Overcoming the Regional Stalemate: Understanding the Politics of the Gulf States and Turkey during the Egyptian Coup

PDF downlaodİsmail Numan Telci*

POMEAS BRIEF No.8, April 2015 


The Egyptian revolution faced its “counter-revolutionary moment” when Abdal Fattah Al-Sisi initiated the military coup that toppled the democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi. In this counter-revolutionary moment, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the two major actors that supported the military coup. In contrast, Turkey and Qatar strongly opposed and positioned themselves against the coup and its supporters. Recent leadership changes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s new strategy of softening its position toward its Gulf neighbors created a new political atmosphere in which the two competing camps could overcome difficulties and reach a compromise. Keeping this political environment in mind, this study aims to explore the policies of these four countries toward the military coup in Egypt. In order to better understand the pro/anti-coup positions, the study will focus on the dynamics and motivations that determine the decision-making of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Power Struggle in Egypt: A Proxy Conflict?

As Fisher rightly stated in 2013, “It’s not an all-out proxy conflict as in Syria, but it’s hard to miss the pattern: regional and global powers, some of them allies, working against one another to empower their favored sides in the Egyptian crisis, hoping to determine the future of one of the Middle East's most important countries.”1 The period following the counter-revolutionary military coup in Egypt can be described as a proxy conflict with its own dynamics and premises. Competing external actors have aimed to prioritize their interests by involving themselves in Egypt’s domestic affairs. Two untold alliances had been forged: Turkey and Qatar on the one side and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the other. Regardless of their policies toward each other, this study will uncover these four major actors’ different motivations for formulating their own specific policy toward Egypt. While Turkey and Qatar staunchly opposed the military coup, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates strongly backed the coup. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi supported the removal of Muhammad Morsi by a military coup in Egypt and then poured 12 billion USD into the Egyptian economy in hopes of stabilizing the country’s tumultuous economic environment.2 This policy was directly in contrast to Ankara and Doha’s position, which provided shelter and support to the exiled Muslim Brotherhood members. Considering these seemingly unprecedented policy differences, a closer look at these four countries’ policy choices and the motives behind them must be taken. The paper will mainly address two issues: First, it will analyze how Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates responded to the military coup in Egypt, and second, it will focus on the motivations of Turkey and Qatar for opposing the coup.

Supporters of the Military Coup

Immediately following the military takeover in Egypt, the Gulf countries sent their congratulations to the military regime led by Abdelfattah Al-Sisi. They were the first countries that officially recognized the new government led by Adly Mansour.3 Their announcements were focused on Egypt’s normalization after the alternative Islamist government experiment. For them, Muslim Brotherhood leadership was not embraced by the Egyptian people, so it was acceptable to spawn a regime change with a military coup. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain all supported the coup d’etat;4 however, Qatar was not happy with the overthrow of Morsi and the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government. Even though Qatar’s new Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani sent congratulations to the new Egyptian President,5 Doha was not comfortable with the new status quo , representing a fracture in the consensus of the Gulf countries.

As for Saudi Arabia, there were various reasons as to why Riyadh ultimately backed the counter-revolutionary military coup in Egypt. First, the Saudi King was extremely uncomfortable with the foggy political environment in Egypt following the January 25th revolution. As the Arab uprisings threatened Riyadh’s own stability, King Abdallah’s decision-making team followed the events very cautiously. Because of this uncertain environment, it is argued that the Saudi regime encouraged the Salafis in Egypt to establish the Nour Party to be at the service of Riyadh. The Nour Party was strongly supported by Saudi Arabia and encouraged to be integrated into the Egyptian political landscape. By investing in the Nour Party, Riyadh was aiming to control a domestic actor that could be utilized as a proxy on its behalf. The Nour Party institutionalized the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the new Egyptian politics; Riyadh’s increasing influence and connections made it possible for Saudi Arabia to champion its interest in Egypt’s political landscape. Despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood had come to power through democratic means following the presidential elections, the Saudis were urgently waiting for a legitimate opportunity to remove the group from its seat of power. Such an opportunity seemed possible with the popular protests starting November 22, 2012, when Muhammad Morsi published a constitutional declaration recognizing the overambitious privileges of the president.

