Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

After Salman’s visit

Facebook herds are up in arms about the maritime border agreement with Saudi Arabia. But we should not forget the wider geopolitical horizon within which this agreement was struck, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz’s visit to Egypt from 7-12 April passed through three phases from the standpoint of official and public opinion in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The first was the lead-up to the visit, which was rife with apprehension as to whether the visit would take place at all.

These fears were fed by rumours and a heavy media focus on differences between the two countries on strategic and other concerns.

The second phase was ushered in by the visit itself. This phase was characterised by a high degree of optimism and appreciation for this deep bilateral relationship. It certainly dispelled earlier anxieties as it turned attention to plans to build a bright and flourishing future for this relationship or, as was made implicit, a partnership that seeks to address crucial regional issues in addition to bilateral concerns.

The third phase came with the surprise announcement of the maritime boundaries agreement between the two countries that officially placed Tiran and Sanafir islands within the borders of Saudi Arabia. Such was the commotion that this agreement stirred that it overshadowed the more than 20 other bilateral agreements and understandings reached, all of which advance the interests and welfare of both countries to a degree unprecedented in any previous historical era.

I will not address the actual agreement today. It is not right to discuss a document that has not yet been officially publicised, at least at the time of writing. Nor is it wise to discuss an issue that has become so much a part of the current fracas among the Facebook and Twitter herds that it has become difficult to issue a rational judgement on such an important matter.

In all events, for Egypt at least, the matter is now in the hands of the elected House of Representatives whose members will determine what they deem appropriate in the framework of their constitutionally stipulated powers.

This said, after having offered my congratulations, in this column last week, to the agencies that prepared for a visit by the custodian of the two holy mosques to Egypt, that was successful in so many respects, it is now evident that success eluded them on the matter of the two islands.

This underscores an incontrovertible fact. Public opinion is every bit as impossible to bypass as the social networking media: intellectuals and the press and news media in general are impossible to ignore. Regardless of whether the decisions governments take are strategic, political, economic or diplomatic, it has become a crucial part of the decision-making process to inform the public on the relevant issues involved in the decisions beforehand, not afterwards.

Perhaps now more than ever, advanced technology and the speed-of-light communications systems it has produced make this essential.

Unfortunately, this necessity escaped those who arranged and managed the visit.

To make matters worse, there is a small but active minority among the Facebook and Twitter communities that does not want to see Egyptian-Saudi relations flourish. Perhaps they oppose the current authorities or disagree with the way they are running their country, or maybe they fear certain fruits from this relationship.

Fortunately, however, the vast majority of Egyptians and Saudis are aware of the value of this relationship and its historic importance to Riyadh and Cairo. Therefore, political leaders have a duty to safeguard the achievements that were realised during this visit while constitutional procedures in Egypt take their course.

Furthermore, these very achievements will help redefine the controversy that was sparked in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and reframe what took place during the visit as a manifestation of an Egyptian-Saudi partnership for the present and the future. In Egypt, the question revolves around whether the agreement between Cairo and Riyadh concerns the demarcation of maritime boundaries or the ownership of certain pieces of territory.

The first definition describes a geopolitical arrangement between two countries concluded in accordance with international law; the second involves the historical record and practices of sovereignty.

In Saudi Arabia, the debate centres around those who believe that Saudi investment in Egypt is a waste of resources and those who know that the investment is not only worthwhile but that the value of their country’s relationship with Egypt cannot be measured in money.

Therefore, when some people bring up the question of the two islands, it is not to discuss it in terms of its own merits but rather as a means for scoring points against political adversaries and/or pouring fuel onto a fire that some are very keen to stoke.

Reassessing these questions in the framework of what took actually took place during the Saudi monarch’s visit is to place them in their appropriate context in terms of geography, history and political wisdom. The architects of the Saudi-Egyptian maritime agreement were, simultaneously, architects of a mammoth project to construct a land bridge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

When Aramco announced that the Egyptian port of Sidi Kerir would become a hub for the export of oil and petroleum derivatives to Europe, this effectively extended the bridge from two points on either side of the Red Sea to a third point on the Mediterranean. Similarly, when President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced that the boundaries of Egyptian governorates would be redrawn so as to give southern governorates coasts on the Red Sea, this effectively opened horizons for a meeting between the peoples of two countries that would not be divided but rather conjoined by water.

The other agreements that need to be ratified and put into effect are additional items in the development of relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the social and economic advantages of which I discussed in this column last week. In all events, whether the Egyptian legislature reaches a decision in this parliamentary session or the next one, in autumn, a Saudi-Egyptian agreement to grant Egyptian and Saudi citizens visa-free entry to the two islands should turn them into a joint development zone.

The bridge between the two countries, then, will be much more than a transportation highway for vehicles and pilgrims: it will be an economic highway that will help boost the development of both countries.

It is important to bear in mind that King Salman’s visit concerned not only bilateral relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but also their combined economic, financial, petroleum, demographic and military weight in the context of the entire Middle East. In short, it was also about strategic power balances. No one can dispute the fact that the two countries have been working together for a long time, during varying political circumstances, to realise stability in the region.

Towards this end, they both are striving to resolve current crises and conflicts. At the same time, they are working to counter extremism and terrorism, to offset Iranian moves in the region, and to manage confused relationships with major powers in the international community by making the necessary adjustments to balances of power in the region and renewing religious thought and discourse.

Despite all the talk in the press and social networking sites about disagreements between the two countries, the fact is that both approve UN Security Council and Arab League resolutions on Syria, Yemen and Libya; and both countries, together with other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Jordan, form a political and military bloc that is forging a regional security order to steer the region out of the intractable crisis that has gripped it since 2010.

Certainly, there are many details involved. Certainly, too, the maritime border agreement has an importance in its own right. However, it should be borne in mind that this agreement is part of a much broader and comprehensive whole, which is what made the Saudi monarch’s visit an opportunity not to be squandered.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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