Doomed to Be Friends

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The differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia cannot break the relationship between the two countries.

Doomed to Be Friends

Written by Eugene Satanovskiy; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Theo N. Kaufman exclusively for SouthFront. Edited by Yoana

After the overthrow of the military led by General-turned-President Al-Sisi against the government of the “Muslim Brotherhood” the relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia began to rapidly improve.

Egyptian economy depends on Saudi Arabia. The security of the kingdom faltered after the US made the “nuclear deal” with Iran – in turn this improved the Saudi relationship with Cairo. At the same time, the Egyptian-Saudi relations are developing nonlinear. They are affected by the changes in the tactics of the Saudi court (after coming to power, King Salman adjusted the rate of its predecessors), the pragmatic interests of both parties and their relationship with the outside world, including the Arab, are different, according to Riyadh and Cairo. Consider the current state and prospects of relations with Egypt and the KSA, based on the materials prepared by the expert of the Institute of the Middle East A.A. Zheleznov and TASS.

Two wings

On April 7 began a five-day state visit of the King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdul Aziz in Egypt. This is the first visit of the current monarch in a country with which the KSA has a special relationship. At the time, King Abdullah was among the first Arab leaders who congratulated Incumbent Egyptian President Al-Sisi on his election as president of Egypt, and visited Cairo on an official visit in June, 2014. The two countries share a common strategy in the battle against terrorism. Additionally, Riyadh provided financial assistance for the stabilization of the model of Al-Sisi and the restoration of the Egyptian economy. This included soft loans, investments, and energy supplies. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia included the “Muslim Brotherhood” on the list of terrorist organizations. The country carried out a series of special operations to detain MB activists and took harsh measures against the Ulema, those who supported them.

“But now, Riyadh is more concerned about the growing threat of” Islamic State “and Iran, and therefore does not address the” Muslim Brotherhood “as a direct challenge to its national security” After the accession to the throne of King Salman, it seemed as if this would still be the case. President Al-Sisi visited the KSA in August 2015, to sign the “Cairo Declaration”, according to which the two countries pledged to enhance cooperation in the field of investment, transport and energy. It was stated that Egypt and KSA are the “two wings of the Arab national security”, and they’ re ready to act together to maintain regional stability. However, contrary to the expectations of Saudi Arabia, who believed that Egypt would conduct a foreign policy in exchange for financial aid, which would benefit Riyadh, the situation began to evolve differently. In Cairo, we felt that national interests do not always coincide with the Saudi’s “recommendations”. Outwardly, the leaders of the two countries strive to demonstrate unity and friendship, yet reports in the Arab media point at a growing tension between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, mainly due to fundamental disagreements on various political issues.

First of all, it concerned the differences in the approaches to some of the major regional issues: the fight against terrorism, conflict in Syria and Yemen, and relations with Iran. Unlike Riyadh, which considers Tehran as their main regional adversary, Cairo conducts, in spite of the difficult relationship with the latter, a more flexible, pragmatic position, which includes the establishing of a stable and positive relationship. For Egypt, it is unacceptable that Saudi Arabia is trying to transfer the rivalry with Iran in their religious confrontation, to form an all Sunni states coalition under the leadership of the KSA in the fight for an Arab identity vis-a-vis to their archenemies- the Persians. In addition, Cairo is strongly concerned about the change in the course of Riyadh against the “Muslim Brotherhood.” If King Abdullah sought to create a “Sunni front” against Iran, which consists of “moderate” countries, the Saudi’s would have understood that Salman and his entourage needed a significantly expansion on this unit. According to these plans it should include, the “Muslim Brotherhood” and other related groups (of the Syrian branch, the Yemeni “Al-Islah”, Hamas, and others.). Riyadh gave amnesty to a number of “Muslim Brotherhood” activists, who had been sentenced for activities on the territory of the Kingdom and were in Saudi prisons. In the press there were reports of contacts in Riyadh with the leadership “of the Muslim Brotherhood.” According to the Egyptian newspaper “Al-Shuruk”, Saudi officials held a meeting in the summer of 2015 with billionaire Yusuf Nada, Chief Financial Officer of that organization, in his Swiss residence.

Riyadh has made some diplomatic goodwill gestures to show that the Kingdom’s position on the “Muslim Brotherhood” is changing. For example, in July last year, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal visited KSA, where he met with King Salman. This marks a new phase in their relationship. The arriving of the spiritual leader of the ‘’Muslim Bothehood’’ Sheikh Yusuf as an official guest at the reception on the occasion of the national day in KSA Embassy in Doha in October of 2015 surprised Egypt.

Members of the MB, confirmed the rareness of this occasion, and expressed his optimism about it. Egyptian media didn’t interpret this as a personal initiative of the Saudi ambassador to Qatar, Abdullah al-Ayfana, but as a sign, coming from officials in Riyadh seeking for a reconciliation with the “Muslim Brotherhood”. There were allegations that these meetings posed a threat to Arab national security, especially for Egypt.

Brothers not for everyone

Changing the KSA policy on the “Muslim Brotherhood” is evident from stories in the Saudi press, which began to publish articles that criticized Egypt for the persecution of the organization, accusing Al-Sisi of totalitarianism and relapse to “Nasserism”. Political commentator Jamal Khashoggi admitted that there was a shift in the external priorities of Riyadh, and now that it is more concerned about the growing threat of “Islamic State” (which is banned in Russia) and Iran, and therefore the latter does not perceive the “Muslim Brotherhood” as a direct challenge to its national security . Saudis intend to pursue this and form allies. They were trying to mediate between Cairo and the “Muslim Brotherhood”, but without success. For the latter, Al-Sisi – is the enemy, judging by the statement of its secretary general Mahmoud Hussein on March 5 in the newspaper “Al-Misriyun”, in which he rejected the possibility of contacts until the deposed President M. Mursi. He stressed that the “Muslim Brotherhood” is not going to compromise its position against a “bloody regime, that abandoned the revolutionary path, and to relinquish the sacrifice made by the revolutionary martyrs.”

The actions of the KSA caused a change in Egypt’s position on Yemen. By supporting the beginning of the military operations and by sending units of its Navy and Air Force to participate in the international coalition in Operation “Storm determination” in March 2015, Egypt began limitting the activity in this conflict by refusing to participate in a ground operation, despite pressure from the KSA. One of the reasons for these actions was that the Saudis began to improve relations with the Yemeni branch of the “Muslim Brotherhood” – a party called “Al-Islah”. They insisted on the fact that this group represented a significant role in the process of political consolidation in Yemen. Cairo saw the purpose of its participation in this operation differently. According to the former ambassador and member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs Rahi Hasan, his country was involved in the war against housitov Shiite rebels, mainly to provide a regional
waterway in the Red Sea, which leads to the Suez Canal, as Egyptian diplomacy was seeking to impose a strategic balance and was not engaged in regional unions or the whims of others.

The Syrian issue

The Egyptians and the Saudis made it clear earlier that they do not agree on each other’s actions in Yemen. In April 2015, the security services of Egypt did not resist the holding of protests where protesters were chanting Anti- Saudi slogans in front of the KSA Embassy in Cairo against military actions in Yemen. And in July, the Egyptians demonstratively received a delegation representing the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The national media criticized the actions of the Saudi Armed Forces in Yemen, saying that Egypt has nothing to do with the bombing of schools, hospitals, airports and civil culture. These articles were not well received in Saudi Arabia, especially since there have been made calls from the Egyptian society to president Al-Sisi to put an end on receiving financial assistance from the Arabian monarchies and to stop being a prisoner to Riyadh.

Another problem in the relationship between the two is Egypt’s position on the Syria crisis. Cairo advocated a dialogue with Assad’s regime and supported the anti-terrorist operation of the Russian Federation. Egypt called for a status quo on the topic of the territorial integrity of Syria and opposed to the federalization plan, believing it would turn the country into a new Iraq. This position was confirmed by Sisi in an interview with French magazine “Jeune Afrique”, on February 22 and a week before – to the representatives of the Kuwaiti press. The head of the Foreign Ministry of Egypt S. Al-Shukri gave a negative assessment to the Saudi proposal to send troops for a ground operation in Syria from February 16. The decision on such an operation, the minister said, did not included within its scope the whole of the Islamic anti-terrorist alliance, which was created by the Saudis in December 2015 and where Egypt was one of the first countries to participate in it among the 34 countries. According to S. Al-Shukri in an interview with “Al-Yawm Al-Sabia” on March 28, the GCC (Gulf Countries Council) has no right to designate the group “Hezbollah” as a terrorist organization, as this issue concerns only the Lebanese people.

Doomed to be friends

Nevertheless, Egypt realizes that the internal stability of its country depends largely on cash infusions from the states – which are members of the GCC, particularly KSA, and it is forced to reckon with them. As noted in an interview for “Jeune Afrique” by Al-Sisi, it is difficult to live when you’ re, depending on the help of others.
According to IMF estimates, Egypt has received about $10 billion from Saudi Arabia. Therefore, in an interview with the Kuwaiti media AF Al-Sisi made it clear that he is not going to review its relationship with the GCC countries, especially on military cooperation. And the president said that Egypt is ready to immediately stand up for its brothers in the Gulf if they underwent a direct immediate attack. The only question is to what extent these words reflect the reality, or are the result of the usual nugatory Middle Eastern rhetoric.

Many observers are wondering about the future strategy of Saudi Arabia towards Egypt. In Riyadh (especially under the new leadership) its very delicate when your political partner’s position on any issue begins to differ from the vision of the KSA trajectory. Observers attribute the aggressive appearance of Saudi course with the figure of “the heir to the heir” – son of ruler of the country King Mohammed bin Salman. It is believed that he is responsible for the continuing military actions in Yemen (with direct participation of the Armed Forces of the KSA) and in Syria (support of the Islamist groups allied with the kingdom). Nevertheless, the president of Egypt supports all official contacts with Riyadh. In particular, Al-Sisi was present at the final stage of the military exercise “Northern Thunder” in KSA, where on March 12 he met with King Salman with the presence of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and Salman Mohammed bin. In view of these events there are great hopes pinned on the upcoming visits to Riyadh and Cairo.

According to the Saudi political analyst Anwar Ishki, director of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah, in the Yemeni conflict Egypt’s policies should be consistent with the KSA. Cairo should change its attitude against the “Muslim Brotherhood”, because their rise to power in Syria and Yemen, can not harm Egypt. Saudi commentators point out that among the topics on the agenda at the talks will be, the KSA’s attempt to initiate rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt in order to increase the efficiency created by the Sunni bloc. This question of diplomacy for the KSA – is one of the most difficult, because the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not change his negative attitude towads the military coup of Al-Sisi and its continuing repressive policy against the “Muslim Brotherhood.” In November 2013, Cairo declared the Turkish ambassador Hussein Botsali persona non grata, and lowered the level of diplomatic relations.

Indestructible Union?

On April 9, the leaders of Egypt and KSA signed an agreement establishing a FTZ (free trade zone) in the Sinai Peninsula. According to the draft of the agreement, the Saudi Kingdom is to allocate $1.5 billion, there and plans to build 13 industrial complexes and open an University of King Salman in Al-Tour (the administrative center of the South Sinai province). The agreement was concluded in addition to the Framework Convention on housing, laying a water canal and the construction of two power plants. There was also the signing of a MoU (memorandum of understanding) between the Saudi national oil company Aramco and its Egyptian partners, and a document on the establishment of two companies in the field of export and personnel training. Egypt and KSA created a joint investment fund with a registered capital of 60 billion Saudi riyals ($16 billion).

The project to build power plants is estimated at $ 2.2 billion. One of it will be built to the west of Cairo. The agreement on the construction of a port in Ismailia involves investments of over two billion dollars. Earlier, Egypt and KSA signed 17 documents on cooperation in various fields. To implement these projects Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed on the delimitation of the maritime boundary between the two states, as a result Cairo ceded the disputed islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea to Riyadh. This document, yet, needs to be ratified by the Parliament of Egypt.

The question of the ownership of the islands had remained open for decades. The first delineation of the maritime boundary between the two countries was carried out in 2010. Riyadh, in accordance with the UN Convention on the delimitation announced the baselines of its maritime borders, which Egypt formally recognized. The parties then began to discuss the issue of delimitation of maritime waters. Over the past six years, they held over 10 rounds of talks, then in December 2015 both sides reached an agreement in principle. As stated by the Cabinet of Ministers of Egypt, members of the Technical Commission determined that the islands fall within the Saudi territorial waters, and that they were subject to the jurisdiction of the KSA. However, some experts and opposition movements have questioned the legality of the transfer of the islands, stating that the refusal of the Egyptian people to hand over their property and resources is protected in the constitution.

Determination of the official status of the islands coincided in the signing of an important agreement on the construction of the world’s largest bridge across the Red Sea, which is a 50-kilometer section in the form of a triangle which will connect Sharm el-Sheikh, Tiran Island and Ras Hamid (northern Saudi Arabia). The conclusion of this document has become an important part of the plan for the development of Sinai, to which the Kingdom allocated $1.7 billion. The construction of the bridge, which exceeds 80 meters supports the ease of transportation, and it will allow to drive to the kingdom from Egypt in 20 minutes. The idea of a bridge had been under discussion since 1988. Meanwhile, biologists estimated that the construction work and drilling will lead to the destruction of the coral reefs, which are very sensitive to the purity of the water – it will destroy the ecosystem of the Red Sea.

At the time of writing this article, the visit of King Salman to Egypt continues. What kind of agreements will be signed in the coming days is difficult to predict. But despite the disagreements
and outright contradictions, Cairo’s unwillingness to allow its military to be placed, under whatever format, under the direct command of Riyadh and the Saudis claims of dominance in the region on the principle of “he who pays – calls the shots”, the relationship at the bilateral level will continue to develop. For a long time, both Egypt and KSA have discovered that their relationship cannot be broken by either party without the catastrophic consequences not only for itself but for their partner.

It can be predicated that the differences on Yemen, Syria, Turkey and Iran, not to mention the “Muslim Brotherhood”, will not be able to break or even weaken, in the short term, the Egyptian-Saudi alliance, moreover, it can be said that Cairo and Riyadh will achieve their individual goals.

A different theme – the attitude of the US leadership to this alliance. The KSA, tries and continues to present itself as a staunch adversary to the Iranian appeasement by the US administration, the Saudis even helped Egypt to survive its most difficult period since the overthrow of its Muslim Brotherhood government, at a time when the White House openly pressured Cairo. The Egyptian policy of President Barack Obama failed to a large extent thanks to the Saudis, which successfully placed the military of Egypt in power. This fact further strengthens the ongoing relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Yevgeny Satanovsky

Chair of the Middle East Institute

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