Bankrolling containment: Saudi linkages with Egypt and Tunisia

By Ruth Hanau Santini, Università degli Studi l’Orientale, Naples and Kevin Koehler, American University in Cairo

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “Transnational Diffusion, Cooperation and Learning in the Middle East and North Africa,” held June 8-9, 2016.

Transborder linkages between autocratic states have been shown to support authoritarian regime stability (Tansey, Koehler, and Schmotz 2016). In the Middle Eastern context, attempts by Saudi Arabia to first prevent and then contain political change in the wake of the Arab Spring have received particular attention (Kamrava 2012; Rieger 2014; Farouk 2014). Going beyond such contributions, this memo points to some indications that Saudi Arabia is consolidating ties with not only Egypt under al-Sisi, but also post-revolutionary Tunisia.

While Saudi aid flows have played an important political role in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak – first starving the Morsi-government of funds and then increasing payments to unprecedented levels after the 2013 coup (Farouk 2014) – Saudi involvement in Tunisia had traditionally been limited. However, after the strengthening of old regime elites with the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections, the Tunisian government began to shift its foreign policy in a more pro-Saudi direction.[1] Saudi engagement in Tunisia has consequently increased, including the signing of an agreement in the field of security cooperation in December 2015.[2]

While Saudi-Tunisian cooperation is very much in its infancy, it is linked to a set of domestic Tunisian dynamics. We show how the rapprochement was partially made possible by a process of learning among Ennahda elites after the coup against Morsi in Egypt, which led them to accept a greater involvement of Saudi Arabia in the economic and security domain as an additional guarantee policy for their political survival.

Transnational Dimensions of the Arab Spring

That diffusion and learning have structured the spread of contention in the Arab Spring uprisings has long been recognized. Demonstration effects contributed to the spread of protests from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Yemen, Libya, and Syria (Weyland 2012), and social learning was countered by authoritarian learning as incumbents drew lessons from events in neighboring states (Heydemann and Leenders 2011). Beyond such forms of transnational diffusion by learning, research has also focused on how specific regional actors – principally Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – sought to influence and contain political change at home and abroad during the wave of contention in 2011 (Kamrava 2012; Rieger 2014; Farouk 2014; Matthiesen 2013).

On a more general level, Saudi reactions to the Arab Spring can be understood as at least partially driven by linkage patterns between the kingdom and specific Arab Spring countries. The tighter the linkages in terms of trade, migration, and diplomatic interaction, the higher the likelihood that Saudi Arabia would intervene on behalf of an authoritarian incumbent under stress – although such interventions were not necessarily successful as the Egyptian case demonstrates (Tansey, Koehler, and Schmotz 2016).

In this memo, we raise the question of whether a new set of linkage patterns might be emerging at the moment, particularly with respect to the strengthening of Saudi-Tunisian ties along with the continued backing of the Egyptian military regime by Saudi money. Saudi efforts have a strong security component in the form of military cooperation in joint exercises and membership in military alliances on one hand, and through cooperation in the field of domestic security on the other. This contributes to the diffusion of norms of securitization in the form counter-terrorism discourses.

This dynamic is somewhat surprising in the Tunisian case. While Saudi Arabia had actively – albeit unsuccessfully – supported the Mubarak regime in Egypt during the mass uprising, Saudi policy towards Ben Ali’s Tunisia in late 2010 and early 2011 was characterized by benign neglect. Thus, just days before Mubarak’s fall in February 2011, late King Abdallah openly took the side of Mubarak, attempted to convince the United States not to put further pressure on the Egyptian ruler, and promised that the kingdom would compensate Egypt should the U.S. cut military assistance.[3] At the time of Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia, by contrast, the kingdom made it known that, even though it played host to the deposed president, Ben Ali was not to engage in political activities while being a guest in Saudi Arabia.[4] In brief, initial Saudi reactions to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia reflected the strength of ties between the kingdom and the two countries. While a history of strong Saudi-Egyptian ties meant that the kingdom actively intervened on behalf of Mubarak, the relatively weak nature of Saudi-Tunisian ties under Ben Ali did not trigger a similar response.

