Cairo and Riyadh striving for a ‘win-win’ relationship

Sunday 17/04/2016
Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb (L) and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (C) visit al-Azhar mosque, on April 9th.

Cairo - A photo of Egyptian Presi­dent Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud raising each other’s hands in unity as the former bade the latter farewell at Cairo Interna­tional Airport sums up the outcome of the five-day visit the Saudi mon­arch made to Egypt.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are edg­ing closer to each other with an eye to bringing order to the turbulent region, protecting their national in­terests and countering Shia Iranian influence, analysts say.
“Unity between the two countries can be the cornerstone of a wider Arab unity that is badly needed at such a time of great peril,” said Mo­hamed al-Orabi, Egypt’s former for­eign minister. “We are talking here about two Arab countries whose unity means a lot for the future of this region.”
Orabi resigned as foreign minister in July 2011 after one month in of­fice against the background of pub­lic anger at his description of Saudi Arabia as “Egypt’s elder sister” dur­ing a visit to the oil-rich Gulf state.
Almost five years later, however, Egyptians seem to have partially learnt to shrug off their narrow na­tional zest and forget about wheth­er the country should be at the Arab helm. The Saudis seem to be doing the same.
Resolving the conflict in Syria, bringing the war in Yemen to an end and staving off Iranian influence were at the heart of talks between the Saudi monarch and the Egyp­tian president.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia used to agree on the final goals on the above issues but often locked horns over the means. In Syria, Saudi Ara­bia wanted outright regime change. Egypt wanted to keep the President Bashar Assad’s regime intact until a transition was manageable.
In Yemen, a Saudi Arabia scarred by growing Shia influence in its backyard, was spurred into mili­tary action. Egypt could offer no more than lip service and a number of naval units to prevent Yemen’s Houthis from threatening naviga­tion at the Bab el Mandeb strait and consequently the Suez canal, its main source of foreign currency. This apparently frustrated Riyadh.
It is not clear how Egypt will act on the Syrian and Yemeni fronts af­ter the Saudi royal visit but analysts expect the situation to remain as is, especially when it comes to Syria.
“The problem is that Syria has been an arena where all interna­tional players have a presence,” Orabi said. “This means that resolv­ing the crisis does not only hinge on the will of either Egypt or Saudi Arabia.”
Nevertheless, before Salman started his visit on April 7th, Egypt took al-Manar channel, which is run and owned by the Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah off its satellite, Nile Sat. A short time later, its foreign minister criticised what he described as “Iran’s contra­dictory actions”.
These are steps, analysts say, tak­en by a country more willing to toe the Saudi line as far as regional alli­ances and enmities are concerned.
But Saudi Arabia, which has pledged tens of billions of dollars in investments to Egypt is driven by national economic, political and se­curity interests, analysts say.
The growing presence of the Is­lamic State (ISIS) in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula has been especially wor­rying to Riyadh, which shudders at the threats the militant group might pose to Suez canal shipping. Much Saudi oil passes through the canal en route to international mar­kets in Europe.
This is why Saudi Arabia an­nounced an aid package of $1.5 bil­lion for the development of Sinai.
However, some of this money will be used to buy equipment to help the Egyptian Army track ISIS militants, avoid sophisticated im­provised explosive devices planted by militants and also secure the loy­alty of Sinai Bedouins who supply the militants with arms, explosives and recruits, according to media re­ports.
The two countries will con­struct a multibillion-dollar bridge to connect Sinai with Saudi Ara­bia. The bridge should increase trade between the two countries, bring down the cost of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and result in more Saudi tourists visiting Egypt.
The bridge is to cross the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which Egypt ceded to Saudi Arabia during Salman’s visit. Sisi was accused of letting the islands go in exchange for billions of dollars in Saudi aid. He countered that that “Egypt’s army will never allow any president — regardless of who he is — to cede an iota of Egypt’s territories”.
He said Saudi Arabia had asked Egypt to militarily control the is­lands in 1950, two years after Israel defeated Arab armies, to prevent them from falling into Israeli hands.
Apart from agreeing to redefine their maritime borders, bolster their electricity and nuclear energy cooperation and increase industrial cooperation, Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia said they would launch a joint investment fund worth $17 billion.
These are all gifts to Egypt, a country that cannot economically recover from its political turmoil for years, economists say.
“Agreements signed between the two countries will significantly bring about a speedier recovery of the economy,” economist Bassant Fahmi said. “Egypt is in bad need of Saudi investments but we should not forget that this will be a win-win situation, given the very high returns of investments in a popu­lous country like Egypt.”