Thursday,16 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)
Thursday,16 August, 2018
Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

No divorce petition

Dina Ezzat examines the vacillating relationship between Cairo and Riyadh

Al-Ahram Weekly

“You could call it an unexpected, bad hiccup and though I think it will take time we will move beyond it,” is how an informed Egyptian diplomat summed up the current state of Egyptian-Saudi relations. 

He spoke as Ali Mamlouk, a leading member of the Syrian regime, was holding meetings in Cairo which the Egyptian government had “chosen, let us say, to publicise, though without overdue attention”.

It is not the first time that Mamlouk, head of the Syrian National Security Bureau and a close associate of Bashar Al-Assad, has visited Egypt. He has been to Cairo several times since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, as have other military, security and intelligence and military officials from the Al-Assad regime. In the words of one Cairo-based Western diplomat “this is not something the Egyptians are hiding, and certainly not from Riyadh which has known for a long time that Cairo is siding with the regime in Syria”. 

Previous meetings, however, have been for the most part quiet affairs described to Riyadh, which looks askance at such contacts, as a means to keep basic channels of communication open.

“We have the right to keep an eye on Syria and we have the right to worry about the influence militant Islamic groups, supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have there. This is not something we can afford to overlook,” says the Egyptian diplomat. 

For all its unease about the failure of Cairo to take its side on Syria, Riyadh has for the most part  accepted that Cairo is apprehensive about the possible chaos that could hit Syria, and its spill over, should Al-Assad be forced from power five years after the beginning of demonstrations demanding an end to his rule. 

Recently, though, Saudi displeasure hardened into open criticism, voiced by the Saudi permanent representative to the UN in New York when, earlier this month, Egypt voted in favour of a Russian resolution calling for a truce in Aleppo without mandating an end to the devastating air attacks conducted by the Syrian and Russian air forces.

In an unusual statement the Saudi diplomat in New York said the vote had shown Cairo cares nothing about the fate of Syrians and is incapable of playing a leading Arab role at a time when millions of Syrians have been killed or displaced. His remarks were followed by an unprecedented media offensive against Egypt. Critics, whether in the mainstream or social media, questioned why Riyadh should continue to extend financial and political assistance to the regime in Egypt in the absence of any political coordination on major regional issues.

The question of what should be done about Syria is the most fundamental disagreement between Cairo and Riyadh since the change of regime in Egypt in the summer of 2013, which was accompanied by massive Saudi, and UAE, financial and political support.

Egyptian officials say the death of King Abdullah in 2015 and his succession by King Salman, who installed his son, Mohamed bin Salman, as Saudi Arabia’s effective second in command, fundamentally changed the equation. Riyadh, they argue, is far less sensitive to Cairo’s deep worries over political Islamic groups and is instead intent on building a Sunni camp, under the leadership of Mohamed bin Salman, to face up to the Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy Iran. 

The Saudi narrative is that Cairo’s worries about the possible resurrection of the Muslim Brotherhood has led it to become obsessed with the fate of political Islam.

“I guess it is safe to say that the reality is somewhere in between the two narratives. Yes, the Saudis are trying very hard to form a Sunni coalition and they are not making a secret of it,” said another Cairo-based Western diplomat.  “But Cairo sees the ghost of the Muslim Brotherhood in every political Islamic group in the region and wants basically to eliminate all political Islamic movement across the Arab world, an impossible task.” 

According to other Western and Arab diplomats in Cairo Egypt and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to reach a compromise over Syria because Riyadh sees the Al-Assad regime as an extension of Iran while Cairo sees the Muslim Brotherhood and other more radical Islamic groups as the only possible alternative to Al-Assad. 

This, the same diplomats argue, goes way beyond what Cairo and Riyadh had for the longest time chosen to qualify as “a normal disagreement”. It is rather, they insist, a deep clash of views about where the Arab world stands and where it could go.

 “Riyadh went far enough to initiate diplomatic, trade and other forms of cooperation with Israel in order to unite fronts against Iran while Egypt is engaged in unprecedented security cooperation with Israel to confront radical Muslim groups in Sinai and Gaza,” says a leading European diplomat who moves often between Cairo and Riyadh.

He adds that while the Saudis want “self-identified Sunni rulers” in every Arab capital, Egypt wants “self-identified iron-fist rulers, preferably from the military”.

“This is a fundamental clash of views about the future of the region,” concludes the diplomat.

The differences, say Arab diplomats who regularly attend Arab League meetings, extends to the situation in Libya, Iraq and Yemen. The clash, says one, is basically about regional leadership, with Egypt willing to accept to share but not abandon its traditional leading regional role. 

