Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Striking a balance

The Saudi king’s visit to Cairo offers an opportunity to reinforce common understandings and meet halfway when it comes to differences, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz was scheduled to arrive in Cairo on Wednesday for a state visit which officially begins today.

It is the first time Salman has visited Cairo since becoming Saudi monarch. It comes after three visits to Saudi Arabia by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the most recent last month when Al-Sisi joined other Arab and Sunni Muslim leaders for the closing of Saudi-led military manoeuvres.

Cairo has long anticipated King Salman’s visit and is determined to make the best of it, say concerned Egyptian officials.

It is an open secret that differences between Cairo and Riyadh are present.

“Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for a long list of obvious reasons ranging from their respective economic status to different strategic priorities, have never seen eye to eye, either on the bilateral or the regional level. This was certainly the case under Hosni Mubarak who always went the extra mile to reassure the Saudis,” says a retired Egyptian diplomat who served in Riyadh.

“We always had differences on the management of the situation in Iraq, both before and after the US war. We disagreed on the management of [Syrian President] Bashar [Al-Assad] and of course over Iran. We have also had problems over the treatment of some of our workers, whether white or blue collar, in Saudi Arabia,” he added.

What prevented these problems from overshadowing joint interests — the stability of the countries of the Gulf and the Mashreq, containment of Islamist resistance movements such as Hamas and Hizbullah — was both sides’ awareness they needed one another  “desperately”, says the former diplomat.

“Saudi Arabia could not have served as a base for the Western forces needed to liberate Kuwait in the early 1990s without the Arab umbrella Egypt provided. And back then only Egypt could have such cover. Equally, the Mubarak regime could not have survived the economic challenges it faced, including the need for cash to buy basic food commodities, had it not been to the financial support of the Saudis.”

The Saudis “jumped” to help the Mubarak regime, says the diplomat. “They used up lots of political capital in Washington by staying on Mubarak’s side”.  

“Some think they did so simply out of apprehension over the wave of political change hitting the region. But it was more than this.  The fact is they really counted on Mubarak.”

While the shared interests between Egypt and Saudi Arabia remain, so do the differences.

“On that front things remain more or less the same,” insists a serving diplomat. “But of course the position is being complicated by the speed of regional change. And there is a new ruler in Saudi Arabia. It is only to be expected he will adopt a different view on some matters than those of his predecessor King Abdullah.”

Abdullah, who died last winter, was a staunch supporter of Egypt’s current regime.

Ahead of assuming office in the summer of 2014 Al-Sisi praised the late Saudi king for his support — both political and financial — of the political transition that followed the 30 June Revolution and the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, calling Abdullah the “leading figure of the Arab family”.

Arab and Western diplomats recognised the significance of the compliment. It was an announcement that Egypt was ready to share leadership of the Arab world after spending decades alone at the helm. Cairo, Al-Sisi was signalling, would support Riyadh as it attempted to couple its financial influence with greater political leadership.

Arab diplomats say the new partnership between Cairo and Riyadh was perfectly workable under Abdullah when both capitals shared the same concerns: over unchecked waves of political protests; the influence of Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood; the spread of militant resistance movements and the ambitions of both Iran and Turkey to be influential players in what is a predominantly Arab region.

But then came the game changer: Salman’s accession to the Saudi throne coincided with the end of the political and economic isolation of the House of Saud’s archenemy Iran.

“The Saudis are obsessed about building a Sunni buttress. While we agree with them that Iran is potentially a nagging regional threat we are far from sure about the practicalities of Riyadh’s Sunni buttress. After all, it involves overcoming our differences with Turkey and Qatar at a time when both are hosting politicians whose only aim is to bring down the regime in Egypt,” says a government source.

Given the extent of Egypt’s dependency on the economic support of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Cairo has worked hard to accommodate Saudi demands for a Sunni bulwark against Iran. Egypt was, however, reluctant to rush to war in Yemen, has expressed equivocation over the establishment of a Saudi-led Sunni Muslim military force, and has expressed doubts about Saudi efforts to remove Al-Assad.

“On all these fronts we gave what we could, offering as many gestures of good faith and support as we could afford. But inevitably we have our limits, determined by our national concerns,” said the serving Egyptian diplomat.

The Saudis, in return, have scaled down their economic and political support of Egypt.

Sources on both sides say the relationship between Cairo and Riyadh is entering a new phase.

“It is important to realise that Egypt and Saudi still have many interests in common. The current tensions do not mean that either capital is willing to give up on the other. Both recognise they cannot get along without one another. What we are seeing is the relationship taking a new shape, not coming to an end,” commented a Cairo-based Arab diplomat.

Salman’s visit this weekend is intended to announce this new phase in Egyptian-Saudi relations. It is one in which the Saudis will no longer rush to provide Egypt with financial assistance, and Egypt will no longer offer the Saudis unquestioning military support.

This does not mean the Saudi king will not be discussing ideas on how to help Egypt overcome its economic problems.

“Expanding investments, potential loans and deposits are on the agenda though donations might not be plausible at this point,” says a Saudi source.

Egyptian officials have briefed Salman’s visit will see the green light given to a number of investment projects. One even hinted at the possibility of a deposit being placed with the Central Bank of Egypt to help alleviate the shortage of foreign currency.

In return, Egyptian sources say Cairo will offer to accommodate Saudi concerns in three areas: halt what the Saudis say is a media war against them on several TV channels; facilitate closer cooperation over the content of Sunni Muslim preaching and signal greater Egyptian openness towards Qatar and Turkey.

Egyptian government officials say TV anchors have already been told to suspend any attacks on Saudi Arabia, be it criticism of the country’s rulers, of the Wahabi school of Islam or even mention of the financial support some Saudi royals are alleged to offer radical militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. They also say a committee comprising Egyptian and Saudi representatives will soon begin meeting on a regular basis in order to “syncronise the preaching line”, that media attacks on Turkey and Qatar will be reined in and a new channel of dialogue is being opened between Cairo and Doha.

So does this mean Al-Sisi will go to Turkey next week to hand over the presidency of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit to his Turkish counterpart, or at least send Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri?

“It’s impossible that the president will go and highly unlikely he will dispatch the foreign minister,” says a senior government source. “The most likely scenario is that a lower-ranking diplomat represents Egypt, and the OIC secretariat organise the transition ceremony”.

“But of course,” he adds, “this might change. We don’t know what the Saudi king will suggest or offer, or what the president’s response will be.” 

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