Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1332, (16 - 22 February 2017)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1332, (16 - 22 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt-Saudi relations in question

The Egypt-Saudi bilateral relation is the last vestige of the current Arab order. It is of capital importance to cement this relation by all means possible

Throughout my time at the 31st edition of the Janadriyah National Festival for Heritage and Culture in Riyadh, which ended a few days ago, I was haunted by the question as to the source of smouldering tensions in Egyptian-Saudi relations. How did the things reach this point? Surely the state of deterioration in the Arab region does not permit for such discord between the two largest remaining states in the Arab order, following the fall of both Iraq and Syria?

Egypt was chosen to be the guest of honour in this year’s festival, which is on par with the Riyadh Book Fair as the most important annual cultural event in Saudi Arabia. This was significant in that it followed a chain of events that clouded a close bilateral relationship that reached a zenith following the 30 June Revolution and the rise to power of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. The late King Abdullah lent his full material and moral backing to the new Egyptian order to which the 2013 revolution gave birth. His help included attempts to mediate with some Western countries that continued to support the Muslim Brotherhood after their fall, ostensibly on the grounds of the need to abide by the results of democratic elections. The position is all the more striking today in light of mounting anti-Trump protests that are sweeping the US, in spite of the fact that no one doubts that the elections that brought him to power were democratic.

Saudi support for Egypt continued after the death of King Abdullah. So dictated the state of the Arab world, which compels every rational person in both countries to do his utmost to promote closer relations between them so as to avert the spectre of rupture. Rupture would usher in the collapse of the current Arab order, or what remains of that order now anarchy prevails in all other effective Arab countries. In addition to what has happened to the former regional powers of Syria and Iraq, disintegration and, in most cases, violence and internecine strife of varying degrees of intensity prevail in Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Lebanon.

King Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz’s visit to Egypt in April last year was arranged with the foregoing in mind. The visit laid the foundations for a strategic bilateral relationship and reflected the desire of the leaderships on both sides to work closely together in solidarity against the challenges that loom before the Arab region at present. Foremost among these are the need to confront terrorism, extremism and attempts to destroy the nation state, which would have disastrous repercussions for all national entities and institutions in the region.

However, no sooner did that visit end that trouble cropped up. It was as though some parties were not pleased to see such close cooperation continue between these two countries at this precarious phase in Arab history and therefore decided to stir up issues to divide them. So, before we knew it, Saudi Arabia began to blame Cairo for dragging its feet on handing over Tiran and Sanafir and for questioning Saudi title to these islands, even though this matter had become a question of public opinion and out of the hands of the Egyptian government. Saudi Arabia was also angered by Egypt’s stances on Syria and Yemen and by the Egyptian vote in favour of the Russian resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council. Egypt, for its part, was angered by the Saudi decision to halt the delivery of agreed upon gas shipments and by a visit undertaken by a senior Saudi official to the Grand Renaissance Dam project in Ethiopia. Both sides continued to hurl accusations and recriminations at the other through their respective media, which sometimes stoop to the crudest forms of expression.

Perhaps the key source of this current state of affairs between the two countries is their failure to sustain close and continual consultation and coordination. In spite of the near total concord between the two countries at the senior leadership level, Egypt was taken by surprise by the Saudi decision to recall a gas freighter after it had entered the port of Suez, just as Saudi Arabia was taken by surprise by the Egyptian vote in favour of the Russian resolution on Syria, which conflicted with the Saudi position on that country.

If this unilateral behaviour persists with regard to decisions that affect the interests of the other side, currently suppressed tensions could mount to dangerous levels, especially given another crisis that appears to be looming. Khartoum has reportedly decided to build a dam on the Nile and Riyadh has pledged to help fund it. That project, which would retain huge quantities of water, would pose a direct threat to Egyptian national security and Egypt would have no choice but to act. Curiously, when I tried to find out what officials in Egypt thought of that project, I was surprised to discover that no one had any knowledge of it. This means that Riyadh has taken the decision to fund the Sudanese dam without coordinating with or consulting Egypt which, in turn, is hardly a sign of Riyadh’s keenness to sustain the strategic partnership King Salman presumably came to Egypt last year to establish.

The succession of controversies between Egypt and Saudi Arabia raises suspicions that parties in both countries do not want this strategic relationship to survive, thereby jeopardising the security wall needed to defy the waves of collapse crashing against the Arab order, or what remains of it. Is there an element of design behind developments that precipitated tensions in our bilateral relationship? Why has there been no coordination with Egypt over the suspension of much-needed Saudi fuel supplies? Why was Saudi Arabia not consulted regarding the Russian-sponsored Security Council resolution that Riyadh maintains undermined its position on Syria? Was it all merely due to a lack of required coordination? If so, then we definitely need an institutionalised mechanism for this purpose. I know that there exists a body called the Egyptian-Saudi Coordinating Council made up of a number of ministers from both countries, but I do not know what this council does. Nor do I understand how it is possible for such a council to exist only for Egypt to be taken by surprise by the Saudi decision to halt fuel supplies, or for Saudi Arabia to be surprised by Egyptian support for an international resolution that Riyadh believes is not in its interests.

If we truly want to support Egyptian-Saudi relations, which are so crucial to the survival of the Arab order at this time, then what is needed is an urgent summit meeting between President Al-Sisi and King Salman in order to set matters right and to agree on an effective mechanism for sustaining coordination between the two sides, in order to avert further deterioration in this relationship.

That Egypt was made the guest of honour at the largest Saudi cultural festival was a good initiative on the part of Riyadh. It affirmed the solidity of the cultural and emotional relationship between the two peoples, offering something on which to build politically and economically. Saudi Arabia is currently making preparations for another major cultural event. The inauguration of the King Fahd Library following the completion of its ambitious development project is only a few weeks away. The national library houses, among other things, many ancient documents that testify to the unity of Arab history and, in particular, to the continuity of Egyptian-Saudi relations throughout history. Will the Egyptian and Saudi leaderships cut the ribbon together, making this unique cultural event an occasion to turn the leaf on the current bilateral crisis?

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