Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Turbulent threats

Egypt is maintaining a delicate balance in its regional relations at a time of dangerously escalating tensions, writes Dina Ezzat

“I am not anticipating a Saudi-Iranian war, not a direct war, at all. I would also say Israel does not seem to be set on attacking Hizbullah, and Hizbullah itself is trying to avert any conflict with Israel given how bogged down it is in Syria. But it would be extremely unwise to exclude the possibility of political tensions in the region igniting at any moment, either by mistake or by design.”

This was how a senior Egyptian government official summarised Cairo’s take on a turbulent week for the Middle East.

On Saturday Saudi authorities announced the detention of leading members of the royal family, including the chief of the National Guard Meteib bin Abdullah, serving and former ministers and leading businessmen, including Al-Walid bin Talal.

Arrests continued throughout the week: they included other members of the royal family and of the Saudi business community, glossed as a campaign against corruption and nepotism.

It was also in the Saudi capital that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri announced his resignation. A Saudi citizen, and head of the weakened Sunni bloc in Lebanon, Al-Hariri used a brief televised statement to blame Iran’s ally Hizbullah for his resignation, saying the move was intended to disassociate him from the havoc Iran and its allies were seeking to impose across the region.

The two developments were quickly interpreted by Middle East diplomats and foreign diplomats based in the region as possible harbingers of a difficult power struggle in Saudi Arabia and an Israeli attack on Hizbullah in Lebanon.

“Of course we know the powerful crown prince of Saudi Arabia [Mohamed Bin Salman] did not launch his crackdown without a nod from the US which appears to be backing his ascent in return for greater Saudi and Arab openness to Israel and firmer pressure on Iran but these are still difficult decisions and the calculations could go wrong,” says an informed Egyptian political source.

On Monday US President Donald Trump tweeted that he had faith in the actions taken by the Saudi leadership and attacked the detainees for abusing the resources of their country. On the same day a spokesman for the Pentagon backed Saudi’s firm stand against Iran.

Meanwhile, “while an Israeli attack on Hizbullah might be delayed there are no guarantees the situation in Lebanon will not spin out of control following Al-Hariri’s accusations, even taking into consideration the widely held view Al-Hariri was forced to announce his resignation and attack Hizbullah by the Saudi authorities who were practically keeping him under house arrest,” says a well-informed Beirut-based source.

He added Sunnis, Shias and Christians are “really doing their best to consolidate the internal front”.

“This includes Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, though following Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan’s accusations on Monday that the Lebanese government is involved in ‘a war against Saudi Arabia’ via Hizbullah’s alliance with Iran there is no telling where things might lead.”

Al-Sabhan announced: “We will deal with the Lebanese government as one that has declared war on Saudi Arabia.”

He was speaking after Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told CNN that Riyadh considered the recent missile attack launched by Iranian supported Houthis in Yemen on the Saudi capital as an act of war. Al-Jubeir accused Hizbullah activists of dismantling Iranian missiles, smuggling them into Yemen then reassembling the missiles to fire into Saudi territory. It was a line the Saudi crown prince repeated within hours during a telephone conversation with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif used Twitter to accuse the Saudis of trying to provoke a war with Iran to cover up its schemes for regional hegemony.

Arab and foreign sources in Cairo and Beirut say Egypt has been intensively involved in discrete diplomatic consultations to head of further conflict.

In press statements given to CNBC TV channel and Saudi owned Asharq Al-Awsat President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi cautioned against escalating any conflict in a region already facing heavy challenges. “The stability of the region is very important and we have to protect it,” said Al-Sisi.

Diplomatic and government sources say Al-Sisi and his aides have been pressing Egypt’s international partners — “and yes, that includes Israel, a major player in this episode,” according to one — to act with caution.

“What we are saying to everyone is the situation is already very tense in Syria where Hizbullah has been acting to crush Islamist militant groups and we don’t need to drag Hizbullah out of Syria now. We are also making it clear that an attack against Hizbullah would give ammunition to Islamist groups to advance their propaganda,” said an Egyptian source.

He added that a Saudi supported Israeli attack on Hizbullah when the fate of the Lebanese prime minister is still unknown would work in favour of Iran and Qatar which would lobby for support against all Arab regimes allied with Israel.

The same source said Egypt would not want to jeopardise its success in brokering an agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, warning that “if Israel attacks Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Iranians could prompt Hamas to target Israel from Gaza.”

“And all this would be happening against the backdrop of a high risk political gamble in Saudi Arabia the consequences of which are being carefully watched across the Gulf, and a grave humanitarian crisis in Yemen for which the Saudis and the rest of the alliance is blamed.”

According to Cairo- and Beirut-based sources, Egypt pressed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was in Sharm El-Sheikh for a meeting with Al-Sisi on Monday before heading to Saudi Arabia, to upscale security arrangements to prevent Hamas staging any “irrational acts towards Israel”.

Egypt has also used its indirect channels with Iran, through Iraq and Algeria, to caution against provoking any movement in Yemen against Saudi targets.

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