Riyadh-Cairo ties reset with investments, deals
London - With multibillion-dollar deals announced and a pledge of cooperation on regional security, the visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Egypt reaffirmed and reset a strategic partnership that has weathered many political storms.
“It is like a married couple who argue but decide to stay together for the sake of the children,” Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi said, describing relations between Riyadh and Cairo.
The rare visit by the Saudi monarch came at a time when the kingdom is trying to unify Arab ranks in light of regional challenges facing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including a sanctions-free Iran and the continued security threat posed by militant groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
“The Arabs are relying on Saudi Arabia and Egypt… to safeguard Arab national security and maintain the Arab identity,” Saudi columnist Jasser al-Jasser wrote in the Riyadh-based al-Jazirah newspaper.
He urged both countries to uphold the “strategic relation that should become a cornerstone in any new regional formation in the Middle East”.
Cracks in Saudi-Egyptian relations appeared in 2015 when the kingdom launched a war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen to restore the internationally recognised government. Riyadh wanted Egypt to play a vital role in ground operations but had to settle for the lesser role of maritime support. Western diplomats in Cairo and the Gulf said that strained relations.
The deteriorating situation in Syria, coupled with the rise of ISIS, has seen the Saudis work closely with the Muslim Brotherhood-friendly government in Ankara. Cairo views the Brotherhood as a hostile entity.
Analysts said, however, that Saudi-Egyptian relations will continue to improve despite occasional hiccups.
Relations between the two countries have been ongoing for almost 80 years, said Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.
“The axis between Riyadh and Cairo is a very strong axis but there have been difficulties over the years… Despite that, Saudi Arabia has never seen Egypt as anything except a key ally,” Kechichian said, adding that Egypt remains a key Arab country in terms of its large population and its potential role in the political arena and, most importantly, in terms of its military capabilities.
Kechichian emphasised that even when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, Saudi Arabia did not break off ties with Cairo. “On the contrary, it provided assistance, they even welcomed Muhammad Morsi in Riyadh, so they did not perceive the Muslim Brotherhood as representing all of Egypt per se but just a reflection of the elections that took place there and that potentially things could change.”
Regarding lingering issues such as a possible rapprochement with Ankara, Kechichian said he does not see Riyadh pushing the point.
“As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned the [Muslim Brotherhood] is a terrorist organisation. They have identified it as such and they haven’t changed their minds. For example, President Sisi (Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) will not be attending the Muslim summit in Turkey because of Egypt’s issues with the Muslim Brotherhood but Saudi Arabia will not interfere with these sorts of issues, as both governments are on the same page in this regard.”
Leaving aside the success of the trip, the nature of Saudi Arabia’s financial support is no longer unconditional.
“Saudi Arabia will be making investments and soft loans. No more free money,” a Saudi businessman familiar with the matter told Reuters.
“This is a change in strategy. Return on investment is important to Saudi Arabia as it diversifies sources of revenue,” he said.
A total of 21 agreements and memorandums of understanding were signed during Salman’s visit to Cairo, including a $23 billion deal to provide Egypt with 700,000 tonnes of petroleum products a month for five years. Also, a bridge linking Saudi Arabia to Egypt is to be built over the Red Sea to boost trade between the two countries.