This contrast becomes even more pronounced if we look at the immediate post-revolutionary period. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other GCC member states promised financial support for the country’s transitional leadership, but froze the disbursement of funds upon the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi to the presidency. Thus, while the Morsi administration in Egypt could only rely on Qatari money flowing into its coffers, Saudi payments resumed immediately following the July 3, 2013 coup (Farouk 2014; Rieger 2014). What is more, even during the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian Armed Forces was maintained. The – up to that time – largest joint Egyptian-Saudi maneuvers (Tabouk 3) took place from May 8 to 20 2013, just weeks before the military intervention in Egypt,[5] while the two countries’ air forces still held joint exercises on 22 June 2013 (Faisal 10), not even a fortnight before the coup.[6] Saudi support to the Egyptian military-led regime after the coup thus does not come as a surprise but rather represents the continuation of long-standing Saudi support for the old regime and the military elite in Egypt.

Saudi Arabia, along with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, also reacted swiftly to the overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected president in July 2013. On July 9, not even a week after the coup, the three GCC countries pledged a total of 12 billion USD in aid to Egypt, including a combination of grants, loans, central bank deposits, and preferential access to oil.[7] The political message of such aid was made blatantly clear when the late King Abdallah defended the Egyptian military’s repression of pro-Morsi protestors on August 14, 2013 that left more than 1,000 dead in a single day.[8] Speaking two days after the massacre, Abdallah accused those “interfering” in Egypt’s internal affairs of promoting terrorism.[9] Three days later, on August 19, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal announced that the Kingdom would compensate Egypt for potential losses in U.S. aid as a result of the events.[10] This move effectively weakened the impact of the U.S. decision to (temporarily) freeze military aid to Egypt and was interpreted as an affront to the U.S. position in Egypt.

Recurrent warnings that aid levels could not be maintained and political friction between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia has maintained high levels of aid to Egypt. As of May 2016, the total volume of pledges by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE since the coup amount to some 60 billion USD, roughly equivalent to a yearly average of 20 percent of government expenditure.

Strengthening Ties?

In contrast to Egyptian-Saudi relations, ties between the Kingdom and Tunisia had traditionally been weak. As Sons and Wiese argue, Saudi policy makers did not perceive Tunisia as a central player and were less concerned about the influence of Islamist actors in the post-2011 context (Sons and Wiese 2015, 54–55). Despite Tunisia’s peripheral position, there are signs of a Saudi-Tunisian rapprochement, not least in military and security cooperation.

Relations between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia had been lukewarm ever since the fall of Ben Ali. The late Saudi King Abdullah was concerned by regime change in Tunisia as Ben Ali “had served as a strategic ally for Saudi Arabia in the fight against terrorism, in securing stability in North Africa and in countering Iranian influence in the region” (Sons and Wiese 2015, 55). Saudi fears increased when the October 2011 elections were won by Ennahda, especially since the Ennahda-led troika government was seen as close to Turkey and Qatar, who provided significant financial help throughout 2012 and 2013.[11] A sign of this regional alignment was when Tunisia cut relations with the Syrian government in February 2012. Moreover, then President Moncef Marzouki called on Egypt to release Morsi in front of the UN General Assembly in September 2013 and referred to Egypt’s problematic and undemocratic transition, triggering the temporary withdrawal of the Egyptian and UAE ambassadors to Tunis.[12] However, Tunisian foreign policy did not experience a U-turn similar to Egyptian foreign policy under Morsi. Tunisia’s attitude vis-à-vis Teheran (a red line from the Saudi perspective), for example, did not change significantly.

Tunisia’s foreign policy stance toward Saudi Arabia softened following the resignation of Ennahda’s Ali Larayedh as prime minister, who was succeeded by the technocrat Mehdi Jomaa in January 2014. With the October 2014 elections won by Nidaa Tounes, the December 2014 Presidential elections won by Nidaa’s Beji Caid Essebsi, and the ensuing participation in the new government led by Nidaa in February 2015, the policy continued to ease. In addition to the change of leadership, two other context-specific factors need to be stressed: first, Essebsi’s decisive role prioritizing better bilateral relations and second, the change in Saudi posture vis-à-vis Islamist parties in the region since mid-2015.[13]

Tunisian ties with the Gulf have since increased, as exemplified by the participation of Tunisia in Saudi Arabia’s 34 state Islamic anti-IS alliance, agreed in December 2015. This came after Tunisia’s announcement to participate in the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition in September 2015 as part of the Essid government’s commitment to “fight terrorism and extremism” at home and abroad.

