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Saudi Arabia and the UAE: race of the reckless

Crown Prince and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 26 November 2017 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

What happened to the former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik in the UAE a few days ago is very similar to what happened to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago. They were mysteriously detained, for unannounced reasons, and then released based on even more mysterious terms, while their family members were kept hostage to anticipation.

The core of the issue is not Hariri and Shafik but rather Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In more precise words it is about who is governing Saudi Arabia and who is governing the UAE and who decides to embark on these adventures. The most important question is: who is learning from the other?

Much has been said in the Arab and Western media about the fact that Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is taking the lead. This idea surfaced after he chose to play a sabotaging role in many countries, including Tunisia and Qatar.

The same media claimed that this man marketed Saudi Arabia’s new man Mohammad Bin Salman to the Americans, turning him from a young inexperienced man to a “hero” whose name is on everyone’s lips around the world. He is being praised by major writers and analysts (most recently The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman after a barbeque in Riyadh’s palaces.)

Read more: Did the curtain fall on Shafiq’s fantasia?

However, the incident with Ahmed Shafik raises questions about the blatant absence of political wisdom, ability and foresight. Mohammed bin Salman’s trouble when he detained Hariri and then released him after pressure from the US and France should have been a lesson and example for those who cause crises from themselves and their neighbours and those who plan or dream of working in politics.

Still, no lesson was learned. The Emirati leaders repeated the same foolishness with Shafik, with the same stubbornness. The result was that Shafik was transformed from one of the symbols of the tyrannical Egyptian regime and the corrupt failed deep state to a martyr of political freedom and symbol of change in Egypt. The same goes for Hariri, who became a national symbol who united the diverse and divided Lebanese people since the establishment of their independent country.

Shafik was arrested in the UAE and was visited by Emirati security officers who spent some time in his house (When The New York Times called to speak to him, his daughter told them there were Emirati security officers in their home). He was then deported to Egypt while his family remained hostage in the UAE, just like Hariri.

Where is Hariri? Saudi Arabia, Lebanon - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Where is Hariri? Saudi Arabia, Lebanon – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The purpose of this treatment, until proven otherwise, was to discourage Shafik from running in the Egyptian presidential elections. We cannot interpret these actions as anything other than part of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s refusal to risk any chance of winning the 2018 elections.

This is how narrow-hearted the Emiratis and Saudis have become, insisting only on Al-Sisi as president of Egypt and its 100 million people. Not even Shafik, who is not an Islamist and is no stranger to the military institution and who is very similar to Al-Sisi, is acceptable to them. Is Egypt that important to the two countries that it cannot be “conceded”? Egypt, under Al-Sisi’s leadership, under the current dire economic and security conditions, is important as a huge and guaranteed consumer market, and given its circumstances and size, it is a country that benefits those who help it overcome its troubles, as they gain the respect and trust of its people and others. However, