Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Cairo-Riyadh divergence

While Egypt is suffering because of Saudi intervention in Yemen, it remains yet unclear how far Riyadh intends to go, and at what cost, writes Medhat Al-Zahed

Al-Ahram Weekly

Perhaps it is a good omen that the presidential statement issued following President Al-Sisi’s meeting with the Saudi foreign minister spoke of a “consensus” in points of view on crucial regional questions. It has long been the Arab diplomatic custom —‌ undoubtedly an expression of the obligations of Arab generosity —‌ to speak of “conformity” in points of view after talks between Arab states, or between them and foreign states.

True, the presidential statement was not issued until after the joint press conference between the Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers in which the latter referred to “our” agreement to get rid of Bashar Al-Assad and to convince Russia that Bashar has no role to play in the forthcoming period. Still, one senses that the partners in Operation Decisive Storm do not see eye-to-eye on the keys to solving the crises plaguing Syria, Libya or even Yemen. Muted dispute has seethed over the necessity and feasibility of a ground offensive in Yemen and over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in settlement processes in all three countries. In fact, there have been reports of Saudi pressure on the Egyptian government to reconcile with the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of a shift in Saudi foreign policy since King Salman assumed power in favour of a Saudi-Qatari-Turkish axis at the expense of weight that Riyadh had accorded to its relations with Egypt during the reign of King Abdullah. Nevertheless, Cairo and Riyadh remain intent on sustaining space for cooperation, mutual understanding and alliance as necessitated by the nature of existing threats. This space was underscored in the presidential statement:

“President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi praised the honourable and esteemed Saudi positions towards Egypt and its people, stressing the need to strengthen cooperation and coordination between the two countries in the face of different threats. In addition, the president stressed, during his reception yesterday of the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jobeir, Egypt’s concern for the security of the Arab Gulf region which is an inseparable part of Egyptian national security upon which Egypt will accept no infringement. He added that Arab mutual support must be strengthened in this current phase, stressing that promoting solidarity will serve to protect Arab states from the dangers that threaten them and to obstruct any attempts to intervene in their internal affairs. In addition, [the Arab states] must work to restore those countries that suffer from the scourges of terrorism and armed conflict.

“The meeting addressed regional conditions, especially those in Syria, Yemen and Libya, with regard to which there was a consensus in opinions between the two sides over the importance of reaching political solutions to the crisis in these countries so as to halt the bloodshed, safeguard the regional safety and territorial integrity of these countries, and protect their national institutions.”

Obviously “national institutions” refers to the Syrian army which is being assailed by jihadist organisations, some of which are supported by Saudi Arabia.

“The president stressed the importance of the Joint Arab Force in order to achieve these aims, to protect Arab states, and to safeguard the resources of their peoples. He stressed that this force is not directed against any particular party but rather it conveys a clear message that reflects the Arabs’ ability to stand together, unify ranks and defend their interests in the face of challenges.”

Diplomacy aside, Egyptian-Saudi relations are not easy, not just when it comes to Yemen but with regard to all regional issues. It takes considerable skill to manage them in order to promote consensus over shared interests and economic, political and military concerns.


CHERCHEZ LE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD: Returning to the Yemeni question, there are two salient issues that are bones of contention between Cairo and Riyadh. The latter has come to rely on the Congregation for Reform Party (Al-Islah), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, to assert its sway in that country, now that its relations have deteriorated with the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), headed by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Cairo, together with some other Gulf parties, believes that it is possible to draw the GPC away from the Houthis and that Saleh is pragmatic enough to sell them out in exchange for a reasonable deal. Cairo maintains that a GPC solution is far better than a Muslim Brotherhood solution, a view that was also openly ventured by Dahi Khalfan, the former Dubai police commander. The Saudis’ vision for a Muslim Brotherhood solution also extends to the Libyan and Syrian crisis, in sharp contrast to the Egyptian outlook.