Relations warmed further with the December 2015 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding for bilateral cooperation for security and defense during President Essebsi’s visit to the Kingdom. Afterward, Essebsi referred to this strengthening of ties as an inevitable development in light of the challenges faced by Riyadh, justified by Tunisian Arab identity.[14] As part of this process, the two sides agreed to a yearly meeting of a mixed military commission allowing for more regular and structured exchanges of information and training in the civil protection field. Additionally, Saudi Arabia promised to provide Tunisia 48 F-5a military planes.[15] Less than two weeks after Essebsi’s visit to KSA, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel El-Gobeir visited Tunisia in what was described as just one of several meetings to be held between Tunisia and KSA to unify their positions toward international issues, especially terrorism, based on the reinforcement of their cooperation in the political, economic and security fields.[16]

In February 2016, Tunisia participated in joint military training organized by Riyadh. The “Northern Thunder” exercise took place at the northeastern borders of Saudi Arabia in the Hafr al-Batin military facility home of the GCC Peninsula Shield Force, the Gulf’s rapid response unit. The training gathered 150,000 troops from 20 different Arab countries and was by far the largest operation since the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.[17] While the stated goal was deterring the Islamic Republic of Iran from potentially aggressing Sunni Gulf states, more likely the show of force had to do with the desire of projecting strength and distracting public opinion from the protracted Yemen war. From its vantage point, one has to remember that, since the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the international community, Riyadh has warmed up its attitude vis-à-vis Sunni regional players, including Qatar, and including leading Brotherhood-related figures. This included Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who was invited to Saudi Arabia in July 2015, a move that further vindicated the lessons Ennahda leaders drew from the Egyptian experience.[18]

Learning and the Saudi-Tunisian Rapprochement

The rapprochement could not have happened without Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, changing its stance vis-à-vis the Kingdom. Starting from late 2013 and even more so in 2014, Ennahda leaders consciously moderated their stance towards Saudi Arabia. In the words of a senior Ennahda member of Parliament: “There are no problems with Saudi Arabia anymore. Ghannouchi has reassured them that we do not aim at exporting the Tunisian model. Tunisia wants to become the region’s Switzerland.”[19] Moderating foreign policy alignments, in other words, became a strategy for Ennahda, especially in light of the 2013 scenario in Egypt. Ennahda MPs have often referred to the lesson learned from the coup against Morsi not only in terms of reasserting a non-majoritarian view of democracy, but also in more carefully assessing their regional alliances and the changing balance of power.[20] According to a senior Nidaa MP, the rapprochement was facilitated by Essebsi: “The coup against Morsi was a tournant for Ennahda. But in order to smooth relations with Riyadh, given their previous alignment with Qatar, the rapprochement was facilitated by Beji Essebsi. As a matter of fact, they are more in line with Beji’s foreign policy than most of Nidaa party.”[21]

One example was the toning down of Ennahda’s democratic rhetoric with respect to the Gulf, frequent reference to the non-exportability of the Tunisian revolution, and the uniqueness and specificity of the Tunisian political setting.[22] Over time, even the initial references to the AKP experience as a model demonstrating the compatibility of Islam and democracy have been eclipsed and substituted with references to European experiences such as the German CDU or the Italian Christian-Democrats, further pointing to the European-ness of the Tunisian cultural and political referents for Ennahda, watering down the previous axis with Turkey. The failed July 2016 coup against Erdogan in Turkey has further complicated the position of Ennahda and its relations with Turkey. Following the coup attempt, Ennahda spokesperson Zied Ladhari immediately defended Erdogan, depicting the Turkish president and the AKP as ‘brothers’ and declaring the attempted coup ‘outrageous and dangerous’. Interestingly, however, this was framed within a discourse of defending democracy as rule of law, separation between the military and civilian affairs, and respect for the ballot box, rather than in terms of defending Islamists in power.[23] Moreover, having lost a vote of confidence, the government in Tunis is undergoing a deep reshuffling of cabinet positions, including that of the prime minister. Ennahda, which has recovered its position as the largest political party after a recent split within Nidaa, will likely increase its share in government positions and thus improve its visibility. Ennahda will therefore once again be in the spotlight and will have to carefully assess its foreign policy stances. 


