King Salman of Saudi-Arabia is rumored to be suffering from dementia but none of it was in display when visiting Cairo, speaking to the Egyptian Parliament and signing a series of agreements with his host, President Al-Sisi of Egypt. That in itself was an important signal by the Saudis, that their house is in order contrary to press reports , but the symbolic significance of the visit is, in this case, secondary to the political-strategic implications. Put in sum, this was the official inauguration of the anti-Iran axis composed of these two leading Sunni states, and with the tacit, unofficial, closeted participation of yes, Israel. King Salman said in the Egyptian Parliament, that the two countries were united against terrorism, and this was the code word to Iran. For the Saudis, and they say it repeatedly, Iran and terrorism are one and the same, and they constitute the greatest challenge to stability in the Middle East, and stability is what the House of Saud after. The Palestinian question was surely mentioned and even emphasized, but the usual anti Israel rhetoric was not there. Lip service is just what it is, and serious other business was on the forefront.
The two countries agreed, that the two tiny islands of Tiran and Snapir in the Gulf of Aqaba will be transferred to Saudi Arabia, and with it some historic memories come to mind. When Egypt, in contravention of international law blocked the straights of Tiran for Israeli shipping in 1956 and 1967, this was a casus belli , but the Saudis are not going to repeat this. The Egyptians already are at pains to explain, that it is all in accordance with the peace treaty with Israel, and Israel is consulted . Then the two countries agreed to construct a bridge between them to develop Sinai, an area which became the breeding ground of Jihadist gangs, and to considerably increase the financial support to the crumbling Egyptian economy. Egypt is in dire economic situation due to the instability created after 2011, terrorism which is aimed exactly at ruining the tourist section, which is so significant to the economy, and the on-going Muslim Brotherhood challenge to the Al-Sisi regime. Any infusion of many billions of dollars to the failing economy there , is therefore so significant. So , Saudi Arabia is taking upon itself to be the main proponent of Egypt's economy, and by extension , its internal stability. On the face of it it looks that the rich Saudis buy the poor Egyptians. By the standards of conventional political science text books, this is the case, but contrary to this cliche, this is NOT the case here.
The Saudis have a long history of trying to buy out enemies as well as friends, using what their only strength is, and this is their financial muscle. They sometimes succeed, sometimes they did not. They failed miserably with Usama Bin Ladin in the 1990's. they failed with the House of Assad in Syria, but they hope not to with Al-Sisi. It is their inherent and consistent military weakness , which injects an on-going sense of fear about their internal stability which is at the bottom of all that. The Saudis know how vulnerable they are, and in recent years, surely after the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, it is Iran which is THE danger, either directly , or indirectly, through the use of Shi'ite surrogates in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Iran is the number one Saudi regional priority, namely, containing, restricting the Iranian threats, and if and when the time comes, stopping an all-out, direct Iranian aggression against the Kingdom. We need to look at what is being forged and sealed now between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The two countries may have disagreements about the Assad regime in Syria, but they are not fundamentally important in the overall configuration of their relations. Sure, the Egyptians are too proud to admit in public that the Saudis want them to be a sort of mercenary state, the Saudis as well, and so it is not something to be heralded in the streets of Cairo and Riad, but not so behind close doors.
The two countries are engaging in a far-reaching alliance, in which the Saudis assign a very distinct role for Egypt; to be a protector of their regime and Kingdom. Egypt is weak economically, but much stronger militarily, and the Saudis may already now, very probably in the foreseeable future want and need Egyptian boots on the ground, not against Israel, against Iran. This is one of the unintended , though very clear consequences, of the Iran nuclear deal. It serves as a catalyst for realignment of regional politics. That brings also Israel also into the equation. The warming up of relations between Israel and Egypt is public for all to see, the daily , not so mysterious collapse of the Hamas tunnels in Gaza may be the untold aspect of it, but so important. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, does nothing in public, which indicates even the slightest of changes about Israel, but here again there are closed doors and what is behind them. The Arabic press , less so the Israeli one, are full with reports about what REALLY is happening between Saudi Arabia and Israel. So, Israel may be the elephant in the room, but it has a role, and Iran is the link with Saudi Arabia.
Shifty sands is a typical definition of Middle East politics, and may well be the same here, but with Al-Sisi in place, the Mullahs as well, and as aggressive as they are now, the Saudis in need and Israel in the background, the sands may prove to be less shifty this time.