The second issue is the question of a coalition ground offensive in Yemen, which appears to have been shelved for the moment in view of the risks of becoming bogged down in a Yemeni quagmire. Still, the question remains as to whether Saudi Arabia has the capacities for engaging in a ground war. Observers and military reporters are used to speaking in terms of casualty statistics: the number of dead and wounded, the number of aerial sorties carried out, the locations targeted, etc. But war entails other costs and other sets of statistics, not least of which are the economic ones.


ECONOMIC CRISIS: No one has been able, yet, to furnish accurate figures on the costs of the war that Saudi Arabia has been leading against Yemen beneath the heading “Decisive Storm”. The reason for this is quite simple: the authorities in charge of the operation refuse to release any relevant information. Nevertheless, preliminary estimates, based on the costs of other similar wars, suggest that by mid-April 2015, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen cost $30 billion, which includes the costs of operating, fuelling and arming 175 fighter planes, and the costs of putting 150,000 Saudi soldiers on a state of readiness in anticipation of a possible expansion in the scope of the war.

Other expenses include the outlays for assistance and compensation offered by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries to Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and others in exchange for taking part in these operations. These outlays are estimated to range in the billions of dollars.

With respect to Yemen, the losses in human lives and wounded cannot be calculated in dollars and cents, but the damage to infrastructure can and has been enormous. According to some estimates, Yemen lost around $10 billion due to the damage inflicted against the oil sector, airports, seaports, warehouses and innumerable public and private buildings.

War also impacts collaterally on other economic fields.


SAUDI CURRENCY RESERVES: Foreign financial and research institutions have observed, among the initial impacts of the Saudi-led operation, that Riyadh has begun to draw from its foreign currency reserves for the first time since 2009 in order to offset an anticipated record deficit in the national budget due to the collapse in oil prices. That deficit is also expected to increase further due to the costs of the war in Yemen.

While Saudi Arabia has vast assets in foreign currency reserves, estimated at some $750 billion, the repercussions of the war combined with the collapse in oil prices have already caused a considerable dent. The kingdom has already withdrawn around $100 billion since October 2014.

Abdel-Hafez Al-Sawi, an economic expert, holds that Decisive Storm will have an impact also on other Gulf countries. In addition, it will contribute to generating the impression that the Gulf region is in turmoil. Indeed, quite a few Gulf citizens have already left their countries for more stable ones for fear of the adverse repercussions of war.

“We don’t know yet what the repercussions of the war machine will be,” Al-Sawi said. “Will the Houthis target Saudi oil resources, and those of other Gulf countries? This is what events will clarify in the coming days.”


SHARP PLUNGE IN ARAB AND EGYPT STOCK MARKETS: According to Fakhri Al-Fiqi, former assistant executive director at the IMF, if Decisive Storm continues, even for the short term, it will be detrimental to the Egyptian economy due to the link between this economy and the economies of the Gulf, which are adversely affected due to their proximity to events. This is exactly what happened. In the first week of the operation, the main EGX30 index began to plunge, with losses of LE3.7 billion in its market capital.

In spite of assurances of the safety of the Strait of Mandab, thanks to the US and French garrisons in Djibouti (with 1,300 and 2,500 troops respectively) and the presence of USS Whitney-Mount, the most state-of-the-art surveillance ship in the world, the war has still had an impact on this strait through which 21,000 ships pass a year and 30 per cent of the world’s oil (3.3 million barrels a day). In the event of a protracted war and its possible spread, can the major maritime transport firms jeopardise their gigantic oil tankers, a single one of which costs millions of dollars?


POLITICAL FALLOUT: Iran and its regional allies have been concertedly portraying the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen as a “Saudi” bid to occupy that country. The emphasis is squarely placed on Saudi Arabia in an attempt to isolate it from other Gulf countries. But the US is not outside the frame.

In fact, it is not impossible that the events that are playing out in the region are part of an American scheme targeting Iran. If Gulf countries played their part adequately to undermine the Arab Spring, it is now time to set the crosshairs on Iran, an Islamic power working to obtain nuclear arms.

Perhaps the US tried but failed in the past to draw Iran out of its corner. Today, however, it has succeeded, using the Houthi trap in Yemen and the threat at the Saudi borders, on the one hand, and the Iranian drive to expand the Shia sect in the Gulf countries, on the other.