Second, the severity of the perceived threat of the Muslim Brotherhood by Saudi Arabia called for quick, decisive action in Egypt on behalf of Riyadh. Traditionally, the Muslim Brotherhood has been considered an “ideological competitor” in Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism has been the predominant faith for more than two centuries. Therefore, for the Saudis, the Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt not only signaled the competing ideology’s aggressive rise to decision-making positions but also the larger ability of the Brotherhood to establish a new regime on the basis of an opposing ideological camp. To put it differently, Egypt under the Brotherhood’s rule could be the strongest competitor for the Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia. Because of this very concern, diplomatic precautions were taken, a lot of handshakes were made, and several photo-ops were observed during the first official visit of Muhammad Morsi to Saudi Arabia. However, despite King Abdallah’s warm reception of Morsi, this did not change the fact that Riyadh was extremely nervous about the Brotherhood’s rise to power.

In addition, Morsi’s visit to Tehran, which was the first of its kind since President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Tehran in 1979, added fuel to the fire. Morsi did not estimate that such a visit would trigger Riyadh’s already deeply rooted concerns with regards to the Brotherhood’s regional political projections. The Saudis even started to believe that Egypt could establish an alliance with Tehran and try to preclude Riyadh from regional affairs.6 From this point on, the Saudi stance on the Brotherhood started to become harsher. The most visible proof of this policy is Riyadh’s reluctance to deliver financial aid to the Morsi government. Additionally, Riyadh’s support for anti-Brotherhood groups in Egypt and the Saudi press outlets’ critical coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood can be seen as two other examples of Saudi Arabia’s increasingly harsher stance on the Muslim Brotherhood.

For Saudi Arabia, the military takeover in Egypt was so crucial that Riyadh even risked its long-term alliance with Washington. Some commentators argued that the Saudi’s involvement in the coup process was one of the biggest scares in US-Saudi relations in their history.7 It was because of this very reason that Saudi Arabia was suspiciously taking over the leadership role in the Egyptian political environment from the United States, including the army.8 Without first consulting the Obama administration about the coup plans, Saudi Arabia showed how serious it was in its political gamble. This sincerity was also visible in the aftermath of the coup when Saudis were allegedly paying the bills on the behalf of Cairo to broker an Egypt-Russia weapon agreement.9

The United Arab Emirates, the second largest country of the Gulf Cooperation Council, followed in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia in its policies toward Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Abu Dhabi has always been suspicious of the activities of Ikhwan in its territories—and because of this the country has kept a close eye on the group—when the members of the Muslim Brotherhood started to join petitions asking for reform, this quickly overshadowed the threat of the Ikhwan. With zero tolerance for this organization, the Emirati leadership quickly responded and punished the Brotherhood by exerting political pressure and handing out prison sentences.10 This situation became more serious with the start of Arab uprising protests throughout the region. Unlike Saudi Arabia’s low profile stance against the Muslim Brotherhood, the United Arab Emirates has publicly criticized and acted against the group. Brotherhood members were arrested by the Emirati government, their organizations were shut down, and funding sources were cut.11 To further insult the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Emirati government even welcomed the Mubarak-era Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, who ran against Muhammad Morsi during the first post-revolutionary presidential election. Despite the loss, Shafiq was relentless in his efforts to change the course of the revolution in his home country by organizing opposition figures and youth movements throughout Egypt, the funding having been raised by the Emirati government.

Many reports unveiled the Saudi and Emirati connection with the Tamarod movement, which provoked citizens to stand against the democratically elected president in Egypt and support the counter-revolutionary military who implemented the coup “scenario”.12 The major motivation for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for backing the military coup was to take Egyptian army under financial and political control. By supporting the coup, the Gulf countries aimed to ensure that Cairo would be supporting Saudi decisions with regards to regional and international politics. This became obvious after Saudi Arabia initiated a military operation in Yemen when the Iranian backed Houthis had taken over power in the country. Unsurprisingly, the new regime in Egypt was one of the first countries that rushed to announce its full support for the operation led by Riyadh. In addition to the official announcement of support, Cairo even sent warships to show its willingness in this regard.13

Opponents of the Military Coup

The only two countries that strongly and publicly opposed the Egyptian military coup were Turkey and Qatar. With its dynamic activism in regional affairs, self-confident style in international politics, and practice of soft and hard power instruments, Turkey did not hesitate to take its own stance against the military coup in Egypt. Believing that the coup fell in line with democratic principles, Ankara even risked its alliances with its strong regional partner, Saudi Arabia, and the international super power, the United States, by continuing its anti-coup rhetoric publicly. Qatar, on the other hand, also insisted on its anti-coup position by utilizing two of its most important assets, its financial capability and the Al Jazeera network.

