Most alert observers understand the strategic importance of the pledge made by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to provide up to $12 billion in military assistance to the Egyptian military regime immediately after its coup against the Morsi government and just before it launched a bloody repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The pledge helped prop up Egypt’s economy at a crucial time, and also indemnified the regime against a potential loss of military assistance from the U.S. (while discouraging any such demonstration by Washington, which would have thereby lost leverage with Cairo).

But Robert Baer’s new piece at TNR helps us understand why the Saudis, the ringleaders of this effort to bail out the Egyptian generals, are so determined to strengthen their hand in Egypt and also to destroy the regional aspirations of the Brotherhood:

Egypt aside, Saudi Arabia has never looked benignly on the Muslim Brotherhood, and, in particular, its position on the political role of Islam. When King Abdullah’s father Ibn Sa’ud founded Saudi Arabia in 1932, he came to a non-negotiable agreement with the Wahhabi religious establishment that, in return for allowing it control of the mosques, culture, and education, they would never go near core political issues, such as royal succession, foreign policy, and the armed forces. It’s a deal that’s been more or less respected for the last 80 years.

On the other hand, a core tenet of the Muslim Brotherhood is that there can be no separation between church and state. The Brotherhood’s nonnegotiable demand is that they get both the pulpit and the crown. The implication then is that the Al Sa’ud are illegitimate rulers of Saudi Arabia. No wonder the Saudis were more than happy to pay the Egyptian generals to do their dirty work.

So while we tend to think of Saudi Arabia as a theocracy and the Brotherhood as theocrats, the former is not necessarily the case: the Kingdom is an autocracy that has given the clergy exceptional power over issues involving religion and morality, but not in other realms. But it’s the special position of Egyptians in Saudi Arabia itself that was a revelation to me in reading Baer’s piece:

[O]f more immediate concern to the Saudis are the two million Egyptian guest workers residing in the Kingdom. They’re poor and susceptible to the Muslim Brotherhood’s message. Adding to Saudi anxiety, the bulk of them live in the Hijaz, the home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holy sites. There’s been no evidence the Saudis are on the verge of losing them. But in the long run who could tell what problems a triumphant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would have caused for the Saudi royal family.

So the Brotherhood is perceived as an existential threat to the Saudis on multiple grounds, including, of course, the Brotherhood’s willingness to participate in multi-party democratic systems, which could be another casualty of the coup and repression the Saudis have so lavishly supported.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.