If this war drags on, we would be looking at a case similar to the Iraq-Iran War, which lasted a full eight years without a clear victor. Such a protracted war consumes Arab armies and their weapon arsenals, thus offering plenty of scope to US arms manufacturers and merchants, which in turn helps grease the cogs of US and Western industries.


THE RISE OF RADICAL ORGANISATIONS: This phenomenon has been noticeable with the failure of some states to perform their principal roles, the insufficient border security and failure to prevent successive foreign infiltrations, and the spreading scope of sectarian tensions, which has been generating unprecedented sectarian polarisation in the region.

For example, Hizbullah in Lebanon, in coordination with Iran, has attempted to mediate between Al-Abadi and Al-Maliki in order to avert a confrontation between the two and its possible negative impact on the war being waged by Iraqi forces and militias against ISIS (the Islamic State), especially now that this war has entered a critical phase following the victories achieved by Iraqi forces and militias recently.

With the beginning of Decisive Storm in Yemen, tensions mounted between the major factions in Lebanon, and especially between the Future Movement and Hizbullah, over the Yemeni conflict. This is naturally related to growing tensions over how to handle the Syrian crisis, in which Hizbullah has become a major player through its support for Al-Assad’s regime.

Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has vehemently criticised the military operation in Yemen and hinted at the likelihood that it could have an impact on the situation in Lebanon. The implication is that developments on the various fronts of the regional conflict will have a direct impact on the balances of power in Lebanon and on the efforts to reach understandings capable of resolving the crisis of the vacancy in the presidency. Nasrallah’s criticisms triggered angry reactions within the Future Movement. Former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri described his remarks as a “Storm of Hatred”, accusing him of “putting Iran’s interests above the interests of Lebanon”.


REGIONAL POLARISATION: One could also contend that Decisive Storm ripened the regional polarisation that was precipitated by the Syrian crisis. It was noteworthy that the parties opposed to the military operation in Yemen are the same parties that support Al-Assad in Syria. This could signify that the axis that is shaped by strong relations with Iran, and that became a major player in the Syrian crisis through its strong support for the Syrian regime, is likely to continue. This is all the more the case given the accelerated pace of events in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, in the war against ISIS, and the nuclear deal between Iran and the West. Indeed, the latter issue has become, in its own right, a focal point for regional tension and, most probably, mounting polarisation in the near future, inseparable from Iran’s drive to become a major player in crucial issues in the region.

Another effect of the war in Yemen is reflected in the heightened fear among some countries in the region that political and military turmoil in the region will spread to them. This applies to Gulf countries in particular in view of cross-border overlaps of sectarian communities and a heightened awareness that national boundaries no longer form an impenetrable wall against militias and extremist groups that have been proliferating throughout the region.

In addition, the military operation in Yemen has exposed a broadening gap between Iran and Turkey, especially after remarks by Iranian officials to the effect that Iran has become a force to be reckoned with in some Arab capitals such as Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. Such attitudes aggravated Turkey’s anxieties over growing Iranian influence. This was clear following the beginning of Decisive Storm when Turkish President Erdogan called on Iran and the Houthis to withdraw from Yemen and warned that, “Iran is seeking to exert its hegemony over the region.”

For its part, Iran, which is wary of recent Turkish-Saudi moves to coordinate, and is angry with Turkey’s obvious support for Decisive Storm, unleashed harsh criticisms against Erdogan. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif accused the Turkish president of “fuelling regional crises”.

On the other hand, some Turkish newspapers have begun to address the Saudi-led intervention in terms of its wider impact. “The Saudi military operation has not only struck Yemen but also world markets,” read a headline in Ekonomi Haber 7, which continued: “The Saudi aerial operations in Yemen caused a sharp decline in stock markets, while the prices of the dollar, gold and oil climbed.”

Will such pressures propel towards a political settlement, or is Saudi’s $750 billion currency reserves enough to grant it sufficient fuel for the indefinite future?

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