“The Saudis have been acting as if Egypt has no share in the leadership of the region. They wanted a Sunni military coalition under Saudi leadership with Egypt as a junior partner. They decided to go to a war — basically against Iran — in Yemen and they wanted Cairo to send an army there,” said a Europe-based political source.  “This is not something that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi could do even if he wanted.  It is not something any Egyptian president could ask of his Armed Forces”.

Diplomatic and political sources both in and out of the region use strikingly similar language to describe the distress felt in the highest echelons of the Egyptian regime over the loss of the rapport Egypt and Saudi Arabia enjoyed during the rule of King Abdullah. 

“They had very good chemistry. The fact that the Egyptian president made repeated and public shows of gratitude for Saudi support under the rule of Abdullah made the Saudi king even more supportive,” says an Egyptian diplomat, now retired, who was close political events in the summer of 2013. 

Unlike his predecessor, the retired diplomat adds, the current Saudi monarch does not see a threat from political Islamic groups — “and this is what really prompted heavy Saudi investment in the support of the political change in Egypt” — but rather from Iran “which is why the Saudis tried every trick in the diplomatic book to block the deal between Iran and the Western powers”. 

“It was one thing for Egypt to accommodate Saudi views by declining repeated Iranian diplomatic overtures and by offering some military support for the Saudi war in Yemen, quite another for Cairo to sign up to the domination of radical militant groups in Syria, a country that is strategically crucial to Egypt.”

“It would be very hard for Saudi Arabia to preach to Egypt about the humanitarian plight being caused in Syria by joint Syrian-Russian military attacks when the Saudis are daily blamed for a humanitarian situation in Yemen which is not much better than that in Syria,” he adds.

Informed Egyptian government sources say the recent downturn in relations between Cairo and Riyadh is not about Syria, Yemen or any other regional matter, nor is it a result of Egyptian moves like the announced visit of Mamlouk on Monday to Cairo or the talks that Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri has openly conducted with his Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of several multilateral meetings. It is, they insist, focused on Tiran and Sanafir, the two Red Sea islands handed over to the Saudis by virtue of a water demarcation agreement signed in April by Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and Mohamed bin Salman.

The hand-over prompted angry protests in Egypt. These were followed by an Administrative Court ruling annulling the agreement. The government is appealing the ruling but the Saudis are growing impatient with the failure to hand over the islands.

“Sovereignty over the islands is essential to Mohamed bin Salman’s political credentials. He wants to be the one who delivered unprecedented Egyptian compliance. It would give him an incredible asset over his rival, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef,” says a political source close to Al-Sisi. “Unfortunately, it does not seem the matter will be sorted to the liking of Mohamed bin Salman.”

Government sources say bin Salman received a direct message to this effect earlier this month. The Saudi response was to take punitive measures against Cairo, blocking promised financial assistance to help Egypt start the process of economic reforms needed to access the first tranche of a $12 billion loan from the IMF before the end of this year. The Saudis also decided to withhold long agreed oil shipments. Then came the open dispute over Syria and complaints, made in leading world capitals, over the Egyptian administration’s management of economic, political and security affairs.

“It’s fair to say that there is some tough bras de fer going on between the two countries but it is hard to see this ending in a divorce,” comments a senior Egyptian official.  

His remarks came two days after President Al-Sisi said during a press interview that Egypt appreciates the help Riyadh has extended during the past three years and is keen to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. 

A few days earlier Al-Sisi appeared to hint at a possible major crisis when he said “the independence of Egyptian [political] decisions” comes with a high price. 

Al-Sisi’s remarks in the press interview were accompanied by a reduction in anti-Egyptian criticism in the Saudi media, and followed “mediation offered by the King of Bahrain”, says one source. 

Arab diplomats insist the close alliance between Egypt and Saudi Arabia since the mid-1970s, which has allowed for layered cooperation and a wide range of joint interests, including large numbers of Egyptian workers in the oil rich monarchy and Egyptian military support during the Gulf War in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, is unlikely to be replaced with a sense of animosity. They argue it is one thing for the honeymoon that began in the summer of 2013 to be nearing its end and quite another for the alliance of two leading regional powers to be over. 

For Arab and Western diplomats the pressing question is not whether Egypt and Saudi Arabia part ways – both countries, they say, know that they cannot do without the other – but how Riyadh chooses to express its dismay towards a country it had seen as its foremost regional ally until recently but no longer perceives it in this light.

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