Samer Shehata, Colin Mackey and Patricia Molina de Mackey associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma

2011 seems like a lifetime ago as so much has happened in the region over the last seven years. I would point to a number of major changes in regional politics and alignments since then.

First, before 2011, the primary fault line in the region was between so-called “moderate Arab states” and “radical” states and affiliated groups, sometimes referred to as the “axis of resistance.” The “moderate” camp included Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia (and the other Arab Gulf states), etc. while the “radical” camp consisted of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah. In reality, there was very little that was “moderate” about the human rights practices, adherence to the rule of law, quality of elections, or level of democracy among the “moderate” states. Washington considered them “moderate” because of their alliance with the United States and their position toward Israel. In other words, the “radical states” opposed US policy in the region and Israeli hegemony. The primary division in the region, therefore, was orientation toward the United States and Israel.

The extent of political upheaval and civil war in the region since 2011 has been staggering and as a result the fault lines in the region today are more complicated and do not run along a single dimension. Periods of political instability provide greater opportunities–as well as greater incentives–to influence, meddle, and interfere in the “domestic” politics of neighboring states–and the region has witnessed much more of this in the post-2011 period. This is a second major change in regional politics.

When I look at the period since 2011, I see, first and foremost, a struggle between those states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (along with their allies in various societies), mounting a “counter-revolution” against political change and democratic openings in the region, working tirelessly toward retrenching a new regional authoritarian status quo. These states stood against the 2011 Tunisian revolution and opposed the uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain. They actively worked to undermine Egypt’s brief moment of imperfect democracy between 2012-2013 and have spent billions after 2013 trying to consolidate a new Egyptian authoritarianism. They reject the prospect of political change elsewhere in the region, except in those states where they were either opposed to the existing regime (Libya, and now Qatar) or see opportunities to weaken Iran’s regional position (Syria).

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates viewed Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s and particularly Hosni Mubarak’s ouster as a direct threat to their own survival and both, particularly the United Arab Emirates, have an almost hysterical fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, which in the case of Riyadh also represents a challenge to the regime’s legitimacy, representing a different vision of Islam and politics, based on participation, elections, and the ideal of social justice–not monarchy.

Of course, layered on top of this is another regional divide between Riyadh and Tehran; one not based primarily on religion or sectarian identity (as is often depicted in the media) but on regime interests, playing itself out–often with disastrous consequences–in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and elsewhere. 

Implicit in the above is another noteworthy difference between the pre- and post-2011 periods. Although the regional center of gravity in the Middle East had been shifting from the traditional powers of Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus to the Gulf capitals for several decades, this trend accelerated following the 2011 Arab uprisings. What has made this shift even more apparent over the last seven years is the (relatively) lower profile of the United States in the region since the George W. Bush presidency.

Although one can clearly discern “blocs” in the Middle East today, as I have outlined above, it would be mistaken to believe these “blocs” are united on all issues. One only need look to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and their differing positions on Syria, for example. Although Saudi Arabia has been one of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s primary backers, both politically and economically, and although both Saudi Arabia and Egypt also share a deep hostility toward Qatar, Cairo and Riyadh have very different positions on Syria–nor do they see eye-to-eye on Yemen. The Saudis oppose Bashar al-Assad and have funneled millions of dollars to violent Islamist groups in Syria fighting his regime. Sisi has a different perspective. Whereas the Saudis view Syria primarily as an opportunity to weaken Iran, Sisi sees it as a case of radical Islamists fighting a national army through terrorism. The Egyptian president views Syria through the lens of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist challengers while the Saudis see it through the prism of their rivalry with Iran.

As I mentioned earlier, periods of political instability and civil war are characterized by even greater involvement and interference in the domestic politics of one’s neighbors. We have seen this since 2011 and it is understandable (although not excusable) because political change and instability across borders threatens regime security. The stakes are higher. Again, there are greater opportunities–and incentives–for regional meddling.

We witnessed this in Egypt from the moment the uprising began until today. Even before Mubarak’s ouster, during the eighteen days of the uprising, the Gulf States, and particularly Saudi Arabia, attempted to shore up their ally, the embattled dictator, and secure his grip on power. The Saudis (and the Israelis) lobbied Washington to reduce its pressure on Mubarak. And when U.S. aid was discussed publicly as potential leverage against Mubarak and the Egyptian military, the Saudis offered to replace any US aid if it were cut.

After Mubarak’s ouster, Saudi Arabia’s and other Gulf states’ interference in Egyptian politics increased further. There was widespread speculation (and some reports) that huge sums of money were flowing into Egypt from the Gulf–billions of dollars–in support of the newly established Salafi parties. Many believe this also occurred in Tunisia. Gulf money into Egypt continued after Morsi was elected president in 2012. However, rather than going exclusively to Salafi parties, significant sums went to the Egyptian military and intelligence agencies to help finance the protest movement against the Muslim Brotherhood president.

When the protests-cum-coup against Morsi succeeded, the Gulf States immediately offered huge amounts of aid to the new regime. When one considers the overall amounts of money the Saudis and Emiratis have pumped into Egypt since the coup, the sums are staggering. I estimate US aid to Egypt from 1977 (Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem) to 2017 to be approximately seventy-five billion dollars, the majority of which was military aid. By comparison, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have committed thirty-six billion dollars in aid and loans, 10.1 billion dollars in private sector investment, and concluded a twenty-three-billion-dollar oil deal with fifteen-year financing at two percent interest just since Morsi’s ouster in 2013. These amounts might not include additional money for military financing. US aid seems paltry in comparison.

Of course, Gulf aid to Egypt is not primarily intended to improve the quality of Egyptians’ lives but to keep Sisi in power and thus provide stability for the Saudi and Emirati regimes. It has even been reported that the Emirates has picked up the tab–to the tune of 2.7 million dollars–for the Egyptian regime’s lobbying efforts in Washington DC. The counter-revolution continues.