Argument

Oh, Brother

Why Egypt's new Islamist president is keeping the Saudis up at night.

Mohamed Morsy's young presidency in Egypt hasn't started all that smoothly. It's largely been characterized by a series of standoffs with the Egyptian military, including this week's controversial court case on the legality of an assembly tasked with drafting the country's new constitution. But Morsy is also performing a less publicized high-wire act in trying to court vital benefactors in the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. How this endeavor plays out could prove just as consequential for his political survival.

Since Morsy became president last month and resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood, he has worked hard to ease tensions with jittery Gulf countries. Dubai's police chief has been warning Gulf leaders since March that local Brotherhood cells "want to stir the streets" against them, but Morsy's real challenge is to reassure a visibly nervous Saudi Arabia, which lost its key ally Hosni Mubarak to Egypt's popular uprising. In an effort to secure Saudi aid, Morsy has done all the right things: pledging not to export Egypt's revolution, describing the Gulf countries' security as a "red line" that should not be crossed, and making the kingdom his first foreign destination as president last week.

So far, Morsy's overtures appear to have placated the Saudis, who have continued sending Egypt financial support. But while there are similarities between the Brotherhood's ideology and Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi brand of Islam -- both are Sunni, religiously zealous, and critical of Western influence in Muslim countries -- it's safe to say that the Saudis preferred Egypt's old order.

As a Sunni Islamist who came to power through democratic elections, Morsy challenges the autocratic system that Saudi Arabia's rulers have been fighting tooth and nail to uphold. Just last year, the Saudis doled out nearly $130 billion in aid packages to their citizens to assuage discontent. But they did not simply rely on cash to save themselves. The kingdom's leaders also preempted planned "day of rage" protests in March 2011 by sending thousands of troops to Shiite-majority provinces, locking down the capital, and unleashing loyal clergy to threaten potential protesters with violence.

Those measures brought some calm to Saudi Arabia, but not for long. Violent protests erupted last week in the Eastern Province -- home to the country's oil and most of its Shiite population -- after security forces shot and arrested prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr for instigating "sedition." With restless Shiite citizens in the region already chafing at the state's discrimination, Saudi authorities poured gasoline on the fire when they fatally shot two men during the demonstrations. More than a week later, crowds are still taking to the streets in protest and showing no signs of letting up.

The Shiite question is just one of several reasons why the Saudis worry about the future of Egypt. Long before Morsy's election, the Saudis were nervous that Shiite Iran would exploit Egypt's transition. Although Egypt and Iran severed diplomatic relations in 1980 because of Egypt's close relationship with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and its signing of a peace treaty with Israel, the two countries have maintained economic ties. One example is the Misr Iran Development Bank, a joint venture that was founded in 1975 and survived the next 30 years of turmoil in the Egyptian-Iranian relationship. Today, U.S. Treasury officials suspect that Iran may use the bank as a means of skirting international sanctions on its nuclear program.

Saudi anxieties only deepened in February when Egypt allowed Iranian naval ships to pass through the Suez Canal -- an act Mubarak's regime prohibited. In May, Morsy said that he hoped to have "relations" with Iran during a televised interview with Egypt's CBC network, though he was careful to not specify what type of relationship he wants with Iran and to emphasize that the relationship would not come at the expense of Gulf countries' security (Iran's Fars News Agency later quoted Morsy as saying that he wanted to strengthen ties with Iran to strike a strategic "balance" in the Middle East, in a purported interview that Morsy vehemently denies giving).

In response to these growing concerns, the kingdom is doing what it always does: throwing petrodollars at the problem. In June, the Saudis gave Cairo $1.5 billion toward the state budget (the Financial Times has reported that the Egyptian government expects a budget deficit this year of 7.6 percent). The kingdom, which currently funds more than 2,300 projects in Egypt and maintains investments there that are estimated to be worth anywhere from $12 billion to $27 billion, also provided Cairo with a $750 million credit for Saudi oil imports, $230 million for a range of water and agriculture projects, and $200 million for Egyptian businesses.

These goodwill gestures come on the heels of an April spat in which the Saudis arrested Egyptian lawyer Ahmed al-Gizawy on charges of smuggling narcotics into the kingdom, sparking large-scale protests near the Saudi embassy in Cairo. In response, Riyadh quickly postponed negotiations over a $2.7 billion aid package to Egypt, closed its embassy and consulates in the country, and recalled its ambassador.

