The rift between the two most important Sunni Arab nations is growing as Saudi Arabia cuts oil shipments to Egypt, and Egypt threatens to ask Iran for help. Reuters:
Saudi Arabia’s state oil firm Aramco has not commented on the halt. But on Monday, Egyptian Oil Minister Tarek El Molla confirmed it had halted the shipments indefinitely.
An oil ministry official told Reuters: “They did not give us a reason. They only informed the authority about halting shipments of petroleum products until further notice.”
The move comes as a source in Molla’s delegation said late on Sunday evening that he would visit Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main political rival, to try to strike new oil deals.
It’s unlikely that Iran can or will bail out the Egyptians; Egypt’s foreign policy—pragmatic and deep cooperation with Israel over Sinai, relentless pressure on Hamas in Gaza—is hardly the stuff that makes the mullahs’ hearts race, and is no basis for a deep partnership between the two countries.
But the Saudi cut-off matters. Apparently, the Saudis, like others, are deeply worried about what they see as the failure of economic policy under Sisi. With Saudi Arabia facing increasing problems at home as the consequences of low oil prices ripple out through its economy, it’s politically costly for the government to commit to big aid programs. Egypt is clearly reluctant to sign up for Saudi’s regional anti-Iran foreign policy: it wants no part of wars in Syria and Yemen when it has its own hands full with domestic unrest and the trouble in Sinai.
The next U.S. president is likely to face some ugly choices over Egypt. Unless we are ready to watch the Middle East spiral down into even worse madness and mayhem than anything we’ve yet seen (a madness that could engulf the oil sheikdoms and cause massive problems in the global economy), the U.S. is going to have to work with the Saudis and others to help stabilize Egypt. Given the Sisi government’s human rights record, the corrupt nature of the Egyptian economic/military complex, and the difficult problems facing its inefficient and badly-managed economic structure, that’s going to be difficult. But that does not mean it can be ignored: Egypt remains the indispensable country in the Arab world for any hope of stability in a fragmented region.
None of this can be addressed effectively without closer U.S.-Saudi cooperation than we’ve seen in the Obama era—and that, too, will pose problems for the next U.S. president. One of the common interests that binds the U.S. and Saudi Arabia together is our joint concern for the stability of Egypt; we can get more done more cheaply by working together. The lack of understanding of Sunni Arab dynamics that has characterized Washington’s approach to the region during the Obama years—a mix of naive hopes for democracy, fantasies that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was the key to the region, and a failure to grasp the consequences for U.S.-Sunni relations of the choice to delink the Iranian nuclear negotiations to its regional behavior—has left U.S. Middle East strategy in tatters and will present the next president with a series of ugly policy alternatives—far worse than anything Obama faced in 2009.