Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Same interests, different tactics

Regional concerns are taking precedence over bilateral issues for Cairo and Riyadh, reports Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

A recent round of Egyptian-Saudi talks has revealed that, at least for the next few months, Cairo and Riyadh are prepared to put bilateral issues to one side. “There are not that many of them anyway,” according to one Egyptian diplomat.

The focus now, according to Egyptian and Saudi positions shared in Arab diplomatic circles, is to try to work on differences on the management of regional issues, including Syria, Iran, Yemen, Qatar and Turkey, and the proposed creation of an Arab or Sunni joint military force.

“Let’s be frank, the Saudis are disappointed with our stance on these issues, really on all of them,” said the Egyptian diplomat.

He explained that this is related to what Riyadh “seemed to have gathered” from the statement that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made earlier in his presidency when he said that Egypt’s military might is “always there, around the corner and willing to reach out, in case of any threat against the security of the Gulf.”

According to the diplomat, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seemed to have construed this statement as being an unconditional commitment to putting Egypt’s military might at the disposal of the Gulf countries.

He argued that this “was not quite” what the president meant. The president, he added, was expressing his willingness to provide firm military assistance “should there be a direct attack on any Gulf country.”

However, in the absence of a direct threat, “things have to be examined on merit, even though we do appreciate the valuable Saudi economic support for Egypt over the past few years,” he said.

Informed government, including military, sources say that dispatching Egyptian soldiers outside the country’s borders is also not the unqualified prerogative of the head of the executive, even in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.

“These are matters that have to be carefully decided in line with the ruling principles of the Egyptian army, and in view of the many obligations the Armed Forces have been having in handling aggressive militant and terrorist threats inside the country, especially in Sinai, and looking after the volatile borders with Libya and Sudan,” one of the sources said.

The Saudis have not been willing to swallow such arguments easily, especially given the conflict in Yemen, where Riyadh is fighting against the Houthi rebels that it perceives as being the allies of its regional foe, Iran.

Riyadh’s narrative says that Egypt took a long time to respond to Saudi demands for “promised” military assistance and that the help when it came was too little, too late.

Arab and Western diplomatic sources, however, say that, contrary to the perception of many that Yemen is the most important issue in the regional conflict between Cairo and Riyadh, it is over Syria that Egypt and Saudi Arabia will really have to work out their differences.

“The positions seem too different to be reconciled easily,” said a senior Arab diplomat, explaining that Cairo has been unequivocal about keeping its support for as long as possible for the rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, while Riyadh has been unhesitant about getting Al-Assad out of the picture as soon as possible.

The Egyptian authorities, according to the same sources, are convinced that the best recipe for stability is for there to be a head of the executive who is strongly supported by the military, even if he is not from the country’s Sunni majority, and that a mixture of diverse political and ethnic currents will not work.

The Saudis, they add, are arguing that what works for Egypt will not necessarily work for Syria, which should get rid of the ruling Alawite minority in favour of a Sunni-dominated majority.

But the Egyptians charge that Saudi Arabia sees everything in the region through the lens of who is with and who is against Iran, the foe of the ruling House of Saud. For their part, the Saudis insist that Egypt sees everything from the perspective of who is with and who is against the Islamists that the Egyptian authorities are firmly at odds with.

Recent international diplomatic meetings on Syria, including the Vienna and New York talks before the Christmas holidays, have seen signs of a lack of coordination between Cairo and Riyadh. And for the most part, influential Western capitals have been siding with the Saudi perspective.

Saudi Arabia has also secured the firm support of both Qatar and Turkey, with diplomatic and intelligence sources talking about a surge in cooperation between Riyadh and Ankara in arming anti-Al-Assad militant groups in Syria.

The worst regional news for Cairo is that this is a new alliance, one “taking the shape of an announced three-way alliance between Ankara, Riyadh and Doha,” according to the Egyptian diplomat.

He added that Riyadh, especially the “highly influential” Saudi minister of defence, Second Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, is now focussed on who is with and who is against Riyadh in its “war” against Iran.

“We think that things are more layered and more complicated, however, because clearly we don’t stand with Iran, or for that matter with Hizbullah, which is fighting with Al-Assad in Syria. In recent years, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been coordinating regional policies against Iran and Hizbullah,” the Egyptian diplomat said.

He added that this was one thing, however, and that acting too hastily on Syria was quite another.

“Going too fast in supporting the anti-Al-Assad militant groups has left the region with large numbers of militant cells that are moving at a swift pace, and has also prompted the clear foreign military presence in Syria of both Russia and Iran,” he added.

During a recent round of talks in Riyadh, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, the Egyptian diplomat suggested, had secured “a basis for deeper consultations first on Syria and then on other regional differences.”

Egypt is hoping to get the Saudis to agree to a formula whereby “the focus on Syria is shifted from Al-Assad himself to the larger executive authority and finding a good alternative for the presidency in Syria instead of just jumping into the unknown.”

Meanwhile, Egypt has showed less reluctance towards Saudi demands for “some sort of military façade” upon which Riyadh can count “as a political rather than strictly military asset”.

“I don’t think the Saudis, or for that matter the Iranians, are pursuing a direct military engagement of any sort,” the Egyptian diplomat said.

To accommodate Saudi wishes, Cairo is trying to push its original scheme for a joint Arab military force under the leadership of the Arab League rather than a Sunni force under the command of the Saudis.

“We told the Saudis that we could agree to the central command of these forces being in Saudi Arabia and that we could pursue cooperation between an Arab force and other military support in case of direct threats, but that we could not put the Egyptian military under any other command, whether Saudi or any other,” the Egyptian diplomat said.

He added that this was especially the case given that the Saudis are considering a “vast and unprecedented military coalition that includes countries that Egypt has serious issues with, such as Qatar and Turkey.”

He also accepted that the nationality of the chief of staff of the planned force and its mandate were matters that would need thorough talks.

Meanwhile, Cairo is acting to accommodate the Saudi wish for a détente, even if partial, between Egypt and Turkey. But Cairo has also made a list of security demands related to Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that Ankara seems likely to reject.

“We are showing openness to reassure the Saudis, and we are asking them to deliver Turkish support on the key security points of not providing refuge, financial assistance and a media platform for the Muslim Brotherhood,” the Egyptian diplomat said.

A Saudi source said that Riyadh wants to see its allies standing together with it against “Iran’s plans to expand its influence across the Gulf and to topple regimes in the region.”

This message was underlined by top Saudi diplomat Adel Al-Jubeir during his recent talks with Egyptian interlocutors and at an Arab foreign ministers meeting convened earlier in the week at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.

“I guess it is safe to say that Al-Jubeir was clear about one thing — that the Saudis are not going to accept middle-of-the-road positions. He was really talking in a tone of ‘you are either with us or you are against us’,” said an Arab League source.

In the meeting assembled on Sunday, Al-Jubeir secured a communiqué that showed, for the most part, that Arab countries are with the Saudis. He is hoping for a similar communiqué to come out of a foreign ministers meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to be held in the OIC headquarters in Jeddah later this month.

Egypt is promising diplomatic help in this tougher environment, since Iran is an influential member of the OIC.

“We want to support the Saudis on the regional front as our objectives of stability are similar. But we see a different path towards this objective than the Saudis,” the Egyptian diplomat said.

“For now,” the Saudi source said, Riyadh will continue to be of economic help to Egypt, pending “a full revision of our bilateral relations later in the year”.

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