Egypt, Saudi Arabia signal desire for stronger ties
CAIRO - Egypt and Saudi Arabia have signalled their desire to forge stronger ties in the economic and cultural fields, vowing to stay close together in the coming days.
The countries have specified economic, political and cultural fields as areas for cooperation but they also expressed, in what they called the “Cairo Declaration”, their determination to move ahead with the formation of the joint Arab military force and the demarcation of maritime borders.
The declaration was announced July 30th during a visit to Egypt by a high-level Saudi delegation headed by Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, the deputy crown prince and defence minister of Saudi Arabia.
The declaration comes after media reports about tensions between Egypt, the most populous Arab state, and Saudi Arabia, the site of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.
Relations with the Palestinian movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and the situation in Syria and Yemen are said to be sticky issues in relations between the two Arab and Muslim poles.
Nevertheless, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was keen to refute the media reports during a military graduation ceremony attended by Prince Mohammed, saying Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the two pillars of Arab national security.
“This is a message to all Arabs: You will always see us together,” Sisi said.
But, away from the truncated remarks made about the declaration by reticent politicians on both sides, this declaration marks a shift in Saudi attitudes, not towards the oil-rich country’s economic cooperation with Egypt (Saudi Arabia invests $23 billion in Egypt anyway and its trade exchange with the North African country totalled $31.3 billion in 2014), but towards the joint military force itself.
“Saudi Arabia was not very enthusiastic for this force when it was first proposed,” Egyptian political analyst Samir Ghattas said. “Now, this attitude seems to have changed.”
This lack of enthusiasm for the force, which has been advocated by Sisi since he became president in 2014, reverberated not only in Riyadh but in all other Gulf capitals.
Gulf opinion makers said that they were in no need for a new joint military force since they have what is called the Shield of the Peninsula, a military force founded in 1982 to defend the security of Gulf states.
Other Arab states, such as Algeria and Tunisia, were not enthusiastic about the force either. Changes, however, in the region, including Iranian actions, seem to lead to a change in attitudes, analysts say.
Iran has emerged as an internationally recognised regional player since it signed a deal with Western powers over its nuclear programme. An emboldened Iran made it necessary for Saudi Arabia to seek alliances with other Sunni powers to counter the perceived Iranian threat.
“New realities in the region made it necessary for Saudi Arabia to go for a deterrent Arab force capable of countering Iran’s growing power,” Ghattas said.
The chiefs of staff of Arab armies held meetings in Cairo on the force, and, in May, they agreed on mechanisms for the formation of the force.
The force is expected to include rapid intervention troops who will have a general commander along with field commanders in each troubled Arab country. Means of financing the force, its location and the nature of its armament are unclear.
Nevertheless, some analysts, including political science Professor Hassan Nafaa, say the force is a far-fetched dream that will never materialise. “There are many hindrances on the road to forming the force,” Nafaa said. “Saudi Arabia will want the force to serve its own political vision, the thing Egypt will surely refuse.”
Although there is an apparent political rapport between Cairo and Riyadh, there are also many differences between the two Arab capitals.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not seem to be sharing the same vision on the situations in Syria and Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been launching air strikes against the Shia Houthi group that has overrun much of the country.
Egypt also does not seem to be sharing Saudi Arabia’s enmity for Syrian President Bashar Assad and has more than once underlined the importance of protecting Syria’s army and national security.
Egypt also says that the conflict in Yemen can be resolved through political, not military means, opening channels of dialogue with Yemen’s political rivals, including the Houthi group.
Cairo also looks at Hamas with scepticism, accusing its military wing of being involved in fanning violence in the Sinai peninsula, while Saudi Arabia says Hamas can be part of its aspired Sunni coalition against Iran.
This is why Noha Bakr, a political science professor, says the July 30th declaration does not mean that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are in total agreement.
“Each of the two countries will act within the limits of its own national interests,” Bakr said. “Both of them will also act in a way that boosts Arab national security at the end of the day.”
Whether Cairo succeeds in convincing Riyadh of its point of view on means of resolving the conflicts in Syria and Yemen remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, closer ties between Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be manna from heaven for the former in economic terms. Although Saudi Arabia is the largest Arab investor in Egypt, more Saudi investments mean additional badly needed jobs for Egyptians and a better situation for Egypt’s struggling economy.
The countries plan to launch a project for electrical power connection, something tantamount to a lifeboat for Egypt’s government, which struggles to bridge a gap between electricity consumption and production.
They also plan to establish a bridge over the Red Sea connecting western Saudi Arabia with eastern Egypt. The bridge is expected to boost trade and movement between the two countries.