There are various reasons as to why Ankara and Doha adopted their anti-coup positions. First, throughout the later half of the 20th century, Turkey suffered significantly from several negative experiences with its civil-military relations. Because of this, Ankara was aware of how destructive a military coup could be for a developing democracy, and the Turkish government continuously criticized the military takeover in Egypt by arguing how damaging this impact could be for the democratization of a post-revolutionary political setting. Turkey emphasized that it was conducting this policy because of its “principle” that prioritizes the democratization of Middle Eastern nations.

Second, another factor that determined Erdoğan’s anti-coup stance was Turkey’s overall position on the Arab revolutions. During the initial revolutionary uprisings, Ankara had been supportive of the regime changes in the Arab world. Particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, Turkey supported the revolutionary movements and asked the autocratic leaders to step down. However, in the case of the counterrevolution, Turkey realized that a military coup would not only change the course of the revolutionary moment in Egypt but also change the course of the revolutions across the Arab world. The possible success of the military coup could have disappointed the masses in the Arab world who aspired toward regime change in the region. Consequently, such a coup would also negatively affect Turkey’s regional political aspirations. Therefore, Ankara did whatever was necessary to help continue the original revolutionary movement in Egypt.

A third reason for Turkey’s staunch opposition to the military coup in Egypt was its fear of possibly losing one of its strongest allies in the region, the Muslim Brotherhood. From Turkey’s perspective, a military coup in Egypt ran the risk of losing an ideologically “friendly” Muslim Brotherhood that sought to democratize political life in the country. The coup represented an attempt to exclude a legitimate, democratic, revolutionary, and friendly government from power. If the Muslim Brotherhood were still in power, it was projected that Turkey would have established a strategic alliance with Egypt, significantly affecting the regional balance of power. For this reason, countries such as Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia alienated Ankara’s ambitions with regards to the Egyptian coup. A strong Turkish-Egyptian alliance would be the major supporter of the transformative movements in the Middle East. Additionally, the recent revolutionary momentum would be strongly promoted by such a partnership.

Qatar also had strong arguments for positioning itself against the military coup in Egypt. Over the years Qatar had established close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood long before it became a serious political actor in the region. Providing safe haven for members of the Muslim Brotherhood and utilizing the Al Jazeera network for Ikhwan to reach a wider audience were the main tools that Qatar used to support the Muslim Brotherhood. With the Arab uprisings, Qatar found a close ally in the new regime, which it could use in order to rise through the ranks of government in Egypt. When the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government positions in Egypt, Doha sought to become the main external beneficiary of the revolutionary environment. However, a military coup targeting the Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt also meant the loss of Qatar’s strong political partner in regional affairs. With this concern in mind, Qatar strongly opposed military takeover in Egypt and did whatever it could within its capability to prevent it.

Additionally, Qatar’s position and policy toward the Arab revolutions provided another reason for Qatar to resist the military coup in Egypt. When the revolutionary movements started in Tunisia, Doha was one of the first countries that supported the regime change, and it continued to support such movements in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Utilizing the Al Jazeera network as its mouthpiece, Qatar positioned itself as the agent of change. Despite its geographically and demographically small size, Qatar has had great success in utilizing this network as its own instrument of foreign policy making on the Arab Spring. Broadcasting from its headquarters in Doha, the channel has branches in the UK and in the United States as well as a 24-hour live channel dedicated specifically to Egypt. Al Jazeera Mubasher Masr (Al Jazeera Egypt Live) had been one of the most important tools for Doha’s involvement in Egyptian politics. The channel broadcasted the Egyptian political situation during and after the military coup. It offered critical coverage of the coup, and almost all Arab publics followed the events through Al Jazeera. It was one of the only channels that showed an alternative picture of what happened in Egypt. Unlike the Egyptian channels that were mostly pro-coup in their coverage, Al Jazeera strongly opposed the Sisi government and tried to influence public opinion in the Middle East. Egypt and Saudi Arabia put pressure on Qatar to change the coverage of Al Jazeera, but Doha continued its support for the channel. In response, the Egyptian court had suspended the broadcasting of Al Jazeera Mubashed Masr and imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Muhammad Fahmy, and Baher Muhammad until Saudi Arabia and Qatar could find a settlement and solve the crises between them.14

