi largesse epitomized the opportunism of the counter-revolutionary praetorian state.
The visit was not as lucrative for Egypt as had been Saudi overtures in the past three years. The Wahhabi monarch announced plans for a bridge across the Red Sea linking Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He also pledged $1.7 billion in aid and the establishment of a $16 billion joint investment fund rather than large new strings-free aid commitments. Leaks in Riyadh suggested that the days of “free money” from Riyadh to Cairo were over.
The dramatic fall in the price of petroleum has halved the kingdom’s income. Moreover, last year’s pledges of $12 billion by three Gulf states have not resulted in desired changes in Egyptian foreign policy. The Egyptian officer corps declined to help intervene in Yemen, and the anti-fundamentalist nationalists in Cairo support Russia and the Assad regime in Syria, the opposite of Saudi policy.
After the officer corps’ 2013 overthrow of elected president Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, amid massive popular protests, Saudi Arabia and allies Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates pledged over $30 billion to shore up the shaky military regime in Cairo. At that time, they were eager to see the officers suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, which the royal families fear as a populist force insufficiently deferential to the region’s Establishments—a sentiment with which Sisi and his colleagues concurred. Egypt’s needs far outstripped that amount, however, nor has there been much transparency about how the money has been used. The Egyptian state does not offer much transparency in general. It is a military junta thinly disguised by constitutional trappings. Candidates were strong-armed not to run against Sisi in the 2014 presidential election, and parties were excluded from contesting 80 percent of seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections, ensuring the regime could easily divide, rule, and overwhelm the disorganized independents who formed the majority of MPs.
The most controversial thing about King Salman’s royal procession was the acceptance by Egypt of a fixed maritime border with Saudi Arabia, which implies the ceding of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which lie on the Saudi side of the agreed-upon line. Astride the Straits of Tiran, which control access to the Gulf of Aqaba, they gained strategic significance with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Early 20th-century Egypt laid claims on them, based on Ottoman demarcations of the extent of its provinces. When the House of Saud conquered the Hejaz in 1926, it gained the territory that stretched up to the Gulf of Aqaba below Jordan, and maintained that the two islands belonged to it. After Israel was established in 1948, yet another claimant emerged. Saudi Arabia, then militarily weak, quickly arranged for Egypt to lease the two islands in 1950. The Arab nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser that emerged after an officers’ coup in 1952 revived earlier Egyptian claims.