Egypt and Saudi Make a Public Show of Support

Leaders of Cairo and Riyadh sought last week to downplay reports of alleged tensions on regional and domestic issues in the wake of the death of Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah eight months ago. In what appeared to be the first steps to restore high levels of cooperation between the two countries, Egypt’s state-owned Middle East News Agency reported on July 29 that Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, Mohammed bin Salman, was due in Cairo the next day. During his visit, he was to attend the graduation ceremony of hundreds of officers from various war colleges with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Prince Mohamed was warmly welcomed by Sisi.  “I tell his Highness, Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed, you had to be present with us in this celebration. This is a very strong message, not only to the peoples of the two countries, but also to Gulf countries that we are always together,” said Sisi. He added, “The truth is that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the two wings of Arab national security, and together, we can confront these challenges.”

Following further talks on July 30, the two countries announced the ‘Cairo Declaration,’ which encompassed six main aspects of renewed cooperation between the two countries. The two most important aspects noted by political observers were announcing that the two countries “would develop military cooperation and work on the establishment of a joint Arab force,” and, for the first time, “marking maritime borders between the two countries.”  

On Friday, July 31, Sisi and King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz of Saudi Arabia “blessed” the Cairo Declaration in a phone conversation, agreeing to put it into effect immediately. A day later, after chairing a National Defense Council meeting attended by the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, chiefs of intelligence and commanders of army divisions, Sisi announced Egypt would extend by six months the presence of its troops near Yemen that provide support for the Saudi-led joint force backing Yemeni President Abd-RaboHadi Mansour.

Diverging Interests

The late King Abdullah had been known as a strong supporter of Sisi since the ouster of former President and Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi. Over the past two years, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have provided over $20 billion in grants, oil shipments and support for the deteriorating reserve of Egypt’s foreign currencies. The late King was also quick to support Egypt’s position, officially declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organization,” and a threat to Saudi security.

When King Salman took over, he removed many of the late King Abdullah’s aides known for their strong support for Sisi. The obvious warmth in relations between the two countries seemed to have witnessed a setback, and reports increased on alleged differences over vital regional issues such as Iran, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Several prominent Saudi commentators known for their close ties to the new King were also increasingly critical of what they described as “Cairo’s obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood group,” weighing its involvement in any of the region’s issues from that perspective.

While Saudi Arabia has long been openly calling for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Cairo has been less enthusiastic about this option, fearing Assad would be replaced by a coalition of extremist groups. Saudi Arabia’s generous economic support for Egypt over the past two years, also made it difficult for Cairo not to back the Saudi war against Yemen, but Saudi commentators have been unhappy Egypt has limited its level of support to naval ships. Saudi wanted to see Egyptian troops on the ground. Egypt has maintained strong historic relationship with Yemen, and it was reportedly unhappy with Saudi support of the Brotherhood’s branch in Sanaa in its effort to defeat the Houthi rebels and restore Mansour’s rule

In return, Egypt was expecting stronger support from Saudi in its stance on Libya, backing the internationally recognized Tobruk government in confronting an Islamist-led coalition based in Tripoli. After a group affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) brutally beheaded twenty Coptic Christian Egyptians in Libya in February, Sisi immediately launched an air raid against several reported bases at the city of Derna. Saudi Arabia’s reaction was muted, and Riyadh did not back Cairo’s effort to issue a resolution from the Security Council.

Cairo also appeared unhappy with the new Saudi King’s closer cooperation with Turkey and Qatar, the two most outspoken countries in supporting Egypt’s Brotherhood, well informed Egyptian diplomatic sources told EgyptSource. The new Saudi regime also seemed more open to renewing contacts with Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, contrary to Cairo’s wishes. In August, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Egypt sought to downplay a visit by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Saudi Arabia—but the significance of a Hamas leader visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time in three years, and the welcome he received, is inescapable.

“Egypt felt it was being pushed to take stands over sectarian grounds dominated by Saudi worries over Iran’s increasing influence as a Shiite nation,” Abdullah al-Sinnawi, a prominent columnist, told EgyptSource. “While Egypt will always stand by Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia facing Iranian influence, it was not ready to take part in what many Saudis promoted as a Sunni coalition against Shiite Iran,” he added. Sinnawi, like many Egyptian experts and columnists, have been calling for renewed dialogue between Egypt and Iran, saying this does not mean a weakening of the strong relations with oil-rich Gulf nations, and could actually benefit them.

These apparent differences in policies between Egypt and Saudi were reportedly behind the delay in putting into effect the joint Arab military force that Sisi proposed during the Arab Summit in Sharm al-Sheikh in March, according to an Arab diplomat at the Arab League. Informed diplomatic sources said the two countries did not see eye to eye on the composition of the force, where it would be based, and how it would be financed. However, after intense talksbetween Egypt and Saudi over the past week, and the release of the Cairo Declaration, the Arab League announced that a joint meeting between Arab foreign and defense ministers will be held on August 27 to conclude an agreement on the joint Arab military force. That agreement will not be finalized without Arab leaders’ approval, likely in their upcoming summit meeting in March.

Restoring Relations

The signing of the historic nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers, led by the United States, last month seems to have prompted Saudi Arabia to reconsider ties with Cairo and seek to restore closer relations, said Mohamed al-Zayat, a strategic expert and former senior intelligence officer. “The Egyptian leadership has always been keen to maintain a high level of cooperation with Saudi, but also wanted to maintain its own independent positions on several issues,” Zayat told EgyptSource. “Those differences could be discussed and agreed upon if there is an overall agreement between Egypt and Saudi that they will always maintain their strategic ties, and that was the most important result of the recent exchanges between Egypt and Saudi leaders, ending up with the Cairo Declaration,” he added.

Hussein Haridi, a former senior diplomat at the Foreign Ministry, said the brief announcement in the Cairo Declaration that the two countries would work on marking their maritime borders was also another important development that has been discussed only in brief. “In 1991, and right after the Kuwait liberation war, Saudi Arabia has been asking Egypt to mark the maritime border and to restore Saudi control over several small islands overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba,” he said in a television talk show presented by Lilliane Dawoud on ONtv. He revealed that those islands had been controlled by Egypt upon agreement with Saudi following the 1967 war against Israel. “Egypt’s flexibility on this issue will definitely be welcomed by Saudi Arabia,” Haridi said.

The talks between Egypt and Saudi Arabia last week area clear sign that leaders of both countries are keen to maintain close ties, and to work on solving their recent reported differences. The complex relationship defies external perceptions that it is merely a case of Saudi Arabia thinking its generous financial support to Cairo is enough for Egypt to stay in line with all Saudi policies, and Egypt insisting that it is too big and influential to be told by Riyadh what to do.

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

Image: Photo: Saudi Arabia's King Salman welcomes Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 1, 2015. (MENA)