For Egypt, which is battling an official unemployment rate of around 12.6 percent, ending the dispute was critical. An estimated 1.6 million Egyptians work in the kingdom and provide important remittances to their families back home  -- the Central Bank of Egypt estimated that these remittance flows amounted to $785 million in 2006. And bilateral trade between the countries reached a record $1.2 billion during the first quarter of 2012, with Egyptian exports to Saudi Arabia totaling $528 million.

Eventually, the Saudis restored relations and agreed to deposit $1 billion in Egypt's central bank and sign other financial agreements, but not until a Brotherhood-led parliamentary delegation traveled to Riyadh and apologized directly to King Abdullah. As for Gizawy, he remains in a Saudi prison and is slated to stand trial this Wednesday.

Amid all this, the Saudis remain deeply ambivalent about Morsy. Since his election victory, Saudi and Saudi-owned pan-Arab news outlets have complained that challenger Ahmed Shafiq's campaign was undermined by mistrust and intimidation, and that Iran may be able to manipulate Morsy. They have also questioned Morsy's current affiliation with the Brotherhood, in light of his resignation from the group after assuming the presidency, and one paper speculated that he might mishandle touchy foreign-policy issues such as clamping down on "Tehran's support for local groups and attempts to spread the Shiite ideology" in Egypt.

The Saudi-Brotherhood relationship has always been complicated. The Saudi royals -- led by King Abdullah, who is formally known as the "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" -- fancy themselves the leaders of the global Muslim community, and rely on clerics to shore up their rule and command political submission from their people.

The Brotherhood, by contrast, originated in Egypt as a response to Western colonialism and decadence, which its founder, Hassan al-Banna, felt were degrading Muslim societies. The Brotherhood relies on religious pretexts to advance a populist political movement.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Saudis embraced their common ground with the Brotherhood, encouraging thousands of its members to emigrate from Egypt, Iraq, and Syria to the kingdom as a means of counteracting Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab socialist advances. The Brothers quickly became influential in Saudi society and particularly in the education system, where they composed a large portion of the university faculty.

At first, the alliance was mutually beneficial, but Brotherhood activists soon challenged the kingdom's political establishment. The most infamous byproduct of Saudi exposure to the Brotherhood was Osama bin Laden himself, who took inspiration from Palestinian Brother and jihadi theorist Abdullah Azzam's lectures in Jeddah during the early 1980s. After the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991, the Saudis suffered another Brotherhood-induced headache from the Sahwa ("Awakening") clerics, a group of ultraconservative Islamists who directly challenged the monarchy over the "infidel" U.S. military presence on the Arabian Peninsula.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the late Saudi Crown Prince Nayef blamed all his country's problems on the Brotherhood. Those charges only intensified in 2003 when bin Laden's foot soldiers carried out attacks inside the kingdom for the first time. In the ensuing years, the Saudis appeared to regain the upper hand in their struggle to contain "deviant" interpretations of Islam, breaking up local al Qaeda cells, arresting or killing suspected militants, launching a "counter-radicalization" program, and monitoring thousands of mosques, schools, and websites.

But the Arab uprisings that began last year reversed that momentum, toppling several Saudi allies and heralding the rise of Brotherhood movements across the Middle East. The Saudis reacted with immediate alarm. Following Mubarak's overthrow, according to Egypt Independent, the Saudi government pulled all public school books that mentioned Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna from circulation because they incited "violence."

With this troubled Saudi-Brotherhood relationship hanging over his head, Morsy is walking a delicate line with Riyadh. The Saudis are ambivalent about his Islamist credentials, but they also want to thwart Iranian aspirations in the Arab world. Their main goal now is to pull the new Egypt into their sphere of influence.

Luckily for them, Morsy desperately needs Saudi money to repair Egypt's economy and has virtually no choice but to accept the terms that come with it. Unlike Iran, the Saudis are free to sell their oil. And for now, they have Morsy exactly where they want him: over a barrel.

AHMAD ABDUL FATAH/AFP/GettyImages

National Security

All Hands on Deck

How the U.S. is using the Gulf states to deter Iran.

