Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Hand in hand

Riyadh and Cairo used King Salman’s visit to Egypt to identify regional challenges on which they can work together, writes Doaa El-Bey

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Cairo and Riyadh have different priorities and different ways of dealing with the problems facing the region. But both realise a strong and strategic relationship is essential for their own and for regional security,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

That realisation was clearly reflected in statements issued by both President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz during the Saudi monarch’s five-day visit to Egypt.

“King Salman’s visit to Egypt is intended to bolster ties and the strategic partnership between the two countries in ways that help in facing regional threats and crises,” said Al-Sisi.

“The Saudi-Egyptian cooperation we are witnessing today is a blessed beginning for our Arab and Muslim world to achieve balance after years of destabilisation,” the Saudi monarch said in his address to the Egyptian parliament on Sunday.

“We are working together to launch an Arab joint force,” he said, stressing that “terrorism” and “radicalism” must be fought financially, militarily and ideologically.

The visit, argued the diplomat, fulfilled its purpose of displaying that Riyadh still backs Al-Sisi after commentators in both countries had cast doubt on the strength of Saudi-Egyptian ties.

“The visit proved, without doubt, that the leadership of both states realise the need to take relations to a level capable of meeting the daunting challenges that now face the region,” he said.

Rakha Hassan, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister, said the situations in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and in the Gulf necessitate the strengthening of cooperation and the dispelling of any misunderstandings. Trust, he said, is essential in facing the current raft of challenges.

Syria and Yemen topped the agenda of Al-Sisi and Salman. While differences between Cairo and Riyadh over the approach needed to both are well known, Egypt’s Assistant Foreign Minister Fathy Al-Shazli told journalists before the visit that these would not be allowed to derail strategic relations.

Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers Sameh Shoukri and Adel Al-Jubeir have dismissed talk of recent strains in bilateral ties. “This is an historic visit,” Jubeir told a news conference on Tuesday. In an interview earlier this month, Shoukri said he and Jubeir were “amazed” at suggestions that the relationship was difficult.

While both Cairo and Riyadh say they want a political solution in Syria, Saudi Arabia is backing rebel groups and working closely with Egypt’s arch-political rivals Qatar and Turkey.

“Cairo and Riyadh agree on the main points. The only real difference is the role of President Bashar Al-Assad after any political settlement. But this is an issue that can be left to the Syrian people. And besides, Assad is a party in the negotiations,” said Hassan.

Rumours of Saudi dissatisfaction with the level of Egyptian involvement in Yemen, which is limited to naval operations and participation in military manoeuvres and exercises alongside other member states of the Saudi-led coalition, have been rife.

Yet, as Hassan pointed out, both states agree that the war must end soon. “They know a military solution will not work for Yemen because of the tribal nature of its people and the difficulty of any central authority exercising control. What we are hoping for is a breakthrough in the reconciliation conference in Kuwait, due to begin on 18 April.”

It is also likely that ways to improve Egyptian-Turkish relations ahead of the 13th annual summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), scheduled for today and tomorrow in Istanbul, were discussed during Salman’s visit.

Egypt is due to hand over the chair of the OIC to host country Turkey during the summit.

“In the absence of any official statements about who would head the Egyptian delegation to the OIC the expectation was that the chargé d’affaires would do so. I think it was due to Saudi efforts that the level of participation has been raised to the assistant foreign minister in ministerial meetings, and the foreign minister at the summit,” said the diplomat.

Assistant Foreign Minister Hisham Badr represented Egypt at Tuesday and Wednesday’s ministerial meetings, while Shoukri was due to head the delegation that will hand over the chairmanship of the OIC to Turkey during the summit.

Any real thaw in relations between Cairo and Ankara will require that Turkey halts its attacks on Egypt’s leadership and stops hosting the Egyptian regime’s political opponents, said Hassan.

Cairo and Ankara have been at loggerheads since the removal of Mohamed Morsi as president. In November 2013 Cairo expelled the Turkish ambassador to Egypt, leading to a tit-for-tat response from Ankara.

Al-Sisi and Salman will also have discussed Iran. The Saudis believe Tehran poses an existential threat to their country and increasingly feel surrounded by the Iranian presence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

“The Saudis know they cannot face this threat alone. King Salman knows that Egypt can play a crucial role. The visit was an attempt to secure Egyptian support and understanding of the extent of the threat the Saudi’s think they face,” said the diplomat.

Local intelligence sources quoted by the media before Salman’s visit said Al-Sisi was keen to reassure Riyadh over Cairo’s support of its position towards Iran.

Since Egypt and Saudi Arabia agree that Tehran should not interfere in the Gulf states, “resolving the Syrian and Yemeni issues could contribute to easing Saudi-Iranian tension”, said Hassan.

King Salman took a number of steps to help Egypt face the internal threats posed by the current economic crisis, a shortage of foreign currency and the dangers inherent in the spread of the Islamic State group in Sinai and Libya.

Agreements signed during the visit include the setting up a Saudi-Egyptian investment fund capitalized at $16 billion, the building of a new university and housing units in south Sinai, and the development of an industrial zone in the peninsula.

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