Finally, Qatar’s sharp opposition to the military coup in Egypt fell in line with Doha’s foreign policy activism in recent years. Historically speaking, Qatar has always been more active in conducting foreign policy than its Gulf neighbors.15 Therefore, as a continuation of its stance as a strong regional actor, Qatar tried to become an active player during the Egyptian uprising and in the following period. However, since the outbreak of the revolutions, Qatar’s neighbors, specifically Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, positioned themselves as the protector of the status quo and followed policies that aimed to reverse the course of the Arab revolutions. During this period, the relationship between Qatar and its neighbors was seriously damaged and diplomatic channels almost collapsed. This division became more serious as the Morsi regime was toppled. The Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, decided to withdraw their ambassadors in Qatar. It took months to overcome the crisis and eventually return ambassadors to Doha.16 However, despite the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this does not mean that Doha had turned its back on the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, its present compromise rather shows Qatar’s “temporary” solution to a long-term problem; Doha’s position will surely change once it can implement a long-term policy.


By supporting the military coup in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates aimed to weaken the hopes of democratic transformation in the region. In other words, the coup was an important “opportunity” for the status quo forces to terminate the Arab Spring revolutions.17 These forces initially seemed to be successful in their attempt, but time has proved them wrong. In Egypt, the anti-coup movement led by the Muslim Brotherhood still continues in staunch opposition to the Sisi regime, which has quickly proved to be more oppressive than the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Therefore, as many of the country’s revolutionary forces have come to oppose the oppressive style of Sisi government, the military regime in Egypt has shown that is not without its own weaknesses. Groups such as the 6 April Youth Movement and the Revolutionary Socialists are leading the revolutionaries who initially supported the coup but then changed their positions to criticize the Sisi government. Continuation of these groups’ criticism as well as rising socio-economic problems will continue to create more challenges for the Sisi government.18 Consequently, it is doubtful that the Gulf countries’ “unconditional” support for the Sisi regime will continue forever, as it seems that such support will create bigger problems for the Gulf capitals in the future. First, as Steinberg rightly points out, “although the MB as an organization is weak in the Gulf states, its thinking has spread in all the Gulf states in the past decades and has influenced generations of students, the result being the emergence of powerful movements like the Sahwa al-Islamiya (Islamic Awakening), combining politicized and sometimes revolutionary MB thought with Wahhabi social and cultural conservatism.”19 Followers of these groups have stronger ties with the Muslim Brotherhood ideology than they do with either the Saudi or Emirati governments. Secondly, Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers who live in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait increasingly disapprove of the policies of their respective regimes that they live in. The Gulf countries’ support for the Sisi regime has become an issue of discomfort for these communities. Finally, the Gulf States will not be disposed to providing financial support for the Egyptian government on the current scale forever. Increasing shale production in the United States and the possibility of growing exports of oil and gas from Iraq and Iran will have a negative impact on the oil export revenues of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait. As a result, these countries will eventually be forced to reconsider their financial situations.20

As for the Gulf countries, supporting the military coup in Egypt has been politically and economically costly. Continuation of such support will create more problems, especially for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. First, there are various groups and organizations within Saudi Arabia and the UAE that have shown solidarity with the victims of the coup in Egypt, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. The Gulf countries harbor thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who are strongly connected with the group in their home countries through formal institutional connections, informal ties and social networks.21 Increasing frustration in these communities could trigger such uprisings against Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Additionally, there are masses in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that believe their governments are too oppressive and restrictive. Even though these groups are financially well-off, their basic freedoms are not granted. Finally, by opposing the revolutionary changes in the Middle East, the Gulf countries have been losing their credibility in the eyes of Arab public opinion. This would deepen the hostility of public opinions towards these regimes. Saudi Arabia, particularly, is taking a great risk by backing the military regime in Egypt at the expense of risking cooperation with one of its strongest allies, Turkey. Ankara’s policies would support Riyadh against the growing concern of Iranian influence and rising threats such as ISIL. Additionally, Turkey would facilitate a smoother transition in the Arab Spring geography, which may relieve Saudi Arabia of an escalating sectarian environment.

