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The prospects and possibilities for Saudi-Egypt relations

April 16, 2016 at 1:07 pm

The historic visit of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Bin Abdulaziz to Egypt can be seen as the beginning of a meaningful regional change. This is not only because of the 5-day duration of the visit or the size of the very high level Saudi delegation, but also because of the agreements that were signed related to relations between the two countries. Other files will also be affected by the outcomes of this visit.

A very important development is the agreement to build a bridge to connect Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which will ease the transport of people and goods and thus improve economic cooperation. Egypt has also agreed to return Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi sovereignty; the islands will be the natural pontoons for the bridge. This development seems to have infuriated Israel and led some to express their concerns regarding freedom of navigation in the Tiran straits as guaranteed by the Egypt-Israel Camp David agreement, even though Israel knows that the bridge will not impede any ships in the straits.

The agreements also include opening the Saudi door to Egyptian labour, large Saudi investments in Egyptian projects and an increase in the volume of trade, as well as deals for electricity supplies. However, such agreements are not the reason for the Saudi king’s visit. Security weighs uppermost on his mind and he wants a different kind of Egyptian cooperation than what he has seen so far.

Without a doubt, he wants more Egyptian effort in the war in Yemen, and a position that is much closer to Saudi’s over Syria. Cairo and Riyadh differ in both cases.

Egypt does not want to get involved in Yemen and insists that being part of the coalition does not mean that it has to take part in the fighting; it wants to limit its participation to logistic support and perhaps some limited remote operations. Its position on Syria is unique, with calls for preserving the integrity of Syrian territory, even if that means keeping Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in power. This is very different to the position of Saudi Arabia, which supports the war against the Assad regime and wants to overthrow it by any means, even if Syria is destroyed and divided. The question now is over whose position has shifted closer to the other. Does Saudi Arabia now believe that the overthrow of Assad is almost impossible thanks to Russia’s role and so there must be a transitional phase with him involved?

King Salman wants to create a joint Arab force to fight terrorism and preserve Arab security and Egypt may not object to that, but on what grounds would such a force be established, and will it be based on the Mutual Defence Treaty and the Arab League system? How can Arab national interest be estimated when there is no consensus on fundamental issues and there are Arab states conspiring against each other — as in Syria — with some calling for external assistance to destroy the Arab world, fragment it and weaken it to seize its wealth? Will the joint Arab force operate against the enemies of the Arabs, such as Israel, or is it going to face Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy?

There is no doubt that Egypt’s relationship with Hamas was also part of the talks during the Saudi monarch’s visit to Cairo, because how can the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose president was ousted in Egypt, be ignored while calling for rapprochement with Hamas? Does Saudi Arabia really want to push Hamas closer to Egypt, and how can that affect Palestinian reconciliation, after Hamas had failed Saudi efforts? Will Saudi Arabia play a positive role in this matter? There are many questions that remain unanswered and things that need to be clarified before we can understand the nature of Egyptian-Saudi relations and any new alliance that may be established between the two countries.

The one thing that is strikingly clear in this positive development, though, is Saudi Arabia’s need for Egypt after being swamped in Yemen and failing in Syria, despite paying huge sums of money to fund extremist terrorist groups to overthrow the Assad regime. Perhaps there is a Saudi awakening after being reckless and wasting a lot of its wealth in useless wars, but to what extent is Saudi Arabia willing to reconsider its policies that are based on the illusion of being able to use it petro-dollars to buy influence anywhere and everywhere?

The other important question in this context is, what is the position of the Palestinians in this Saudi strategy and alliance? Is the focus limited to keeping Hamas away from Iran or are there intentions to revive the Arab peace initiative and regain control of matters at the regional and international levels? These are the questions; now we need some answers.

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