Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The visit and the promise

Cairo is walking a tightrope between its national interests and those of backer Saudi Arabia. This awkward position will continue so long as security and economic challenges persist, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

This week Cairo will officially receive King Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz of Saudi Arabia in a highly significant visit that will put Egyptian-Saudi relations on a new path, the nature of which will be scrutinised in the days and months to come, to determine the strategic direction of these relations in the years to follow. Will it usher in a period of muted rivalry between the two Arab superpowers, or will it see a resilient entente between the two for the benefit of both, and for the future security and stability of the Arab world?

King Salman acceded to the throne in January 2015 after the passing away of his brother, King Abdullah, who had thrown all his personal influence and that of the kingdom behind Egypt after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived political order in the context of a popular uprising against their rule in June-July 2013. Had it not been for such support, it is difficult to imagine how things in Cairo would have turned out amid Western hostility to this uprising and its political aftermath. This Saudi support came within an Arab and regional pattern of alliance that favoured the new political regime in Cairo. Erdogan’s Turkey was held at bay, the voice of the Qataris was muted and there was an outright support for Egypt, politically, economically and financially. Saudi foreign policy followed its well-known trademark of quiet diplomacy coupled with aversion of taking military risks outside the kingdom. In this context, Egypt made it clear that its armed forces would be ready to deploy in case the territorial integrity and independence of its Gulf allies would be threatened.

All these givens abruptly changed with the passing of power in Saudi Arabia and the appointment of King Salman’s son, Prince Mohamed Bin Salman as deputy crown prince and minister of defence. By the second half of March 2015, the Saudis set up an Arab alliance, with Egypt as a member, with other Gulf countries that sent forces into Yemen to fight the pro-Iranian Houthis who were about to grab power and oust the government of Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, the legitimate president of Yemen. Understandably, the Saudis did not want to see the emergence of pro-Iranian regime on its southern borders. To fight the growing and threatening re-emergence of Iran and its “proxies” within the Arab world, particularly in countries close to Saudi Arabia, the anti-Muslim Brotherhood position of the former king, namely the late King Abdullah, was to be dropped. It is to be recalled that Saudi Arabia banned the Muslim Brotherhood in March 2014.

Similarly, the kingdom, in its quest to contain Iran, especially after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan between Iran and the P5 +1 last July and the lifting of some economic and financial sanctions on Iran, reached out to Turkey and Qatar, the two arch-rivals of Egypt, and the main backers of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood on the international scene, and determined political opponents of the post-Brotherhood Egypt  not to speak of their backing of radicals and so-called “ revolutionaries” in Libya, including those fighting under the flag of the Muslim Brotherhood. In late 2015, the Saudi government called for the establishment of what it termed a “Sunni alliance”. The avowed purpose has been to fight “terrorism”.

But the overall strategic environment in the region and the Middle East left no doubt that the real purpose of the alliance is to lead a coalition of Sunni countries against Iran. It is interesting to note that this alliance came less than three weeks after the US Secretary of State John Kerry called, in remarks before a ministerial meeting of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, 4 December 2015, for “Sunni” forces to be deployed in Syria to fight the Islamic State group. Egypt joined. It was a first from the perspective of Egyptian foreign policy that has always shied away from alliances with religious or sectarian leanings.

In parallel to these developments, some Saudi commentators who are close to the ruling family in the kingdom started writing about the need to get closer to Turkey, and some of them went as far as saying that Egyptian power and influence is on the wane due to the unstable economic situation in this country and the fight against terrorism. One article by a well-known Saudi commentator called for picking another Arab capital to host the Arab League. One factor that had a profound impact on the course of Saudi diplomacy was the appointment of a new Saudi foreign minister who was previously the Saudi ambassador to the United States. He succeeded a main pillar of Saudi foreign policy, the late Prince Saud Al-Faisal. The new foreign minister became the true spokesman for the militarisation of Saudi diplomacy. He publicly called for the overthrow of President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, by force in case this could not be done through political means, a declaration that sent shockwaves within Egypt. To make matters worse, the Saudis, late last year, announced that they would be willing to send ground troops to Syria under American command to fight the Islamic State group. The Syrian government replied that if these forces were deployed on Syrian territories without prior approval by Damascus they would be understood as “invaders” and dealt with accordingly.

Against these basic shifts in Saudi foreign policy, and the new regional and Arab ambitions of Saudi Arabia, what should we expect from the first official visit of King Salman to Egypt in terms of the future alignment of forces in the Middle East, the Gulf region and the Arab world?

Saudi support for the Egyptian economy will continue within the generous aid and assistance package announced by the Saudi government last July, and in the framework of the Cairo Declaration, that has provided for coordinating and strengthening bilateral relations in all sectors, including the setting up of a joint force. In energy, for instance, the Saudis have promised to meet Egypt’s needs for the next five years on concessionary terms. And maybe, the Saudis would decide to transfer a dollar-denominated time deposit, not less than $1 billion, to the Central Bank of Egypt.

Given the sensitive and challenging times Egypt has been facing in the last three years, Cairo will have to make difficult diplomatic choices in the near and medium term so as to avoid finding itself on a collision course with a Saudi foreign policy that does not hesitate to use force to protect its national interests without prior coordination with Cairo. Egypt finds itself in a very awkward situation in trying to find a balance between protecting its own national interests while not appearing to clash with the Saudis on developments in the Arab world. This delicate balancing act will remain essential as long as Egypt continues to face the same political, security, economic and financial challenges it does today.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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