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Saudi Arabia and Egypt: What will the royal visit achieve?

April 4, 2016 at 11:07 am

Until recently, the Arab complained about the interventions of the super powers and their “conspiracies”. Yet, it is now obvious that neighbouring states intervene as well and that militias are already competing with states in this regard. Some of these militias have encroached upon the state within while some others have turned into regional powers on the outside. It is by virtue of the hegemony of the militias that Iraq lost the ability to build a national army.

In Lebanon the state is almost completely paralysed. For more than a year and a half, the country has been unable to elect a president and that is mainly because of the influence of the militias. Even Syria, which was once an example of the power and control of the political system, has been in such a condition that its future and the future of its president are under the control of Russian intervention, a US role, Iranian influence and the interests of militias that happen to come from all corners of the region.

What is astonishing is that this dangerous situation, and what it entails as a threat to everyone, has failed to provoke the Arab system into defending itself. It is agreed that the hope to salvage this system very much depends on Egyptian-Saudi cooperation. This is a hope which may be accomplished during the visit of Saudi monarch King Salman Bin Abdelaziz to Egypt. What maintains the flame of this hope is that Riyadh and Cairo are the last of what remains of the pillars of the Arab system. Each of them is in dire need of the other so as not to have to face the collapses alone.

Regaining the initiative in such a situation has become the only remaining option for stopping the deterioration and to shielding the other Arab states that have not been affected thus far. Yet, despite this, and in spite of their common interests, and their need for one another during the present phase, there is no Saudi-Egyptian pact, not even a hint that such a thing is taking place. Why? One of the reasons has to do with the nature of the Arab State, and consequently with the nature of the Arab regional system.

One of the most prominent features of this system is the lack of any prospects for a real alliance among its various parties throughout the past 100 years.

The other reason has to do with Egyptian qualms emanating from Egypt’s modern history, especially having been used to the idea of being the bigger, stronger and more established state and therefore the one that has more right to be in charge of leading the Arab world.

The dilemma is that the idea of such a leadership is not hereditary by nature. It is rather a question of capabilities and resources. It does therefore require the incurring of costs no one single Arab state is able alone to bear in the present circumstances. It has been proven through experience and through history that the Arab system is objectionable, as a matter of principle, to such an idea and it just cannot embrace it. Taking such reality into consideration, the only option remaining is cooperating in order to form a joint leadership whose main objective is to serve the common interests of the members of this system.

The first prerequisite of such cooperation is to agree on a common vision of the Arab reality. The most important element of this vision now is to reject the notion of the militia and all it represents of a threat to the concept of the Arab State and to its identity, unity and stability. There comes ahead of that rejecting sectarianism of all types as a foundation or a justification for the notion of the militia. What is noteworthy here is that Egypt’s stance towards the nature of the Iranian role has been one of hesitation, especially in Iraq and Syria. This has indeed been a confusing position in the sense that Egypt’s current government considers itself to be the heir of the Nassirist experience, which is underpinned by the nationalist identity of the Arab State.

How is it possible in this case to justify the Egyptian hesitation toward the Iranian role which is driven by an alliance among minorities and by the machine of the militia and what this represents of a direct threat to the nationalist identity of the Arab State? It is also confusing because the sectarian sense in Egypt is rather weak compared, for instance, with Syria and Iraq. Therefore, one would assume in this case that Egypt should show greater sensitivity and more rejection than others of any sectarian role in the region and of the diffusion of the idea of the militia. Such confusion manifested itself in what was expressed recently by the Egyptian foreign minister as he belittled the significance of designating the Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation while insisting on imparting such designation on the Palestinian Hamas movement.

The second prerequisite for energising the Arab system would be to acknowledge that the Arab State, which was formed after the end of the First World War, has become flaccid and run out of steam and that in its current condition it has become the cause of what has befallen the Arabs. Therefore, it is necessary to reform this state politically, constitutionally and economically and to restructure it in accordance with the requirements of the era.

The third prerequisite would be to acknowledge that as the idea that one specific state alone should lead the Arab system has previously failed terribly, it will not be any more successful in the future. The Nassirist era ended because it belonged to history and not to the present or the future, and therefore we should just leave it behind.

The fourth prerequisite would be to agree on the necessity of having dialogue with Iran on the grounds of a united Arab stance, for Iran is one of the Arabs’ neighbouring states and has all the rights necessitated by such proximity. However, intervention in the Arab states in order to support one party against another is not one of these rights; nor is the adoption of the militia as a tool for this intervention and what it causes of flaring the conflict and deepening the division, as has been happening in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. At the same it, it is not Iran’s right, nor is it acceptable for it or for anyone else, to use the militia as a lever for its regional role. Iran should deal with the Arab states as countries should deal with one another, taking into consideration the nationhood and sovereignty of such a state and not through sectarianism and the militia machine. Once such an agreement is reached with Iran it would be easy to have dialogue with it and agree on what would safeguard the rights and interests of all parties.

Then, there emerges the question of the Saudi relations with Qatar and Turkey. Egypt considers these relations to be a stumbling block in the way of developing relations with Saudi Arabia and in the way of cooperating with it. The source of this impediment has been the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood. The odd thing about the Egyptian stance is that it has not been able to surpass this issue after nearly three years since the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power and that it does not take into consideration the fact that the Saudi stance towards the Brotherhood may be different to Cairo’s in some ways.

The fact is that Cairo’s problem is internal before anything else. This is why Saudi Arabia has, for some time, been undertaking a mediation effort between Egypt and Turkey with the objective of either accomplishing reconciliation between Ankara and Cairo or at least moderating the intensity of the tension between them.

The issue of reconciliation between Egypt and Turkey will be one of the topics the Saudi monarch, King Salman Bin Abdalaziz, will raise during his visit to Egypt. Why is Riyadh keen on this? Because it believes that coordination, at least among Riyadh, Cairo and Ankara, is necessary in order to restore balance to the region in the face of American withdrawal and in the face of the Russian onslaught and the the coalition of what is called the front of “rejection” under the leadership of Iran. Should this happen, it would guarantee a heavy weight for the stances and interests of these three states in any proposal for resolving the region’s crises, foremost among them the Syrian crisis. However, such balance would be impossible without genuine and daring Saudi-Egyptian cooperation on the ground of a common vision not just for their own interests but for the interests of the Arabs as a whole.

The question: Is what makes Egypt reluctant about this its preoccupation with its own internal predicament or that it does not want to be squeezed between the Saudis and the Iranians or that it has qualms about the likelihood that the solution in Syria might end up forcing the army to exit the formula of governance while bringing the Brotherhood into it, or may be all the above?

Whatever happens, it remains that the Saudi strategic interest necessitates cooperation with Egypt and safeguarding its interests and stability. The Saudi endeavour to mediate between Egypt and Turkey stems from a vision that the perpetuation of tension between Cairo and Ankara does not serve the interests of any of them and that it is not in the interest of the region under the present circumstances. To the contrary, eliminating such tension would help Egypt resolve its own domestic problem. It is anticipated that reconciliation will serve the interests of all three countries and should surpass the mere resolution of the region’s crises should these solutions be accomplished. So, will Cairo listen?

Translated from Alhayat, 3 April 2016

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