Egypt is one of several major allies for Saudi Arabia in Operation Decisive Storm, but it is not yet clear just how involved the largest Arab army and largest Arab air force will be in the Saudi-led offensive. Since the Shiite Houthis launched an operation to capture the critical port city of Aden, Egypt has given the impression it is all in behind the Saudis, but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also backed Sisi with at least $8 billion in loans.
“The Saudi government is a strong backer of Sisi's Egypt and there haven’t been major indications of Saudi financing of Egyptian operations," says Zack Gold, Egypt expert at the Institute for National Security Studies. "But there have been joint Egyptian-UAE operations on the Libyan front. It seems a more UAE initiative, and if Saudis funding it it's through the UAE."
“I think about a month ago Egypt and Saudi Arabia were conducting joint naval exercises in that same area – counter-smuggling, counter-piracy and rescue naval operations. They often do joint exercises, but it was more coincidence it took place right before the Houthis made their big move.”
“In the past year there have been a few Egyptian-UAE exercises. As they are considering the wider challenges in the region, the Gulf states and Egypt have considered the possibility of working together.”
Egypt has largest air force in the Middle East, but the UAE has the most up-to-date equipment (of Arab countries).
What we’re seeing in Yemen might be conceptually as far a UAF might go. It’s hard to see it working with basing troops outside of their countries, being under the command of foreign military heads, or in which instances they would intervene and on whose side.”
Gold refers to the fact that the Arab World is far from being on the same page outside of Yemen or on Iran’s motives in the region. Outside Saudi Arabia, Islamists might be more of a priority for countries like Egypt.
“A number of those conflicts see different Arab countries taking different sides. In Libya for instance, you see Egypt and the UAE on one side, but Qatar and Turkey on the other.”
Gold does not mean to imply Turkey is an Arab country, but it has been swept up by changes in the region. Additionally, the Turks have been publicly supportive of the Saudi fight in Yemen (angering Iran). According to Gold, this is reflective of a Saudi effort to formulate a “Sunni bloc” of countries to counter the Iranians that goes beyond the Arab World.
“We have heard positive things from Turkey and Pakistan. Even Hamas is coming out in support of it (the operation).”
With financial and political backing from the Persian Gulf, Egypt is more closely aligned with the Saudis and the UAE.
“Gulf interests come into the Egyptian national security perspective,” says Gold. “Gulf security is a red line. Stability of Egypt is stability of the Gulf and stability of the Gulf is stability of Egypt.”
When asked if Gulf money implied Egypt might have to contribute a significant number of soldiers or equipment to the Yemen effort, Gold felt it was not as simple as that, although the two issues did dovetail to create incentives for an alliance.
"Egypt is certainly not for sale, nor willing to do whatever it is necessary (just) to get Gulf money. That being said, it is the largest Arab army and depends greatly on the Gulf States.”
The Saudis and UAE are also firm opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main priority for Egypt in the aftermath of Sisi’s takeover of the Presidency from the Mohammed Morsi.
“In the 1970s, the Saudis had ties with the Brotherhood and nurtured them when they were being pursued by Egypt, but in recent years the concept of political Islam has challenged the Saudi message and mechanisms for speaking as voice of Islam. They have provided an alternative form of Islamic rule to the Saudis’.”
Egypt has already deployed four warships to the region to protect the strait leading into the Red Sea. Egypt’s true power though, mentioned above, is in its numbers and aerial prowess. Whatever the motives Egypt will have to contribute to the Saudi-led, ‘Unified Arab Force’ in Yemen, Gold foresees Egypt sending some token amount across the Red Sea.
“I’m not sure if they have already sent troops or if they have troops at the ready. I’d assume Saudi Arabia won’t go in alone and wants others to join them. I have been surprised so far by the amount of commitment Egypt has made to this operation, but it seems at this point there would be some level of involvement.
“They are also concerned for the protection and stability of the area and concerned in the long term of the closing of the strait, which could affect the closing of the Suez Canal.”