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