Amidst talks of a possible suspension of U.S. military assistance to Egypt, renewed attention has been given to the willingness and ability of regional actors to merely step in to replace the United States’ aid, thus canceling out the impact of any suspension. Since the political transition in Egypt began in 2011, traditional regional power Saudi Arabia has found itself in competition with a new diplomatic rival: Qatar. Both states have pledged economic aid packages that dwarf the USD 1.3 billion in military assistance the U.S. gives Egypt each year. Exploring why and how Saudi Arabia and Qatar seek to influence Egypt can better contextualize the consequences of a possible U.S. aid cutoff being considered by the Obama administration.
Shortly after the military’s intervention on July 3 of this year, Saudi King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal issued declarations of support and unveiled an aid package of USD 12 billion, including five billion dollars from Saudi Arabia, three billion from Kuwait, and four billion from the United Arab Emirates. This aid is nonspecific and could be used for military or economic programs. Prince Saud stopped just short of challenging U.S. and European critics of continued military aid, declaring: “Concerning those who announced stopping their assistance to Egypt or threatening to stop them, the Arab and Islamic nation is rich with its people and capabilities and will lend a helping hand.” In other public remarks, Saudi leaders have embraced the discourse of the Egyptian military in referring to Muslim Brotherhood supporters as terrorists and pledging support “against all those who try to interfere with [Egypt’s] domestic affairs.”
Despite Saudi Arabia’s rhetoric, many analysts are quick to note that its approach to foreign intervention is defensive rather than expansionist. Dr. Gamal Soltan, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, explained that the Saudi position comes “out of fear, not out of greed.” There is little doubt that the monarchy is wary of popular Islamist movements removing old power structures throughout the region. The resurgence of traditional power structures in Egypt, particularly the military, is viewed by Saudi Arabia as linked to the survival of the Saudi monarchy. The Saudi state-sponsored press was almost euphoric in announcing the decline of the Brotherhood. Columns pertaining to regime change reiterated the government’s argument that the Brotherhood’s involvement in politics was doomed from the start.
In contrast, for the past two decades, Qatar has exercised considerable soft power in the Middle East and North Africa via its financial support of other states, management of the immensely popular pan-Arab media source Al-Jazeera, and diplomatic leadership as an intermediary for politically diverse groups. Qatar provided approximately USD seven billion in economic aid to Egypt during former Egyptian President Morsi’s tenure, and the country has been critical of the anti-Brotherhood crackdown by the Egyptian military. At a joint press conference with Turkey, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al-Attiyah urged a “return to the path of legitimacy and democracy.” Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab media network based in Qatar, has come under significant criticism in Egypt for pro-Brotherhood commentary and continued coverage of protests. Egyptian authorities have even closed one of Al-Jazeera’s affiliate networks, Mubasher Misr.
Despite the ouster of key Muslim Brotherhood allies, Qatar has continued with some aid to Egypt: the latest in a series of natural gas shipments arrived on August 20. This portion of aid continues on the premise that it helps the Egyptian people. Foreign Minister Al-Attiyah recently explained in Paris that “Qatar has never given aid to an Egyptian group or an Egyptian political party. The aid has always been provided to Egypt.” Still, questions remain about the forward plan for Qatari aid. One government official in the region observed, “If political Islam was a stock, it would have gone down dramatically” with the removal of Morsi. Without an ally in Egypt, it is not clear how the Qataris will posture in order to maintain influence, even as the Egyptian government jams Al-Jazeera’s satellite signals.
While some critics against suspending U.S. aid to Egypt argue that these regional powers will be able to step in to soften the blow, it is important to note that these and other countries will likely not be able to provide support equivalent in quality. In the past, U.S. military contributions have included F-4 jet aircraft, F-16 jet fighters, M-60A3 and M1A1 tanks, armored personnel carriers, Apache helicopters, antiaircraft missile batteries, aerial surveillance aircraft, and other advanced equipment. By contrast, the Royal Saudi Air Force does not have this level of technology to provide and is actually in the process of ordering new planes to upgrade their own inventory, which consists primarily of Boeing F-15 Eagle fighters. Qatar is in even less of a position to offer military support, with only a very small number of French Dassault Mirage 2000 in active service. Ultimately, both states have the raw cash to provide Egypt with additional economic aid. But even combined, the Saudi and Qatari air forces are smaller than the Egyptian air force – and both will struggle to provide the Egyptian military with unique or updated technology. Thus, even as Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to work for their own influence via massive aid packages, the U.S. retains a unique leverage with the Egyptian military based on the quality and consistency of its aid and the procurement relationships that exist between the Egyptian military and U.S. defense contractors per the aid package. A suspension of this aid to Egypt would not go unnoticed.