Saudis At Odds With U.S. Over Egypt

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states are stepping in with billions of dollars for Egypt's military as it attempts to neutralize the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force. The exception is Qatar, which along with Turkey, is left to condemn the ouster of Egypt's Islamist president last month. The rift poses new challenges for U.S. policy in the region.

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Saudi Arabia is a lead supplier of weapons to Syrian rebels. And when the United States began preparing for a military strike on Syria, the Saudis quickly backed that strike. But another move has put them at odds with their oldest ally, the U.S. The Saudi government has also emerged as a key supporter of the Egyptian military's violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: When the Obama administration criticized the bloody crackdown in Egypt, the Saudis gathered other oil rich Gulf States in a major effort - $12 billion worth - to bolster the military-backed government in Cairo. Riad Kahwaji with the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai says it's the clearest sign to date of the deep displeasure in the Gulf with U.S. foreign policy - which began during George W. Bush's second term and has grown since.

RIAD KAHWAJI: Even more so under the administration of President Barack Obama, they felt it's become very passive, very isolationist, and gave a lot of ground for the Iranians and for the Brotherhood, and undermined the U.S. - Arab allies.

KENYON: Analysts say Riyadh's unhappiness with the U.S. spiked in 2011, when it felt Washington failed to defend Hosni Mubarak from the popular uprising that toppled him, thereby upending the traditional political calculus in the region that stability trumps democracy. The rapid rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Morsi's sometimes arrogant behavior further stoked Saudi distress.

For its part, the Brotherhood is dismayed to see an awkward coalition of revolutionaries, liberals and leftists backing the military and embracing Riyadh's new influence in Cairo, despite the kingdom's longstanding mistrust of democracy. Brotherhood official Amr Darrag says the Saudis will feel much more comfortable with an ultra-conservative Salafist group like Egypt's Al-Nour party than with the unpredictability of democracy.

AMR DARRAG: They don't like the democratic model at all, and they are scared that this democratic model would be transferred to them. That's why they are supporting people like Al-Nour party. OK? Part of the Salafists' way of thinking is never to have any kind of uprising against the rule. So they are happy with that.

KENYON: But Ahmed Saeed, secretary-general of the National Salvation Front, a liberal anti-Morsi coalition in Egypt, thinks Riyadh's inclination to back the Salafists will fade.

AHMED SAEED: Things change by the hour now. Why would the Saudis continue in supporting the Salafists the way that they did, given the fact that the Salafists have proved to be more fanatic with respect to the constitution, with respect to Islamic Sharia, with respect to a lot of things Saudi Arabia will not be happy with, by the way. I think they will like us.

KENYON: A number of analysts have strong doubts about any kind of Saudi alliance with liberal Egyptians, but some argue that Saudi influence doesn't necessarily mean Egypt is headed toward military autocracy. Michael Wahid Hanna with the Century Foundation says for now, Riyadh isn't focusing on what a future Egyptian government will look like - it's intent on the immediate goal of crushing the Brotherhood as a political force.

MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: I think first and foremost, Saudi interests in Egypt at the moment is in seeing the Muslim Brotherhood out of power and disabled. You know, what comes next is not so clear.

KENYON: U.S. officials reject the notion that Washington's criticism of the military crackdown reflects support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington also says its alliance with Riyadh is solid on Iran and other regional issues. But Riad al Kahwaji in Dubai says there is a clear perception in Gulf Arab capitals that Washington is siding with Qatar and Turkey and against the Saudis, Emiratis and other Gulf states.

KAHWAJI: The U.S. must now take a step back and look at the whole picture. Because if this, let's say, squabbling between the two allies continues, it will undermine other strategic matters.

KENYON: With Washington now depending more than ever on its regional allies regarding Syria, analysts say the chances that the U.S. will challenge Saudi influence in Egypt are increasingly slim. Peter Kenyon, NPR News.


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