Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Recasting the region

The Saudi-Iranian face-off is forcing new regional dynamics that leave Egypt with massive foreign policy challenges, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Today in Saudi Arabia, US President Barack Obama is scheduled to hold his last meeting with the leaders of the six-member state Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.

 The meeting follows the summit between Obama and Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz scheduled for Wednesday.

At both meetings, Obama and his Gulf interlocutors have one key issue in mind: regional order after the end of the four-decade-long isolation that was imposed on Iran.

There are no expectations that the meeting will result in major agreements, according to informed regional diplomats. The US president, they say, is likely to offer a new package of security and political guarantees that GCC leaders will welcome. But the package will fall far short of the military pact they had hoped to win with Washington, whereby the US would act as the ultimate shield against any potential Iranian threat.

 “This time GCC leaders are talking to the US president against a backdrop of growing warmth between almost every single Gulf capital and Israel, which shares the same worries with Saudi rulers over the growing Iranian threat,” said a diplomatic source based in a regional capital.

 According to this diplomat, the rapport between Israel and the Gulf is way beyond the close rapprochement the Qatari ruling family has openly developed with Israel. Today, this close relation includes both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and does not exclude the rest.

“It is an open secret that this rapport is not just about the strategic assessment of regional dynamics and it does have present and future economic and in fact military aspects — including direct and indirect cooperation in mega-development projects and direct and indirect arms deals,” the same source said.

 The US welcomes this “new beginning” — as do other key European and many Arab countries. Washington, in particular, is hoping that this increased warmth in relations between Gulf countries and Israel will not allow for equally growing hostility with Iran.

“What counts for the US, especially for an outgoing administration, is stability in the Middle East, a region infested with too many armed conflicts, and to avoid sudden and unexpected fluctuations in oil supplies and Gulf assets to the West,” according to a Gulf-based diplomat.

“There are proxy wars between the Saudis and Iran today. It is happening in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and even Libya — but that is very different from some direct clash or major crisis,” he added.

 Obama is expected to remind his Gulf interlocutors of what he told The Atlantic magazine a few weeks ago: a cold peace is not impossible between Iran and the Saudis, and it could be done with the implicit support of the US.

But as one informed Arab diplomat noted, “Obama must know that a cold peace is about shared regional power and this is not what the Saudis will settle for because what the Saudis want, and what they at least think they are getting, is regional hegemony.”

 He continued, “The new Saudi rulers are not like their predecessors, who used to be content with calling the shots from behind the scenes. They want the role and the presence of a regional leader and they are willing and capable of paying the political price for this, through direct and immediate military intervention in Yemen at whatever military and financial cost, and through a slow-but-certain upgrade of relations with Israel.”

Only last week, in the wake of the signing in Cairo of a deal to delineate maritime boundaries between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which allows for the transfer of two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir publicly acknowledged the responsibilities, stipulated in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, towards Israel that come with the handover.

Israeli officials said they had been in the know about the deal between Saudi Arabia and Egypt weeks before it was revealed to the public.

The Saudis acceded to an Israeli government request for a letter in which Riyadh acknowledges the requirements of the peace treaty, according to a European diplomatic source.

 “Yes, you could say it amounts to making the Saudis party to the peace treaty that [Anwar] Sadat signed in 1979 and for which he was punished by a decade-long Arab boycott,” he said.

 During his talks with King Salman, Obama was scheduled to finalise an agreement on the role of the oil-rich kingdom in supporting the peacekeeping mission in Sinai.

 In the assessment of many regional diplomats, this new Saudi-Israeli relationship — which, according to some, was cooked up by the Qataris — is perhaps as groundbreaking a regional shift as the deal between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

“What is unfolding before us today is actually the expansion of the peace treaty of Egypt and Israel to include countries like Saudi Arabia who were not direct players to the Arab-Israeli struggle,” said Rabab Al-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “This is about a new regional order. We are talking about borders and about treaties.”

In this new regional order, said Al-Mahdi, Iran is gaining more power, NATO-member Turkey is party to almost every crucial regional issue, Israel has expanding influence and “now there is Saudi Arabia that is announcing itself as the leading Arab country”.

According to Al-Mahdi, transnational formations like the Islamic State group, and more traditional organisations like Hizbullah, are also adopting stronger cross-border profiles.

 So where does this leave Egypt? “Not in a very favourable position,” said Al-Mahdi, because on the one hand this new set up offers a clear challenge to Egypt’s traditional leading status. It is also a situation in which Egypt is faced with complex security challenges related to the military motivations and moves of old and new adversaries, not just on the eastern borders but also on the now very problematic western border with Libya.

 “I think it would be hard to underestimate the national security issues that Egypt now has to worry about,” she said.

 Speaking on condition of anonymity, Egyptian officials agree, at least in principle, that Egypt has many national security issues to attend to.

 “Clearly, we still count on the economic support of the Saudis and of course we need the security and intelligence support that Israel provides about the situation in Sinai,” said one.

 He agreed that “the amount of accommodation” Egypt has shown towards Saudi Arabia during the past couple of years is a “new” element in the bilateral relations of the two countries “which have been very solid for decades now”.

 The new accommodation also includes, he said, an apprehensive openness towards Turkey, a skeptical slow dialogue with Qatar and an exaggerated rebuff of Iranian diplomatic overtures.

 “The new regional order whereby all Arab countries are at peace with Israel is actually consistent with and not opposed to our vision of the region which of course also includes the eventual solution to the Palestinian problem,” he said.

 He added that what counts for Egypt now is to expand its influence over this “in-the-making regional order”.

 “It might take us a while because of the economic and political problems we have faced since January 2011 but this chapter of the Arab Spring now seems to be closing.”

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