Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Uniting to combat Islamic State

To protect the interests of the whole Arab world, differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on how to deal with regional problems must be overcome, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The new Saudi foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubair, made his first official visit to Cairo on 31 May. Al-Jubair met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry.

Al-Sisi praised Saudi support for Egypt and reaffirmed Egypt’s commitment to the security of the Arab Gulf states. At a joint press conference that followed the ministerial talks between the two foreign ministers, both stressed their share views concerning the Syrian and Yemeni crises.

The Egyptian foreign minister said that both sides support what he termed the “nationalist” Syrian opposition groups, though it was not clear whether there was agreement between Cairo and Riyadh on the definition of this term.

The Saudi foreign minister reiterated the position of his country concerning the future of the Syrian regime, particularly the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. He said that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have agreed that Al-Assad has no role to play in the future of Syria.

As far as the situation in Yemen is concerned, the two sides are in agreement on the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions on Yemen, including what was defined as the “restoration of legitimacy” in the country, meaning the return of the Yemeni president from Saudi Arabia.

There is no denying that relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are of great importance for the stability and security of the Arab countries. From a historical point of view, the Arab world is more secure and stable whenever these relations are strong.

Saudi backing and financial support for Egypt after the 30 June Revolution has also been of tremendous importance for the Egyptian economy. Not only has Riyadh extended generous financial support, but it has also not hesitated to stand by Egypt in various

Western capitals, including Washington.

With the death of Saudi King Abdullah in January, Saudi Arabia under new King Salman has seen some fundamental changes in its regional alliances and in the ways it conducts its policies, however.

The kingdom launched the “Decisive Storm”campaign in Yemen two days before the Sharm El-Sheikh Arab Summit at the end of March. The decision overshadowed the Summit itself. Some wondered whether the Saudi decision was an attempt to confront the Arab leaders meeting in Sharm El-Sheik with a fait accompli. Regardless of the motives, the host country Egypt was put in a difficult position.

Differences between the two countries have been mounting ever since. The major one is how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. The former Saudi king placed this organisation on the Saudi terror list, which was in tune with the Egyptian decision to consider the Muslim Brothers a terrorist organisation in December 2013.

With King Salman now at the helm, the Saudi position in this respect has become ambiguous to say the least. As a corollary, relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey have improved to the extent that the two countries are now cooperating in empowering certain armed Syrian groups to topple the Syrian government.

While Cairo and Riyadh support a political solution in Syria, the two countries probably have different interpretations of how to go about it and which groups among the Syrian opposition to work with. From an Egyptian point of view, it is up to the Syrian people to choose their government, with an emphasis on the need to combat terrorism in Syria.

The position of Egypt stems from a realistic interpretation of the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, which neither implicitly nor explicitly calls for the ouster of Al-Assad. The Saudi interpretation of the same communiqué is based on the contrary idea that Al-Assad must go, and the Saudi government has indicated its readiness to work with Turkey and other powers to bring down the Syrian regime.

The fact that the terror organisation the Islamic State (IS) has brought half of Syria under its control seems not to be of serious concern to the Saudis. But Egypt has been warning against the void left by the steady unravelling of state institutions, not only in Syria, but also in Libya.

The prevailing power vacuum has been used by IS to expand in Syria and in Libya. The consolidation of power and the influence of this terror organisation in these two important countries pose a very serious challenge to the national security of Egypt.

Another major policy difference between Egypt and Saudi Arabia relates to Iran. The latter country seems to have become an enemy for the Saudis that must be defeated wherever its influence has extended in the Arab world. Undeniably, the Iranians have masterfully manipulated Arab problems to their advantage, and Iranian intervention in Arab affairs is something that must be faced and contained if this is in the realm of the possible.

However, the question is how this should be done. Iran has never been a fierce adversary of Egypt, which has no interest in resorting to force to roll back the influence of Iran in Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf and Yemen. Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not see eye to eye on policies for containing Iran and its influence in some Arab countries.

Related to this major policy difference is the sectarian factor. Egypt tends not to approach the challenge of Iran’s overreach in the Arab world from the perspective of the Sunni-Shia divide, while other countries do. Instead, Egypt believes that sectarianism has proved highly destabilising in terms of the national cohesion of the Arab countries where there are Sunnis and Shia.

The latest terrorist attacks against Shia mosques in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia during Friday prayers were aimed at replicating the sectarian war that erupted in Iraq in 2005 at the hands of Al-Qaida under Abu Mossab Al-Zarqawi, the tutor of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed IS caliph. No wonder his terror organisation has claimed responsibility for both attacks.

In Yemen, Egypt has called on all the political parties and forces to come together to find a political solution to the crisis. It is concerned that the present stalemate, from a political and a military standpoint, will only help IS find a firmer and a more permanent foothold in Yemen. This is something Egypt would like to prevent.

The Arab world is passing through a very grave transition period in which miscalculations, either political or military, could have far-reaching consequences for the future security and stability of the major Arab powers including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq, the mainstay of the Arab world.

Let us hope that in the months and years to come both Cairo and Riyadh will find new avenues to restore security and stability across the Arab world, strengthening Arab alliances that will help keep foreign and regional intervention in Arab affairs at arm’s length.

The writer is a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister.

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