As Gulf faces threats, Egypt draws a line in the sand
CAIRO - Egypt issued a stern warning against interference in the affairs of Arab Gulf states, vowing not to stand idly by while regional powers try to destabilise other countries.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, during a visit to Manama, said Egypt viewed the security situation in Bahrain and the wider Gulf region as a basic part of its national security.
“Egypt and Bahrain are moving ahead to broaden their cooperation at a very critical time,” Shoukry said at a meeting with Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa. “Egypt will not allow the security of Bahrain to be messed with.”
Shoukry’s visit to Bahrain came after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Egypt would not hesitate to send its army to the Arab Gulf if the security of Gulf states was threatened.
Sisi’s and Shoukry’s statements, analysts said, show Egyptian concerns about potential regional unrest. The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul put the international media spotlight on Saudi Arabia.
Media in Qatar and Turkey, regional adversaries of Egypt and the anti-terrorism coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, have been critical of the Saudi response to Khashoggi’s death.
“There is concern in Cairo that the security of Saudi Arabia, the main pillar of the Gulf Cooperation Council, might be in danger,” said Amira al-Shanawani, a member of think-tank Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. “Egypt acts against the background of attempts by some countries to blackmail sister Arab states in the Gulf.”
Shoukry’s statements were made on the sidelines of the meetings of the Joint Egyptian-Bahraini Committee. During the meetings, Egyptian officials signed eight agreements with their Bahraini counterparts.
The agreements included one that exempts diplomatic passport holders from each of the two countries from the visa requirement when entering the other state. There was also a memorandum of understanding concerning electricity and renewable energy.
Egypt said it hopes it can raise economic cooperation with Manama to that in the political and diplomatic level. Trade exchange between the two states totalled $160.2 million in 2016 but officials said there is room for growth.
About 183 Bahraini companies operate in Egypt, with investments worth $2.7 billion in the country.
Cairo, analysts said, also sees relations with Bahrain as far deeper than economic interests. Egypt views Bahrain and other Arab Gulf states as an important national security frontier and a first line of defence against Iranian ambitions.
“Like Saudi Arabia, Egypt is concerned over increasing Iranian influence in the region,” said Saad al-Zunt, head of the local Strategic Studies Centre think-tank. “This Iranian presence is affecting Egyptian national security very negatively, like in the case of Yemen where the Iran-backed Houthi militia threatens navigation at the southern entrance of the Red Sea and consequently the Suez Canal.”
Egypt offered political and diplomatic backing to Manama after unrest that erupted after 2011. Bahraini authorities accused Iran and other regional powers of causing the unrest.
There are fears in Cairo, now that US sanctions on the Iranian oil sector are in effect, that Tehran will make moves that jeopardise Gulf security.
Sisi has visited Manama three times since he became president in 2014, including in August. The Egyptian Army conducted drills with the Royal Bahraini Army in Bahrain several times in the past few years and as recently as April.
Bahraini troops were also among those from six Arab militaries that conducted unprecedented purely Arab comprehensive drills in Egypt’s Western Desert November 2-16 amid reports about Egypt’s desire to form an Arab NATO-like force to confront threats to Arab security.
Egypt, which has the 12th most powerful military in the world, as ranked by Global Power Firepower Index and the second largest air force in the region after Israel, is capable of defending the security of Arab states in the Gulf, analysts said.
“Egypt does not joke when it says it will act to defend the security of fellow Arab countries,” said retired army general and security expert Gamal Eddine Mazlum. “The message the president and the foreign minister want to deliver now is that security threats to these countries are threats to Egypt’s security, too.”