All in all, what we are still witnessing in the Egyptian case is a disturbing proxy conflict in which two major camps are competing over domestic power in Egypt. Today, the proxy confrontation is continuing with similar actors but now in a different political environment. Saudi Arabia has a new ruler who is likely to conduct different political choices than his predecessor. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt will most probably follow the footsteps of Riyadh’s new monarch. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent visit to Riyadh and his productive meeting with the new King of Saudi Arabia show that Ankara is interested in finding a compromise on the issue of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood without harming its relations with Riyadh. Qatar will most likely continue to position itself together with Turkey and provide “indirect” support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Finally, Turkey and Qatar will have to reorganize their policies vis-à-vis Egypt if they wish to remain influential players in regional politics.

In the specific case of Egypt, the problems that led masses to start an uprising still persist. Egypt, with its population of 90 million, faces a catalogue of severe problems, from unemployment to education and from health to infrastructure. As the Sisi government has oppressed all dissent from inside the country, the government has shown that it has no intentions of solving the social and economic problems that the country faces. In such an environment, by focusing only on the oppression of the opposition the Egyptian government increases the risk of a substantial domestic confrontation. Sisi’s reliance on foreign aid will only temporarily provide solutions to the substantial problems plaguing Egypt, upsetting the impatient masses.

The possibility of shifting political alliances during the post-coup era looms like a dark cloud over the unstable field of Egyptian politics. Such activities have been common practices in Egypt since the January 25, 2011 revolution, after which political and social actors have changed their positions and alliances repetitively. Even though most of the actors did not stand behind the Muslim Brotherhood, the level of oppression under the Sisi regime could once again unify the revolutionary groups that are opposing another authoritarian political setting. The continuation of the oppression could lead these groups to actually come together and form a unified front in order to keep the revolutionary process going.

1 Max Fisher, “Egypt is Becoming a Proxy Conflict,” The Washington Post, August 19, 2013, accessed March 30, 2015,
2 Khaled Al-Dakhil, “Riyadh Rushes to Support Egypt’s New Military Rulers,” Al-Monitor, July 17, 2013, accessed March 10, 2015,; Abdullah Baabood, “Gulf Countries and Arab Transitions: Role, Support and Effects,” IEMED Mediterranean Yearbook 2014, pp.42-47, accessed March 10, 2015.
3 Sherif Elashmawy, “Between Support & Discord: Gulf-Egypt Relations after June 30,” Muftah, December 24, 2013, accessed March 12, 2015,
4 David Hearst, “Why Saudi Arabia is Taking a Risk by Backing the Egyptian Coup,” Guardian, August 20, 2013, accessed March 12, 2015,
5 Ayat Al-Tawy, “Qatar’s Emir Congratulates Egypt’s New Leader El-Sisi,” Ahram Online, June 8, 2014, accessed March 12, 2015,
6 Stephene Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood Predicament,” The Washington Post, March 20, 2014, accessed March 26, 2015,
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13 “Egypt Sent Warships to Yemen’s Gulf of Aden: Official,” Anadolu Agency, March 26, 2015, accessed March 26, 2015,
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16 David D. Kirkpatrick, “Gulf States and Qatar Gloss Over Differences, but Split Still Hampers Them,” The New York Times, December 20, 2014, accessed March 30, 2015,
17 Bulent Aras and Richard Falk, “Authoritarian ‘Geopolitics’ of Survival in the Arab Spring,” Third World Quarterly 36, No.2 (2015): 322-336.
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21 Lori Plotkin Boghardt, “Egypt’s Ripple Effect in the Gulf,” The Washington Institute, July 24, 2013, accessed March 30, 2015,

* Deputy Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORMER) and a PhD Candidate at the Department of International Relations at Sakarya University.