The declaration was stirring – and uncompromising. The Egyptian people had made a “clear and powerful statement” for “moderation and tolerance”, through the protests that triggered the army’s removal of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi this month. The ousting created a “momentous opportunity” to prevent “extremists” across the Middle East from “taking any more advantage of the Arab Spring”.
This rhetoric on the people’s will could have come straight from a liberal imperialist playbook in Washington or London. Yet its author was Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs in the United Arab Emirates, a country normally reluctant to be seen as interfering abroad – and so distrustful of protest that it outlaws dissent against its hereditary rulers.
The minister’s words were backed by action: the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait together pledged $12bn in aid to help Cairo stave off economic collapse.
The assertiveness of the Gulf petrostate monarchies over Egypt is the clearest sign yet of their restored political confidence, after initially being wrongfooted by the uprisings that exploded around them during the past two and a half years.
Officials in some Arabian peninsula countries have seized on Mr Morsi’s ousting, seeing it as a rallying point for a counter-revolution that exploits public anxiety in the Middle East about the death, destruction and unpredictability triggered by the political tumult. Yet the Gulf nations’ depiction of themselves as bringers of stability, economic security and technocratic competence is a dangerous strategy, leaving them open to the same kind of charges of regional meddling and double standards historically levelled at western powers.
The barrage of Gulf promises of financial help for Egypt last week was a telling political and economic second act to the toppling of Mr Morsi. Saudi Arabia pledged $5bn, Kuwait $4bn and the UAE $3bn to the new Egyptian government. The UAE despatched a top-level political delegation to Cairo, including Sheik Hazza bin Zayed al-Nahyan, national security adviser, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, foreign minister.
The UAE also went an important – and unusual – step further by publicly outlining its strategic thinking. Minister Gargash’s plan – published on the website of Foreign Policy magazine – identified the great risks facing the wider Middle East as “violence, an unwelcome rise in sectarianism, the uncertain role of Islamist political groups, the growth in foreign meddling by regional aggressors, and a deepening economic crisis”. While his proposed response included uncontentious measures such as job creation – and stressed the importance of each country being “allowed to plot its own path” – it also contained a call for countries to support “moderate voices” and the creation of “strong and competent institutions”, to prevent extremists from “exploiting the emerging political vacuum to seize power and foster instability”.
The problem with this apparent call for reasonableness is that rulers across the Gulf have themselves responded to the Arab Spring with a mixture of handouts and repression, ranging from the brutal suppression of an uprising in Bahrain to the jailing of activists. There is also an increasingly stark divide between views in the Gulf and outside of what constitutes “extremism” and, indeed, credible institutions. The UAE Supreme Court last week handed down long jail terms to scores of nationals it claimed were Islamists plotting to overthrow the government, after a trial international human rights groups condemned as “fundamentally flawed”. It’s hardly a surprise to learn that Gulf countries are – like many of their peers – better at spotting other people’s faults than their own. It is also unremarkable to find – after Saudi Arabia and Qatar have armed Syria’s rebels – that Arabian Peninsula states are trying to shape the changing Middle East to their own design. But many a chastened western diplomat could warn the Gulf powers of how countries that openly intervene in others’ affairs on ideological grounds risk ending up disliked or despised – and, in the worst cases, mired in imperialistic misadventures of the most disastrous kind.