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The Saudi transformation and the Egyptian concern

It is clear that Egypt has been hit by anxiety after the death of King Abdullah bin Abd Al-Aziz. It is also obvious that the source of this anxiety is the Egyptian apprehension about the political inclinations of the new Saudi Monarch, King Salman bin Abd Al-Aziz. This anxiety has been expressed more than anyone else by the Egyptian media. It is often reported in this media that the position of King Salman is not decisive nor is it final regarding the Muslim Brotherhood as used to be the position of the late King and that he is more inclined toward a rapprochement and perhaps even toward an alliance with Qatar and Turkey. It is concluded, therefore, that his position toward Egypt might have its own limits, conditions and prerequisites, most of which had not been in existence during the days of the late King Abdullah bin Abd Al-Aziz. In other words, there is concern regarding the possibility of a withdrawal of Saudi support for Egypt or that this support may become part of a new political package that new Saudi Monarch my regard as important. It is more likely that this anxiety had been in existence within Egyptian leadership circles even prior the death of the late king and before it was expressed publicly following his death.

The existence of Egyptian anxiety toward the change of leadership in an ally state as important as Saudi Arabia in such a turmoil ridden phase at the level of the entire region and in the shadow of Egypt’s tough circumstance, both political and well as economic, is natural and is expected. What has not been natural is the manner in which this anxiety is being expressed by the media. The expression has bordered on a suppressed state of panic. Writing in Almasry Alyoum newspaper on 23 February, Egyptian columnist Mustafa Al-Najjar observed that some Egyptian media have indulged in “spiteful abuse against Qatar hitting below the belt in a manner that has been obvious even to the Saudi regime itself.” This is a reflection of the fact that some of the Egyptian media at least are still hostage to the discourse of the fifties and sixties of the last century. During that time spiteful abusive language and covert threats, and hitting below the belt used to be means intended to pressure and blackmail. It would seem that it has not occurred to those who are doing this now that resorting to such a discourse is causing concern outside Egypt. First of all because it indicates that Egypt, or at least some of the people in Egypt, have not changed much despite the change that has swept across the region and across the world and despite the first popular revolution in the history of Egypt. Secondly, it does raise concern because it gives the impression that at least some of the Egyptian media is inherently convinced that the choice made by the Egyptian State in the aftermath of the 30 June coup is perhaps more fragile than it seems. If this is the case, then it is indeed a cause for concern. Egypt’s stability, and above that the stability of Saudi Arabia, in these turbulent Arab conditions, is no longer just a strategic interest for each of them but a strategic interest for the entire world and for the global system as a whole.

It is from this angle that one should view the affirmation by King Salman bin Abd Al-Aziz that the Saudi support for Egypt will not change.

Where is the problem then? The problem, it would seem – as I have already noted, lies in the method of support and its framework. Some people in Egypt would like Saudi support to take the form of gifts or open royal grants or a blank cheque, as one might say. They don’t, for instance, want Saudi Arabia to come close to Turkey because of the latter’s sympathy toward the Brotherhood. This involves a total disregard for the fact that inter state relations are not based on such a vision because such an approach is emotional and not political. The more rational political vision is that the relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt should not be subject to the position toward the Brotherhood or the position toward Turkey. If Egypt’s stability is a strategic interest for Saudi Arabia, and it is indeed so, it is the duty of Saudi Arabia to deal with the issue of the Brotherhood as a fundamentally internal Egyptian problem. It should be approached in terms of its impact on the stability of Egypt in the first place and then in terms of its regional implications in the second place. Viewed from the same angle, if Saudi Arabia were to continue to distance itself from Turkey, as some people in Egypt wish it to do, this will certainly not serve regional balance of powers in the current circumstances. These balance of powers constitute the first foundation for stability in the region and hence for the stability of Egypt itself. Turkey is one of the most important regional super powers by virtue of its economic and military capabilities and by virtue of its political role. In addition to being a NATO member and a member of the G20, and by virtue of its strategic position between the Arab world on the one side and Israel and Iran on the other side, it is one of the states that possess a clear political and economic project. It is a project that in essence contradicts the Israeli colonial project on the one hand and the Iranian sectarian project on the other. In addition, as a secular nation state it is more capable of interfacing its project and regional policies with the Arab interests. But of course this presupposes before anything the existence of an Arab project. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are now more capable than all the other Arab states of thinking about launching such a project and taking good care of it. This is what Saudi Arabia and Egypt should be preoccupied with instead of being preoccupied about the Turkish position toward the Brotherhood.

The paradox is that the Brotherhood group has been turned in Egypt into some kind of an intellectual and political complex, one that is so destructive and one that requires some disentangling. There should be a distinction between the justifications for the position toward the Brotherhood and the prerequisites of the state interests at the regional level. Egypt does not accept Turkey’s description of what took place there on 30 June 2013 as a military coup. But most countries in the world consider what happened to be a coup. Does that mean that every country that says so shouldbe boycotted? And if it matters so much to Egypt that the world should recognise that what happened there at the time was nothing but a revolution, it has the right to want that but it should provide what is needed politically and constitutionally, internally ahead of externally, to support that. Additionally, the augmentation of the problem of the Brotherhood in this way has been a natural consequence of the absence of an Egyptian intellectual and political project around which to rally the majority of the Egyptians. Within the same context, the issue of the Brotherhood, with the size it has adopted inside as well as outside Egypt, is an expression of the crisis of governance in the Arab world. This only proves that this crisis is the primary source of the failure of development in the Arab states, a failure that led to the devastating explosions that became the fate of the Arab revolutions which ended in a state of total intellectual and political impasse.

And it is at this point that we pause to pose the question: Is that all? Luckily what seemed unachievable is beginning to materialise, albeit partially. Today is the second day of the visit by Turkish President Tayyib Recep Erdogan and tomorrow begins his official visit to Riyadh. Today (Sunday) will also see the arrival in Riyadh by Egyptian President Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi. Is it a mere coincidence or was this prearranged? It does not seem that there will be a meeting between the two presidents in the Saudi capital. However, the presence of both men at the same time may mean something. In any case, the visit by the Turkish president does represent a transformation in the Saudi position in the right direction and it will constitute a first step in an anticipated change in the political positions of more than one state in the region.

Finally, I permit myself to return to that with which I concluded my column in this same place last year when I considered it to be a pressing need for a Saudi- Egyptian-Turkish troika. I said at the time that such a troika would “represent in the current circumstances a strategic need for the three parties. These are parties that complement each other (politically as well as economically) . The coordination among them will restore to the region a sense of balance in the aftermath of the fall of Iraq and Syria. Such coordination would erect a wall in the face of the devastating Iranian role. It would also form a launch pad for laying the foundations for stability in the middle of the current phase of turbulence. The column was published in Alhayat on the 13 January 2014 under the title “Will Egypt move, even if just a little, in the direction started now by Saudi Arabia”.

Translated from Alhayat newspaper, 1 March, 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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