By Hassan Ahmadian, for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iran Business News.
Riyadh is engulfing Cairo — this was the perception when King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud visited Egypt for five days early last month. During the visit, many treaties and agreements were signed, including the transfer of Egypt’s sovereignty over the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest the island transfer. More broadly, many questions were raised about the timing and the meaning of the visit.
Saudi policy toward Iran is currently making up the core of its foreign policy. As such, Riyadh’s regional diplomacy and maneuvering should be seen in that context, which is supposed to widen and enhance its regional strategic choices. Egypt is, meanwhile, more focused on combating terrorism and instability in the Sinai Peninsula and Libya, while enhancing its economy.
With a partnership between a wealthy and aspirant Riyadh and a weak and needy Cairo — like any sort of partnership between a weak and a mighty actor — it can be assumed that there will be an even more assertive Saudi regional role followed by Egypt. But is there a regional partnership between the two? Given Egypt’s regional priorities and its policy toward the Syrian and Yemeni crises, it is hard to say that Cairo is complying with its assumed role. Moreover, what would any change in the Saudi-Egyptian relationship mean for Iran?
Tehran favorably perceives Egypt’s potential role in the Middle East. For Iran, a more independent and active Egypt that can squeeze the Saudis is nothing to be worried about. History tells Tehran that Egypt’s assertive role in the region is not tolerated by Saudi Arabia. That in turn tells Tehran that a more active Egypt would mean a more balanced Middle East — or at the very least, more balanced Arab politics.
Although Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has focused on domestic affairs, he has been eager to demonstrate his different approach toward regional crises compared with President Mohammed Morsi, whom he ousted. Trying not to be so vocal, Sisi’s government’s stance toward the Yemeni and the Syrian crises bear such differing tones that it has made the Saudis nervous in their endeavor to bring Egypt within their track.
That is to say, Egypt has been trying to balance its rapprochement with Gulf Cooperation Council member states on the one hand and its independent policy toward Yemen, Syria and Turkey on the other. This balancing act is far from standing at odds with Iran’s regional policy. In fact, Egypt has never been so close to Iran on Syria since Sisi became president.