Cairo and Riyadh build on common interests
Cairo - Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which parted ways because of differences over the Syrian crisis and other regional issues, have realised the need to build on common interests and strengthen their old alliance.
The challenges of fighting terrorism, curbing Iran’s growing influence and preserving Egypt’s stability are leaving both countries with no option but closing their ranks.
“Iran and terrorism are actually two important points in this common ground,” political analyst Nabil Zaki said. “Egypt and Saudi Arabia are united in their strategy to trim Tehran’s regional influence and fight extremism.”
Putting aside frustration that grew in recent years because of diverging priorities, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cleared the way for a long-awaited meeting.
King Salman arrived in Cairo, on April 7th, his first visit to Egypt since he ascended to the throne in January 2015. This visit was scheduled for last September but it was reportedly postponed because of differences over how to respond to the war in Syria.
Saudi Arabia insists Syrian President Bashar Assad should give up power, arguing that there is no future for him in Syria. Egypt wants to preserve Syria’s state institutions until a transition is manageable.
“The fear in Egypt is that a post- Assad political and military vacuum will only be filled by the Islamic State (ISIS),” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “This is why Egypt opposes Saudi Arabia’s desire to effect outright regime change in Syria.”
Syria is not the only issue in relations between Cairo and Riyadh. There is frustration in the Gulf at Cairo’s caution to use military power in support of other Arab states.
Sisi said before he took power two years ago that it would take his army only the duration of travel to reach other Arab states and defend them. “People in the Gulf are yet to see this translated into action,” political analyst Akram Badr Eddin said.
Egypt, which has received more than $20 billion in aid from Gulf states since July 2013, participates in military drills in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
When Saudi Arabia started striking Yemen’s Houthis in March 2015, Egypt sent naval units to tighten a maritime siege on the Shia group. The measures were seen in the Gulf as only serving Egyptian interests and not doing enough to protect Gulf allies.
“Gulf states expected Egypt to send ground troops into Yemen,” Badr Eddin said. “Nevertheless, apart from the fact that it is Egypt’s parliament that decides these matters, Egyptians have bad memories of boots on the ground in this Arab country.”
Egypt lost thousands of soldiers when it intervened in Yemen’s 1962 civil war, losses Egyptians remember well and want to avoid.
However, the challenge of facing an Iran empowered by a nuclear deal with the West and expanding terrorism seem to be overshadowing differences between Cairo and Riyadh. Predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia views Iran as its largest regional threat. With no diplomatic relations with Tehran since 1979, Egypt, too, grows wary of Tehran’s regional influence.
The Islamic State (ISIS), which is active in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and claimed responsibility for several attacks inside Saudi Arabia, is also uniting Cairo and Riyadh.
“This is why the two Arab capitals are coming to the realisation that they cannot stay away from each other,” Zaki said. “The fact is that the reasons for unity between the two capitals are far more important than the ones for conflict.”
Egypt is in dire need for Saudi investments and financial assistance as it continues to recover from years of unrest. The value of Egypt’s pound is dropping against foreign currencies, resulting in unprecedented price hikes in local markets.
Egypt is also losing its foreign currency lifelines, including tourism and foreign investments, because of a Russian passenger plane bombing in late 2015 and political and security conditions.
The Suez canal, a main source of foreign currency, is deeply affected by the international economic slowdown, which translates into fewer container ships transiting the canal.
“Here is where Egypt badly needs Saudi Arabia,” Fahmi said. “Egypt needs Saudi investments but Riyadh will commit a big mistake if it thinks it can influence Egypt’s political decision using its need for money.”
Apart from the financial assistance and easy-term oil shipments, Saudi Arabia recently donated $1.5 billion for the development of Sinai. The Saudi government also announced plans to invest $8 billion in Egypt in the coming years.
“Saudi Arabia is bound to back Egypt through its economic difficulties until it stands back on its feet,” Badr Eddin said. “For Gulf states, supporting Egypt is a matter of no choice but a national security priority.”