A recent US National Intelligence Council report would suggest that Egypt has lost its elevated status among Arab states and that the mantle of leadership in the Middle East may be passing onto Saudi Arabia. It also suggests that the desert kingdom may not be too pleased with the prospect.
The study, "Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan: Policies on regional issues and support for US goals in the Middle East," is based on a workshop held last summer, but was released only in December, after US president Barack Obama was elected and senior intelligence officials in his administration took office.
The National Intelligence Council describes itself as a centre for mid-term and long-term strategic thinking within the US intelligence community and is subordinate to the Director of National Intelligence. It provides intelligence estimates to the president and senior decision makers on foreign policy issues.
Though is a government agency the Council stresses the fact that its views do not necessarily reflect the administration's foreign policy.
NIC experts, convened to draft the study, agreed that Egypt was no longer the undisputed leader of the Arab world as it had been in previous decades, and that this mantle had fallen to Saudi Arabia.
The participants said though Saudi Arabia was uncomfortable assuming a leadership position it saw no choice, because of the perceived threat from Iran.
Participants highlighted several reasons for Egypt's decline in leadership:
- Mubarak is getting older and no longer has the energy to provide the leadership he once did, and no one in the government, including his son or Omar Sulayman the chief of the Egyptian External Intelligence Service, has replaced him in regional relations.
- Egypt does not enjoy the comparative advantage it once did, as other states in the region have massive revenues from oil, and other regional economies have improved faster than Egypt's.
- Egypt no longer has either an attractive political or economic model to offer the rest of the region.
The study suggests that though US-Egyptian relations remained strong, officials in Cairo have begun to doubt how these ties benefit Egypt. The participants felt that though neither of Mubarak's potential successors would affect any significant change in relations with Washington, it was likely that the leader's son Gamal could embark on a process of internal political liberalization.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, the report notes that the regime's foreign policy has been ineffective in recent years, having failed in attempts to reconcile between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, as well as Hezbollah and Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora.
The kingdom is also yet to overcome sourness in relations with old ally Syria after the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafique Hariri, a Saudi protégé, but may be open to rapprochement.
The kingdom is interested in seeing Iran weakened, and to that end seeks a stable, united Iraq free from Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia also would like an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that could pave the way for Saudi relations with Israel.