Monday's incident off the coast of the UAE -- in which the U.S. Navy support ship Rappahannock killed an Indian fisherman with heavy machine gun fire after his 30-foot boat came too close -- occurred just miles from Jebel Ali, one of the Navy's busiest ports in the region and a port that is only going to become busier. In fact, despite the much-publicized renewed emphasis on Asia, a lot of the Pentagon action in the coming years is actually going to focus on the Gulf. That's why, when they unveiled the Pentagon's 21st century security strategy in January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter repeatedly emphasized that the strategic "pivot" would include the Middle East as well as the Far East.

The reasons aren't difficult to discern. The Persian Gulf's energy reserves make it a region of vital strategic interest for the United States, and the American departure from Iraq has left something of a security vacuum, dramatically reducing the U.S. presence in the region. Meanwhile, Iran is building up its navy and making threatening noises about closing the Strait of Hormuz. The United States is not necessarily prepared for the new situation. "We have a Navy that was really developed to fight the Cold War," while "the Iranians have been spending money to create capabilities that exploit the U.S. Navy's vulnerabilities in the Gulf," says Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Navy "belatedly came to the recognition that there are gaps in our capabilities that need to be filled."

The Navy is now filling those gaps. But, in addition to beefing up its own military presence, the United States is quietly strengthening its links with the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE -- to "promote regional stability, provide a counterweight to Iran, and reassure partners and adversaries alike of American resolve," according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released in June. This effort to "formalize" coordination on security and economic issues and "further broaden strategic ties" was kicked off at the Strategic Cooperation Forum in March. Talks to discuss the actual steps necessary to strengthen these ties are slated for September 2012.

But what precisely will the physical footprint of this new "security architecture" look like?

What's already there is pretty impressive. Take Jebel Ali. Built in the 1970s and located roughly 20 miles southwest of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the port has the largest man-made deep-water harbor in the world; and, covering 52 square miles, it's the largest port in the Middle East, with more than 1 million square meters of shipping container storage. A quick look on Google Earth reveals a U.S. Navy Nimitz class aircraft carrier tied up alongside the service's fenced in R&R facility there. And where there are carriers, there are Aegis radar-equipped guided missile cruisers and destroyers, frigates, at least one attack submarine, and several supply ships similar to the Rappahannock nearby. While it's not officially a major Navy base, it sees a steady stream of ships that are rotating through the region on deployments from their homeports in the United States.

Next up is the headquarters for the Navy's Middle East operations, in Manama, Bahrain, a site the sea service describes as, "the busiest 60 acres in the world." While Naval Support Activity Bahrain, as it's formally known, isn't necessarily bustling with as many large ships as Jebel Ali, it serves as the nerve center for the U.S. Fifth Fleet and a variety of U.S. and international task forces that do everything from protecting Iraq's oil platforms to hunting pirates off the Somali coast. It's also the home port of numerous U.S. Navy minesweepers and patrol boats, while bigger Navy ships often pull into Bahrain's extensive repair and resupply facilities that sit just across the harbor from the base.

Much as Jebel Ali does for the Navy, the UAE air force's Al Dhafra Air Base serves as a major hub for U.S. and allied jets. American KC-10 and KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, E-3 Sentry AWACS jets, U-2 spy planes, and even F-22 Raptors regularly deploy there. The base is also home to the Gulf Air Warfare Center, a facility that brings together the air forces of the GCC states, the U.S. Air Force, and other nations for air combat exercises. Al Dhafra is also rumored to be a potential home for U.S.-made high-altitude missile defense systems.

Perhaps more important than Al Dhafra is the American base at al Udeid, Qatar, U.S. Central Command's hub for allied forces in the region, as well as host to a number of bombers, cargo planes, tankers, and spy jets. Again, a Google Earth overview reveals B-1 heavy bombers, KC-135 tankers, RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence collection planes, E-8 Joint STARS ground-scanning radar jets, C-130 tactical airlifters, P-3 Orion submarine hunters, an EP-3 Aries signals intelligence plane, a C-5 Galaxy airlifter, and C-17 airlifters on the ramp there.

Meanwhile, Camp Arifjan in Kuwait has served as the regional depot for U.S. military ground vehicles in the Gulf, most recently thousands of tanks, trucks, MRAPS, and other armored vehicles departing Iraq. Camp Arifjan is closely linked with the Kuwaiti port of Shuaiba, where the ground vehicles are loaded and unloaded from cargo ships. The Air Force maintains a wing of C-130 Hercules tactical airlifters at Ali al Salem Air Base in Kuwait.

