When the new Saudi Arabia met the new Egypt
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s recent visit to Egypt was special by all norms and has set new standards for what future inter-Arab relations should be like.
It was a meeting between a new Egypt and a new Saudi Arabia; a meeting with a clear regional dimension. It was a meeting between two Arab countries seeking practical ways of complementing each other and not just an opportunity to repeat meaningless slogans.
Strictly speaking, it was a breach of protocol when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi welcomed the Saudi crown prince at Cairo International Airport in person but the gesture was a sign of the very close cooperation between both countries and an expression of their desire to pursue their mutual benefits. This is normal since both countries face common challenges requiring real solutions.
Everything about the visit indicated there was a departure from the usual classical approach in the bilateral relations between both countries. It is no longer just Saudi Arabia giving aid to Egypt and Egypt exporting labour to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi-Egyptian relations have moved to a phase of complementarity in many domains for security, economic and political purposes. Even geographically both countries are reaching out to each other irrespective of which one owns which island in the Red Sea.
In simpler terms, both countries are showing enough maturity by abandoning the old mind frames of venomous competition in the region. Egypt feels it has nothing to gain from any harm that could come to Saudi Arabia and vice-versa.
The question in Saudi-Egyptian relations is no longer who leads the Arab world, for there is no more one Arab world. In fact, the new Saudi-Egyptian relations are based on Saudi Arabia’s need for Egypt and Egypt’s need for Saudi Arabia. This does not mean that the enormous problems facing both countries will be swept under the rug. Both countries need to educate their citizens to make it possible to speak about important common projects and about rejecting religious extremism by both societies.
The new Saudi Arabia was visiting the new Egypt. Crown Prince Mohammed put in motion a real social revolution in Saudi Arabia. He not only freed Saudi society from old and crippling complexes but initiated a real war on corruption that did not spare princes or high officials. It was no coincidence that his visit to Egypt came after the publication of Vision 2030 and after announcing the mega project of NEOM in the border zone between the Saudi kingdom, Egypt and Jordan.
It was normal then that Crown Prince Mohammed and Sisi’s route from the airport included several stops at sites that intimately link the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to both countries. The route included a stop at the beautiful city of Ismailia, which used to be the preferred residence of foreign communities in Egypt before the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and whose presence in Egypt was priceless on many levels.
In an unprecedented move, the Saudi crown prince met with Coptic Pope Tawadros II and invited him to visit Saudi Arabia. It was clear that the Saudi leadership shares Egyptian concerns about Egypt’s national unity and backs its war on terrorism. The message here is that Saudi Arabia is no longer a source for extremist religious ideologies.
The Saudi crown prince went to Egypt with several messages. The first was the Saudi leadership’s belief that Egypt belongs to all Egyptians: Muslims and Christians alike. The second was that Saudi Arabia is open to all cultures. To that effect, the crown prince and the Egyptian president attended a play at Cairo’s Opera House.
Saudi Arabia is going through profound changes. After having received Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch in November 2017, the Saudi kingdom will soon welcome the Coptic pope. Furthermore, Riyadh is going to have its own opera house.
Saudi Arabia is abandoning old practices. Those practices had taken root as a reaction to Iran’s ideological expansionism, which started in 1979. We always come back to 1979, the year marking the beginning of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its efforts to export its revolution. Saudi Arabia was a target for that revolution so it responded by closing itself socially and culturally.
The important thing is that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have decided to learn from their painful past and move on towards a brighter future in bilateral relations. These relations will encompass not just common projects but also a common strategic vision for the entire region.
That strategic vision begins with protecting the Red Sea and, consequently, the Suez Canal and safeguarding future projects like NEOM, for example. There is a need for a common vision on how to deal with the situation in Yemen, with Sudan and the countries in the Horn of Africa, including the lawlessness in Somalia.
The entire region is going through a difficult period. A threat to the security of the Red Sea is a threat to the security of the Suez Canal. The region is coveted by Iran and Turkey. For more than half a century, Saudi-Egyptian relations suffered the consequences of useless jockeying for Arab leadership between leading figures such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad. These relations can now flourish under new leaderships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They must flourish for the sake of safeguarding the region from terror and from Iranian expansionism.