While Saudi involvement bankrolling the return of Egypt’s security apparatus is well known and documented (Farouk 2014), Saudi Arabia has played a much more limited role in Tunisia, both economically and politically. As we have attempted to show, however, there are signs of a Saudi-Tunisian rapprochement. Taking note of the Egyptian scenario, members of Tunisia’s Ennahda party have begun to accommodate Saudi interests in their foreign policy stance, a dynamic further solidified by the strengthening of Tunisia’s secular elites with the 2014 parliamentary elections, as well as by cautious Saudi moves towards Sunni Islamist actors in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal.

While Saudi-Tunisian military and security cooperation is in its infancy, it nevertheless represents a significant step. Increased Saudi-Tunisian military cooperation, as well as closer ties in the field of civil defense and counter-terrorism, could potentially weaken pressures for reform in Tunisia’s security sector, undermining efforts to restructure security provision in the country, per U.S. and EU demands for better civil-military relations, particularly accountability and human rights.

[1] Eric Reidy, ‘Tunisia’s New Government Shifts Foreign Policy,’ Al Monitor, 24 April 2015.

[2] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, ‘al-qimma al-sa’udiya-al-tunisiya al-yaum ta‘azuz al-ta‘awun al-amniya… wa taufiq ittifaqiya li-l-ta`awun al-difa`iya’ [Saudi-Tunisian Summit Today Strengthens Security Cooperation. Signing of Defense Cooperation Agreement.], 22 December 2015.

[3] See Elaph, ‘al-Malik Abdallah talaba Obama bi-l-imtina‘ ‘an idhlal Mubarak’ [King Abdallah Asks Obama to Refrain from Humiliating Mubarak], 11 February 2011,; New York Times, ‘Allies Press U.S. to Go Slow on Egypt,’ 8 February 2011,

[4] Al-Arab, `Khashoggi: Al-ra’is Zin Bin `Ali asbah fi al-sa’udiyya makfuf al-yad wa la yumkinuhu ‘aml ay shay’,’ [Khashoggi: President Ben Ali’s Hands Are Tied in Saudi Arabia and He Cannot Do Anything], 16 January 2011,; Gulfnews. `No Saudi Mediation for Bin Ali,’. 16 January 2011,

[5] See BBC Arabic, ‘‘Tabuk 3’ akbar manawarat masriya sa‘udiya mushtarika fi tarikh al-baladein’ [‘Tabruk 3’ the largest joint Egyptian-Saudi manoeuvers in the history of the countries], 4 May 2013,

[6] Ashraf Abd al-Hamid, `Ma hiya asbab al-manawara al-‘askariya bayna masr wa-l-sa‘udiya’ [What are the reasons for the military manoeuvers between Egypt and Saudi Arabia?], al-Arabia, 15 April 2015.

[7] Rod Nordland, ‘Saudi Arabia Promises to Aid Egypt’s Regime,’ New York Times, 19 August 2013,

[8] Amy Holmes, ‘Why Egypt’s military orchestrated a massacre,’ Washington Post, Monkey Cage, 22 August 2014,

[9] Ellen Knickmeyer, ‘Saudi King Offers Support to Egyptian Military,’ Wall Street Journal, 18 August 2013,

[10] Reuters, ‘Egypt Aid: Saudis Pledge To Fill Gap If U.S., Europe Cut Support,’ 19 August 2013,

[11] Eric Reidy, Tunisia’s new government shifts foreign policy, Al Monitor, 24 April 2015.

[12] Robert Joyce, “Egypt and U.A.E Ambassadors Withdrawn Following Marzouki Remarks,” Tunisialive, 30 September 2013,

[13] Alain Gresh, Rapprochement à petit pas entre l’Arabie Saoudite et les Frères Musulmans, Orient XXI, 29 September 2015.,1032

[14] Munthir Bildiyafi, “President Essebsi reaffirmed Tunisia’s support for Saudi Arabia foreign policy to repel any threat to its stability,”, 29 January 2016,


[16] 1 January 2016,

[17] Bruce Reidel, “Are latest war games just a face-saver for Riyadh?”, Al Monitor, 18 February 2016.

[18] Hussein Ibish, “Saudi Arabia’s New Sunni alliance,” New York Times, July 31, 2015.

[19] Interview, Bardo, November 2015.

[20] Interviews, Tunis, February and November 2015.

[21] Phone interview, July 2016.

[22] Interviews, Tunis, February and November 2015.

[23] Adel Lapti, Tunisia Ennahda’s head condems failed coup in Turkey, Anadolu Post, July 25, 2016. Link:


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