Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Containing differences

The honeymoon between Cairo and Riyadh is over. But, writes Dina Ezzat, that doesn’t mean a divorce is on the horizon

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptian-Saudi relations may not be everything the regime of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi might hope but, when all is said and done they are stable, say Egyptian diplomats.

“Things may not be as they once were but it is impossible to think either Cairo or Riyadh will venture too far or go public in accentuating their differences. We can’t do without each other, this is the bottom line,” says an informed Egyptian diplomat.

This week saw Al-Sisi make a brief visit to the Saudi monarch and his recently assigned heir. The visit came less than 24 hours before the beginning of ground operations in Yemen.

The role of Egyptian military ‘expertise’ in this operation should not to be underestimated, say informed political sources speaking on condition of anonymity.

Cairo had tried to avert the necessity of any ground operation by promoting a political solution. But Riyadh’s new rulers decided they needed a “helping hand” on the ground in Yemen after the air raids of Operation Decisive Storm failed to realise Saudi Arabia’s objectives. 

The Saudis, according to Cairo-based foreign diplomats, had hoped to “win the loyalty” of some Yemeni factions and tribes against the Houthis, supported by Riyadh’s regional nemesis Tehran. But, say the same diplomats, the scheme failed in the face of growing anti-Saudi sentiment in Yemen. At the same time Yemeni forces that had allied with the Saudis were being outmaneuvered by the Houthis.

There is awareness in Egypt’s ruling quarters that upgrading the help it has offered the Saudis in Yemen could be costly. But, say sources, “it was impossible to say no”. 

Why? The answer varies, though few doubt economic considerations played a major role. Egyptian economic dependence on the Saudis is unlikely to lessen anytime soon. The energy crisis the country is facing is predicted to last for at least two more years according to the most optimistic estimates.

Cairo may be hoping for continued economic generosity from Riyadh but many fear the unconditional support offered to Egypt by the late Saudi Monarch King Abdullah following the toppling of Mohamed Morsi will not continue under Abdullah’s successor.

“The death of Abdullah represented a huge loss for the president. Abdullah had faith in Al-Sisi and the president showed a great deal of appreciation for his help,” says one Egyptian politician.

Abdullah placed generous cash transfers at the disposal of the Egyptian authorities between the ouster of Morsi and the election of Al-Sisi. It is a policy that the new ruling clique of the House of Al-Saud are unlikely to repeat. The dominant feeling now in Riyadh, says one European diplomat, is that Saudi Arabia was too generous and failed to secure anything in return for its help.

It is an account that Egyptian diplomats contest. In return for generous economic support, they say, Riyadh managed to rid itself of the bugbear of the Muslim Brotherhood holding sway in one of the Arab world’s most influential capitals. 

“Under Abdullah the Saudis were opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood,” says one Egyptian politician. “It was a position they shared with the United Arab Emirates. They disagreed with Qatari support for the Brotherhood. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood was establishing a strong enough presence in both countries to eventually challenge the power of the ruling family.” 

“Even in the UAE, where the ruling family is super popular, living standards are high and people are generally happy; that was a big concern. That is why the UAE supported the campaign of Ahmed Shafik and is hosting him still.”

Officials in Cairo now argue that both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are less concerned about the Brotherhood than they were. Some even suggest that there are figures in the House of Al-Saud who are proposing that the Muslim Brotherhood could be a useful political tool in the battle Riyadh is pursuing with Shia Iran over regional influence.

The Saudis are busy building bridges with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, providing them with money and arms and, according to some regional diplomatic accounts, training them to be at the forefront of a long-term confrontation with the Houthis. And it is an open secret that Riyadh has been opening channels, through Turkey rather than through Qatar, with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and is encouraging Cairo to consider starting a dialogue with reformist elements within the group. 

“The Saudis want Al-Sisi to talk to the Muslim Brotherhood not just because they think the group might be useful in the so-called Sunni-Shia war, but also because they think ending the exaggerated political battle Al-Sisi is engaged in with the Islamists in Egypt will make his regime more stable,” says a European politician who recently visited Riyadh.

While many in the foreign diplomatic corps in Cairo detect signs of  growing Saudi disinterest in El-Sisi — one even says Riyadh is discussing “future political prospects for Egypt” with Washington — the European politician believes “the Saudis want Al-Sisi to stay on and to become stronger.”

“They also want more from him and are unhappy with the low level of support they think he offered for the war in Yemen. They had to press for a more forthcoming Egyptian engagement but this is not to say that they are giving up on him”.

Less than 48 hours after Al-Sisi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh announced a $100 million grant for development projects in Egypt. The announcement, some Arab diplomats say, is actually part of a more extensive aid package to help head off what might otherwise be a serious summer energy problem in Egypt.

According to an informed Turkish diplomatic source, Riyadh is not fast-tracking diplomatic links with Ankara “behind the back of the Egyptians” though she added this was the case under the now retired top Saudi diplomat Saoud Al-Faisal.

“We don’t know what the new foreign minister [Adel Al-Jubair] will do but we don’t anticipate any significant change in the Saudis assessment of Egypt as a strong ally,” she says.

The greater part of the criticisms being made against Saudi Arabia in the Egyptian media, says one local diplomat, originate in “circles that are trying to create more problems for the president than he already has”. 

Ahead of Al-Sisi’s visit to Saudi Arabia a direct – some say firm – request was reportedly made by the president’s office for TV channels and papers to halt any criticism of “the Kingdom, the King or the foreign policy of the Saudis”.

Egyptian and Saudi diplomats are equally convinced that Cairo and Riyadh will work out a pattern of cooperation that serves the interest of both sides. Not that everything will revert to how it was. Both Cairo and Riyadh acknowledge that new realities in the region, and around the world, require new policies.

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