Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Strategic realisations

The severing of diplomatic ties with Qatar by a number of Arab states is as much an acknowledgement of Egypt’s enduring importance as anything else, writes Hussein Haridy

Back in March 2014, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain decided to recall their ambassadors from Doha, Qatar, to signal their displeasure at some Qatari policies that they deemed destabilising. Saudi Arabia, then, was under the reign of the late King Abdullah who was determined to shield his country and other countries within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) from violent extremism, on the one hand, and from turning into raging war fronts like Iraq and Syria. The terrorist group later to label itself “Islamic State” had been operating in Syria and occupied large swaths of lands in this country, mainly in the East, not far away from the Iraqi borders. In 2013, it had brought Raqqa under its control, and two to three months later the world would be taken by surprise by the fall of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq that housed one of the biggest arms depots of the Iraqi army.

Maybe the late Saudi king had had premonitions in March 2014 of the mayhem and destruction that was to follow, or he just wanted to protect his closest allies, including Egypt, from a similar fate that would befall in a very short period of time both Iraq and Syria. He knew the role the Qataris were playing in Syria in cahoots with the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to facilitate by coercion, violence, terror and blackmail the political empowerment of the Muslim Brothers. Once this plan was successful, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia would come into the crosshairs of the Turkish-Qatari axis through their Muslim Brotherhood surrogates. 

The recall of the ambassadors of the three countries was unprecedented in the history of the GCC and it reflected the strains that the alliances and cross alliances engendered by the so-called Arab Spring on the political cohesion of GCC. 
The political reverberations of this confrontation within the GCC resonated in the region and in the Arab world.

To defuse the mini-crisis, compared to what would happen three years later, the Qataris agreed to a set of demands that were incorporated in a document known as the Riyadh Agreement. According to this document, Qatar would be bound not to intervene in the domestic affairs of its neighbours, would not harbour members of the political opposition of other member countries in the GCC, nor would it allow media incitement against other countries, including those who had recalled their ambassadors from the Qatari capital.

Including Egypt, of course. The late king Abdullah was quite aware that Egypt is the strategic prize that the Turkish-Qatari axis was after. And he knew that the ultimate fate of both Egypt and Saudi Arabia in this tumultuous epoch in the Middle East couldn’t be dissociated.

With the Riyadh Agreement signed, the three ambassadors went back to Doha and the parties to this mini-crisis wrongly thought that a sad page had been turned. No one realised, then, that fate would say otherwise. 

In January 2015, King Abdullah passed away and the kingdom was in for a radical shakeup, not only in terms of leadership but also in terms of policies that were to prove the undoing of the legacy of the late Saudi king. This undoing did not exclude the strategic realities and changes that both the Middle East and the world had seen in the last three years.

 The Qataris, following closely the changing political winds in Riyadh, reverted back to the old policies that the Riyadh Agreement wanted to address seriously. Concomitantly, voices had begun to be heard within Saudi Arabia doubting the advantages of being a close ally to Egypt at the expense of many advantages to be gained from getting closer to Turkey, the emerging power in the Middle East, and on whom Saudi Arabia could depend in containing Iran and its militias in the Middle East. And for the first time since the June Revolution in Egypt, Cairo came under attack in the Saudi media. Many outsiders, including the Qataris interpreted these attacks as a reflection of the thinking in the upper echelons of government in Saudi Arabia.

In the following years, and despite the fact that Egypt and Saudi Arabia had signed a Declaration of Principles at the end of July 2015 to be a roadmap in strengthening their bilateral relations in all fields, and including the delineation of their maritime borders, relations got cooler for a variety of reasons, both internal and external. The main beneficiaries have been Qatar and Turkey. Bilateral relations between the two were elevated to a formal strategic alliance with the stationing of Turkish troops in Qatar, if need be. Similarly, Turkish-Saudi relations improved dramatically. Egypt, meanwhile, saw the worst terrorist attacks of the last three years. 

Slowly, and grudgingly, the Saudis, after almost a year in which Egyptian-Saudi relations cooled off, came to the realisation that Egypt is an indispensable ally, and I would rather stress an indispensable ally in Middle East quicksand.

A strong Egypt is a must for the security and stability of Saudi Arabia. In other words, the Turkish-Qatari axis could never, and would never, make up for the stabilising role of Egypt. 

This realisation goes a long way in explaining the coming together of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt and their decisions of severing diplomatic relations with Qatar and other drastic measures that are tantamount, almost, to a declaration of war. 
This sudden escalation is a direct result of Qatar reneging on its commitments set forth in the Riyadh Agreement of 2014. De-escalation with Qatar today must be more stringent, for I doubt if the present rulers in Qatar would ever relinquish their strategic alliance with Turkey. From their standpoint, their long-term interests in the Middle East and the Gulf are better served aligning with Ankara than with Riyadh.

 Whatever the outcome of this confrontation will be, Egypt should never lose sight of fact that this Turkish-Qatari axis will remain its avowed enemy. It should reorder its strategic alliances accordingly.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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