However, Pentagon planners have realized that the current make-up of its forces in the Gulf, which have been largely focused on supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not adequate for deterring Iran. Therefore, the Defense Department is rushing equipment to the region aimed at countering the Iranian threat.

The recent buildup of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf includes the 1970s-vintage USS Ponce, a transport that was converted this spring into a floating "lily pad" base for minesweeping operations (it can also accommodate special operations troops) and that arrived in the Gulf this month. Four additional Avenger class minesweepers arrived in the Gulf in late June, bringing the total in the region to eight. The Navy is also arming its anti-mine forces in the Gulf with Seafox mine-hunting undersea drones that can be launched from Avengers or MH-53 helicopters. The Defense Department also announced that the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis will leave for the Gulf in December, four months ahead of schedule, in order to maintain the presence of two aircraft carriers and their strike groups in the region through next year.

The Pentagon is also purchasing 40 Raytheon-made Griffin missiles and their associated launchers for use by the Navy's Cyclone class patrol craft stationed in the Gulf. (The Griffin is seen as a tool to defend against swarms of fast-moving speed boats. "Swarming" is a tactic frequently espoused by Iranian sea services as a way to confront large U.S. warships.) The Cyclone class boats are also reportedly having laser targeting devices added to their Mk 38 25 mm chain guns.

The United States is also reportedly set to open a powerful AN/TPY-2 X-Band radar in Qatar that will likely be used, along with two others in Israel and Turkey, to monitor Iranian missile launches, the Wall Street Journal is reporting. U.S. Central Command may also deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to Qatar in coming months.

The United States and Europe are also helping the Gulf nations modernize their militaries. "Our approach has been to respond to Iran's ramping up of its nuclear program with large arms sales to the Gulf," said Eisenstadt. "The idea is, developing nuclear weapons or advancing your nuclear program will harm rather than hurt your security because we'll respond by bolstering your neighbors and therefore you will be more vulnerable to your neighbors."

Most recently, the United States finalized a deal to provide Saudi Arabia with 84 brand new Boeing F-15SA Strike Eagle fighter-bombers and to upgrade 70 of the kingdom's existing F-15S Strike Eagles. The Saudis also received 24 brand new Eurofighter Typhoons in 2011, the first of 72 Typhoons ordered by the Saudis. The Typhoon and the latest versions of the Strike Eagle are among the world's most advanced fighters, designed for both high-end air combat and bombing campaigns. The Saudis have also recently purchased three stealthy air-defense frigates from France and are reportedly considering buying two U.S. made DDG-51 class Aegis-equipped destroyers and an unknown number of littoral combat ships.

Qatar is set to decide on a fleet of 24 or more fighter jets to replace its fleet of French-made Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters. (Six to eight of Qatar's Mirage's participated in NATO's campaign to oust former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi.) The tiny nation is eyeing the Typhoon, Strike Eagle, Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and Dassault's Rafale.

Meanwhile, the UAE, whose Mirage 2000s and Lockheed-made F-16s also flew in Libya, is looking to buy new fighters, possibly financing the development of an entirely new aircraft despite the fact that it bought the most advanced versions of the F-16, known as the F-16E/F Block 60, in 2007. (The UAE actually paid for the development of the Block 60 F-16, making it the first country to fly a better version of an American-made fighter than the United States itself.)  The UAE's navy is also financing the development of six brand new stealthy corvettes designed to do everything from mine-laying and coastal patrols to light anti-ship warfare.

Oman has recently purchased 12 new F-16s and will refurbish its older F-16s. It is also buying three British-made corvettes.

This infusion of new radars, planes, ships and missile defenses may be enough to deter Iran's military today, but Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says the long term is a different matter. Given the fact that Iran has increasing numbers of missiles and rockets that can reach existing facilities, it makes little sense to keep American forces and command centers on the coast of the Persian Gulf.

Gunzinger has called for the U.S. to pull back its headquarters facilities from the shores of the Persian Gulf and establish a network of smaller, more widely distributed bases further back on the Arabian Peninsula that would be harder for the Iranians to target. "We need to maintain a presence in the Gulf but one that doesn't maintain a [command center] at al Udeid and Navy headquarters in Manama."

For the time being, however, the new security architecture seems to mean strengthening the existing foundation of U.S. forces in the Gulf, while beefing up GCC forces through arms sales, training, and encouraging increased military cooperation between the GCC nations. The question now is whether it will work, providing the deterrent to Iran that so many in Washington and elsewhere feel we need.

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