Riyadh-Cairo ties reset with investments, deals

Sunday 17/04/2016
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (L) shaking hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before leaving Cairo International Airport, on April 11th.

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.