The New York Times and Washington Post carried stories today (August 20, 2013) about Saudi Arabia emerging as the main donor to Egypt in the latest crisis. A pan Arab fund (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait & UAE) of $12 billion is to replace $3-5 billion that Egypt receives in foreign aid primarily from the US but also from Europe.
The articles refer to the Saudi aid as a quest to retain regional power relative to rivals Qatar and Turkey. They also refer to a ‘crossing’ wires on the Saudi relationship with the US.
With the US slowly withdrawing from the Middle East and with the prospect of the US dependency on Arab oil declining with the natural gas boom in the US, this type of action is likely to be the norm rather than the exception in the future.
The AK party scored a seminal victory over the strong Turkish Military only last month. In the famous Ergenekon case, former Military Chief General Ilker Basbug was awarded a life sentence. This is a very important development, and in my view, signifies a new era in which the dominant power has switched from the Kemalist Military to the Islamic AK party.
Qatar has had a very pushy foreign policy for the last ten years. It was the most visible supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood with a $5 billion financial assistance package announced as soon the Muslim Brotherhood lead by Mohammed Morsi was sworn in. With the military overthrow of Morsi and political losses in Syria (Chairmanship of the National Coalition has gone to the Saudi backed candidate) Qatar is on the back foot.
Saudi Arabia, usually the quiet operator, is taking a very high profile lead in Egypt’s case. Both King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Prince Faisal have been vocal critics of the Muslim Brotherhood and strong supporters of the overthrow.
While the newspaper chatter is about Arab allies crossing the US, it appears to me that the US is having the best of the rivals. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are strong US allies, and the US can now deflect ‘democratic’ opposition by cutting Egypt aid but ensuring that Egypt continues to get aid and more importantly from a US point of view, remains subject to influence.
India needs to stay on top of an evolving dynamic in the Middle East. Historical and rigid perspectives should give way to live analysis and an open strategic mindset . Our best current tactic may be to be friendly to both Qatar and Saudi Arabia while they duke it out for regional domination. As the new player in town, Qatar has been reaching out to India already, so this may be an easier game to play. The relationship with the Saudis is more complex with several cross currents, positive ones like trade, business, and labour versus less positive intersections like fundamentalism, kashmir and India’s evolving relationship with Israel.
The whole of the Middle East is in the midst of a ‘regime’ shift. India would do well to study this shift and stay on top of it to further its national interest.
Narayan Ramachandran is Fellow for Economics, Inclusion & Governance at the Takshashila Institution.