Arab League leads effort to reconcile Cairo, Riyadh

Sunday 27/11/2016
Differences escalated in October

CAIRO - The Arab League is leading the latest efforts to put relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia back on track after the two Arab al­lies drifted apart over Syria.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul Gheit visited Riyadh on November 15th and met Saudi monarch Salman bin Abdelaziz Al Saud to discuss how tensions could be eased.

“The league is responsible for uniting member states and resolv­ing differences among them,” said the league’s assistant secretary-general, Ahmed bin Helli. “Saudi Arabia is a pillar of joint Arab work and so is Egypt.”

The league’s reconciliatory drive follows an effort by the United Arab Emirates to improve ties between Cairo and Riyadh. During a visit to Cairo on November 10th, Abu Dha­bi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan discussed Saudi relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

While Prince Mohammed met Sisi in Cairo, a senior UAE delegation flew to Riyadh to talk to the Saudis.

Riyadh says it is angry at Cairo because of its insistence that Syr­ian President Bashar Assad stay in power for a transitional period.

“We can’t tolerate Assad’s pres­ence in power because it will mean the killing of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians,” said Abdulaziz bin Nayef al-Ereir, a member of the consultative committee of the Gulf Cooperation Council and a former member of the Consultative Assem­bly. “Saudi Arabia wants to resolve the Syrian conflict peacefully, but Assad’s presence prevents this,” he said.

Differences between Cairo and Riyadh escalated in October when Saudi oil giant Aramco stopped supplying Egypt with 700,000 tons of oil agreed to in April.

The Saudi oil cut came only a few days after Egypt voted in favour of a Russian draft resolution in UN Se­curity Council on ongoing battles in the north-western Syrian province of Aleppo.

The oil cut has put huge strains on Egypt’s budget because unlike the easy-term oil deal it has with Saudi Arabia, Egypt will most likely have to pay in advance for its oil im­ports from other countries.

Cairo is now downplaying the oil issue, calling for looking at the larger picture of Egyptian-Saudi re­lations.

“A difference of views between the two states over one issue doesn’t mean that they are at log­gerheads,” said Ahmed Abu Zeid, spokesman for the Egyptian For­eign Ministry. “Egyptian and Saudi views are almost identical on all other issues.”

Saudi Arabia has offered Egypt billions of dollars in cash and oil aid over the past three years, which kept the populous state afloat as it dealt with turmoil induced by the overthrow of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi.

Some analysts say the acrimony stems from a clash between Cairo and Riyadh over their roles in the Arab world.

“Sisi wants to lay out a new ba­sis for the relationship with Saudi Arabia, one which defines the exact position of both Saudi Arabia and Egypt as far as leadership of the Arab world is concerned,” said Has­san Nafaa, a political science pro­fessor from Cairo University.

Sisi knows that time is on his side, not on the Saudis’ side, and that he will not restore harmony with Riyadh before he makes sure that radical groups now fighting As­sad’s forces are not taking control of Syria, said an Egyptian Foreign Ministry source who spoke on con­dition of anonymity.

“The lesson Sisi learned is that he cannot pursue an independent for­eign policy, one which sometimes contradicts that of Saudi Arabia, while he is on good terms with Ri­yadh,” the source said. “This is why he will wait until the Syrian conflict is resolved before he mends fences with the Saudis.”

Apart from advances made by Assad in Aleppo and other Syrian provinces, the same source added that Sisi expects Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elec­tion to turn things upside down in Syria with the US president-elect promising to cooperate with Russia to end the conflict.