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Saudi Arabia: On the Inside Track in Egypt

How extremism migrated from Saudi Arabia to Egypt.

July 31, 2015

How extremism migrated from Saudi Arabia to Egypt.

The traveling of extremist ideas has remade the biggest and once most modernist Arab country – Egypt – in the Saudi image and likeness in just a couple of decades.

In a popular YouTube clip (Arabic) of footage from the 1950s, the audience bursts out with laughter at the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s supposition that the Islamists want him to make all Egyptian women in the streets wear a scarf.

Nasser’s remarks would make no one laugh today. Almost all women in Cairo, except the Copts, are veiled. Sixty years later, Egypt has become more radically socially conservative. A plethora of political and social conservative stances – such as xenophobia and ostentatious religiosity – took root.

How did an emancipated and cosmopolitan capital turn so conservative in 50 years’ time?

Undoubtedly, one key factor has been the oppressive and failed policies of successive Egyptian presidents. However, the “Saudi factor” stands out as a potent fuel to amplify the social conservatism.

Radicalization through suppression

In the 1950s, Egypt was a secular, revolutionary, modernist republic, where moderate Hanafi and Shafi’i religious jurisprudence prevailed. In contrast, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) was an Islamic, anti-revolutionary, conservative kingdom with the domination of the socially most oppressive of all established Islamic currents: Hanbali-Wahhabi school.

Its founder, Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab, in the 18th century enforced collective prayer and legal punishments. He himself stoned a woman for adultery. Ever since, public beheadings, limb amputations and floggings are part of Saudi reality.

Nasser’s Egypt was completely different. It was quelling religion, deemed backward, while embracing social justice and anti-royalism. That Egypt stood for the very ideas and strategies that the Saudis and their ulama (top religious scholars) abhorred.

When Nasser started persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in 1953, the Saudis gave thousands of these Brothers safe haven in their country.

These young Islamists lived a powerful dream as they literally built Saudi Arabia’s educational and media systems from scratch. They arrived initially with a moderate brand of Islamism, but on “fertile” Saudi soil they gradually radicalized and expanded their visions and goals.

Radicalization through immigration

The second and truly mass flow of Egyptian migrants to Saudi Arabia started in 1974, right after the oil crisis and subsequent rise of oil prices. A prominent Egyptian writer’s, Alaa al-Aswani, claims are particularly critical of the social impact back home of mass Egyptian migration to the country.

Based on available data it is safe to estimate that at least 10-20 million Egyptians have worked and lived in Saudi Arabia in the past 40 years, possibly accounting for a quarter of the Egyptian population.

Even if these millions were initially welcome in the Kingdom thanks to their linguistic, cultural and religious compatibility with the locals, they were soon exposed to diametrically different working conditions than in Egypt.

There was complete separation of male and female workplaces, formal and factual subjugation to a Saudi patron and an extremely conservative social space. There also was obligatory prayer and Friday sermons delivered by Wahhabi imams. There was no mixing of the sexes in the streets, when visiting friends or at schools – as well as obligatory full body cover for women.

The Saudi model comes home

Saudi Arabia had been, until the 1960s, a backward tribal clan that ruled over a desert. Then, it emerged as a lavishly rich – and at the same time pious – entity. Due to the country’s enormous wealth, its appeal has grown over the decades.

In the Egyptian collective psyche, Saudi Arabia’s good fortune seemed almost like God’s reward for its piety, while Egypt’s decline – happening in parallel – was interpreted as the result of God’s wrath at the country’s (secular) misconduct.

Instead of rejecting Saudi Arabia’s cultural model, the majority of returning Egyptians, after years working there, adopted it. There were three main reasons for that:

1. The obvious economic strength of the Saudi model (attributed to its religiosity)

2. An aspirational view among labor migrants toward their Saudi patrons)

3. The formative social role of mass migrant returnees, who become motors of development once back in their homeland.

The conservative returnees literally “made” the Egyptian economy of today – both its good parts and all its deep-seated problems. It was largely thanks to them (and their kids) that Egypt’s population doubled in size since 1980.

That led to many challenges of overpopulation, from the availability of food to proper housing. These worsened Egypt’s existing economic stagnation, adding to a radicalizing cycle of discontent.

Nor has this process of supplanting the rich cultural traditions of Egypt with the imported, narrow ideologies of Saudi Arabia ended. A million or more migrant workers have yet to return.

Radicalization through official support

Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis have officially supported hardline Egyptian Salafism – which generally opposes all non-theocratic absolutist forms of government – for at least a century. Personal and financial ties between Egypt’s Salafists leaders, thinkers and organizations and Saudi Arabia are plentiful and longstanding.

This relationship expanded after the 2011 revolution, as the Salafists vied against Islamic democrats for influence over young minds. In 2011 alone, Saudi Arabia funded Salafist groups in Egypt with $63 million.

In July 2013, Egyptian Salafists publicly backed the Saudi-supported military coup against Egypt’s nascent democracy. The military then pushed through a Salafist-endorsed constitution that was more religiously hardline than that favored by the democratic Islamist “Freedom & Justice Party” of Mohamed Morsi – the main rival for Salafist political influence.

West reaps the consequences of these ties

The radicalization of Egypt happened in two parallel ways: Unwittingly, but supportively, through indoctrinating mass Egyptian migration to KSA, and via deliberate Saudi action of funding and disseminating the Wahhabi-Hanbali ideology.

The whole world today, including Europe and the United States, needs to deal with the Gulf-inspired ideological activism and its long term consequences: radical mosques, cultural centers and imams. These target young Arabs and European Muslims, and promote Islam’s most conservative and extreme interpretation.

In the short run, it is easy to overlook the long process of people’s radicalization. Criticism of the Gulf is hard in the money-and-investment-hungry West.

But the long-term view clearly shows that the socially extreme modus vivendi of much of the Persian Gulf directly juxtaposes and threatens ours.


For four decades, extremism has been traveling from Saudi Arabia to Egypt.

Conservatism is the main social remittance of Egyptian migration to the Gulf.

10-20 million Egyptians – or 1 in 4 – have worked and lived in Saudi Arabia in the past 40 years.

People and money are the two tools of Saudi Arabia’s radicalization of Egypt.

In Egypt’s psyche, Saudi fortune was God’s reward for piety. Secular Egypt’s decline was his wrath.