CAIRO – Under its new monarch, Saudi Arabia appears to be moving to improve relations with Turkey and Qatar and soften its stance against the Muslim Brotherhood with the aim of weakening Iran. The shift could lead to pressure on its ally Egypt to reconcile with them as well.
The pressure, however, threatens to open frictions within the alliance between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two of the Middle East's strongest Sunni countries. Under the late Saudi King Abdullah, who died in January, the two nations increased their cooperation against militants, the Brotherhood and the influence of Shiite Iran in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — so far — has appeared to resist any reconciliation with Turkey and Qatar, the two top regional backers of el-Sissi's No. 1 nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sissi rose to the presidency after, as army chief, he led the military's 2013 ouster of Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader elected Egypt's president a year earlier. Since the ouster, el-Sissi has led a fierce crackdown on Islamists, crushing the Brotherhood and branding it a terrorist organization, while Egyptian media have depicted Turkey and Qatar as trying to destabilize Egypt by backing the group.
The new Saudi king, Salman, who rose to throne after his half-brother Abdullah's Jan. 23 death, appears to view the greater threat as Iran or extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Turkey and Qatar both could give a boost to a front against those opponents.
"The new government, the new king, may feel that the old ways simply are not working," said Brian Downing, a Washington-based political analyst.
Both el-Sissi and Turkish President Receb Tayyip Erdogan were in Saudi Arabia last week, each meeting separately with Salman and not with each other. Afterward, Erdogan told reporters that "Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — this trio — are the most important countries of the region. We all have duties to carry out for the peace, calm and welfare of the region."
Salman and el-Sissi discussed the issue of Egypt's relations with Qatar and Turkey, according to Egyptian officials familiar with the talks. El-Sissi told his host that the two's policies continue to spread violence and terror in the region. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
"I want to tell our brothers in Saudi Arabia who are listening to us: Imagine someone is trying to destroy a nation of 90 million people. What do you think is people's reaction?" el-Sissi said, visibly angry as he spoke before the visit to the Saudi-owned channel Al-Arabiya. He was alluding to the Brotherhood and its foreign backers.
As part of their growing alliance, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations have given Egypt billions of dollars to prop up its crippled economy. Still, there have been divergences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia — most particularly over Syria. Saudi Arabia seeks the removal of Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad. That is one reason for its closing ranks with Qatar and Turkey, which both back factions fighting Assad.
El-Sissi, meanwhile, consistently has avoided saying whether Egypt objects to Assad remaining in power. Earlier this year, he had a very public reconciliation with Qatar, but then ties cooled once more.
The Saudi government traditionally divulges little about its plans, leaving media commentators close to its leaders the job of explaining its rationale.
The state-linked Saudi newspaper Okaz, for example, declared last week that Saudi-Egyptian relations have "entered a new turning point." It said the kingdom is trying to "achieve closer viewpoints between its sister Egypt and other countries in the region for the good and benefit of all."
Mohammed al-Zulfa, a former member of Saudi Arabia's advisory Shura Council, told one Saudi paper that the kingdom wants better Arab-Turkish ties in large part because "a convergence of views (with Turkey) could reduce Iranian expansionism."
But the price of any improvement with Turkey and Qatar would likely be an easing of the crackdown on the Brotherhood. King Abdullah took a hard line against the group, following Cairo's footsteps and branding the 87-year-old Islamist group a "terrorist" organization.
Soon after Abdullah's death, hints of a new approach appeared. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told the Saudi newspaper Al-Jazira that the kingdom has "no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood," only with certain members whose loyalties lie with the Brotherhood's supreme leader.
One telling column in the Al-Hayat newspaper, owned by a Saudi royal, warned that Egypt should not expect a "blank check" or ignore Riyadh's interests. Egyptians cannot tell the Saudis not to forge closer ties with Turkey just because Ankara supports the Brotherhood, columnist Khaled al-Dekheil wrote.
"For Saudi Arabia to continue keeping Turkey at a distance, as some in Egypt would like, will not serve regional balances at this time," al-Dekheil wrote. In unusually harsh criticism of Egypt in the perennially cautious Saudi media, he wrote that Cairo blew the Brotherhood issue out of proportion because of a lack of a "political and intellectual project" that Egyptians can rally around.
El-Sissi vehemently rejected any suggestion that relations with the Saudis have suffered since Abdullah's death. In a Feb. 22 address to the nation, el-Sissi sought to reassure Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies of Cairo's respect and gratitude for the financial backing. His comments appeared designed for damage control after the release of audio tapes in which el-Sissi and members of his inner circle purportedly mock the Gulf Arab nations and suggest Egypt is milking them for every dollar.
On one key point which he and the new Saudi leadership agree on, he warned that the entire region would be hurt if Egypt staggers.
"The instability of Egypt or its plunge into chaos ... will mean the fall of the entire Arab region and will threaten the Europeans themselves for many years to come," el-Sissi said.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.