Friday,27 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Friday,27 April, 2018
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Egyptian-Saudi ties warm up

Recent signs point to a new chapter in Egyptian-Saudi relations

Egyptian-Saudi ties warm up
Egyptian-Saudi ties warm up

Several recent diplomatic moves have shown that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are willing to forge closer ties.

On Friday 31 March Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri called his Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubeir to discuss bilateral relations and follow up on the latest meeting between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz.

“The two ministers agreed to hold political negotiations soon in Cairo to discuss bilateral and regional issues in addition to preparing for the expected visits of President Al-Sisi to Saudi Arabia and King Salman to Egypt,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said.

A date for Salman’s visit has not been determined.

In a sign of warming relations, Salman met Al-Sisi on the sidelines of the Arab summit held in Amman last month.

The Saudi monarch invited President Al-Sisi to visit Riyadh. Al-Sisi welcomed the invitation and in turn invited Salman, his office said in a statement.

“King Salman promised to visit Egypt in the very near future based on an invitation from President Al-Sisi,” the statement said.

The two leaders also discussed improving relations, the statement added.

The Saudi decision that Egypt be the guest of the Gulf country’s Al-Janadriyah National Festival for Heritage and Culture in February sent a positive message on relations between the two countries.

Another development was the resumption of Saudi petroleum shipments to Egypt, widely regarded as the biggest proof of improved relations.

Petroleum Minister Tarek Al-Molla said last month that Egypt had received two cargoes of diesel fuel from Saudi oil company Aramco for the first time since October.

The ministry said shipments had been stopped for commercial reasons.

Aramco suddenly suspended the shipments in October 2016, leaving Egypt in a difficult situation and trying to find an immediate alternative.

Although Saudi Arabia denied that the suspension was related to Egypt’s vote in the UN on a resolution on Syria, many commentators linked the two incidents.

During King Salman’s visit to Egypt in April last year, Saudi Arabia agreed to provide Egypt with 700,000 tons of refined oil products a month for five years, but the cargoes stopped arriving in early October.

The deal included 400,000 tons of diesel, 200,000 tons of benzene and 100,000 tons of mazot per month, paid for by the Egyptian Petroleum Company over a 15-year period and at two per cent interest.

During Salman’s visit, the two leaders also signed a number of agreements, including the controversial settlement of a long-time maritime border dispute which put the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir within Saudi borders.

They also announced a groundbreaking agreement to build a bridge that would span the Red Sea and connect the two countries.

Egyptian opposition to demarking the maritime borders and giving to Saudi Arabia the two islands brought protests in Cairo and Egyptian-Saudi differences to the fore.

In addition, in October, Egypt voted in favour of a Russian-backed — but Saudi-opposed — UN resolution on Syria.

The Russian draft resolution urged all involved Syrian parties to halt offensive operations and called for bringing humanitarian aid into besieged areas.

Saudi Arabia, which seeks to depose the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, was not in favour of any resolution that provided support for Damascus.

Thus, it viewed Egypt’s vote on the resolution as deviating from the Arab position.

The move was openly criticised by Saudi officials including the Saudi Envoy to the United Nations Abdallah Al-Mouallimi.

Egypt’s Ambassador to the UN Amr Abul-Atta explained Egypt’s stand in a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry. “Egypt’s vote was based on the contents of the resolution rather than according to political bidding that has become a hindrance to the Security Council’s work.”

He said Egypt would never stand against a draft resolution that called for a ceasefire and brought humanitarian aid to the Syrians.

In January, an Egyptian court rejected a government plan to transfer the two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

The Egyptian vote in the UN, together with the islands court ruling, contributed to increasing tension between both countries that has escalated over the past years, mainly over Syria and differences over the way to settle the crisis.

Egypt is in favour of a political settlement that will protect the unity of the country and involve all active parties. However, Saudi Arabia seems to prefer the military solution or the use of force to remove Al-Assad.

Regarding Iran, Saudi Arabia sees Tehran as a threat to the region, accusing it of meddling in Gulf affairs and trying to spread Shia ideology.

The relationship further deteriorated after the Iranian attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran last year.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman stated that Iran was a security threat during his meeting with US President Donald Trump last month.

Meanwhile, Riyadh is unhappy with the channels of communication with Tehran that Cairo maintains in the absence of diplomatic relations.

Egyptian-Saudi differences over ways to handle the crisis in Yemen have further fuelled tension.

In Yemen, Egypt rejected any ground intervention. However, Saudi Arabia supported a ground intervention in Yemen and expected Egypt to participate with ground troops as part of a Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015. But Egypt’s commitment has been limited to naval deployment to protect Red Sea shipping lanes.

Saudi Arabia has been a key backer of Al-Sisi since the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi whose Muslim Brotherhood movement was viewed by Riyadh with suspicion. It has since pumped billions of dollars in aid and investments into Egypt.

Egyptian-Saudi relations have witnessed various ups and downs throughout modern history. But Cairo and Riyadh have always been careful to sustain a minimum degree of communication and coordination at all times. They both realise that their cooperation is vital for the stability of the region.

Given the present situation, their cooperation is probably needed more than any time in the past.

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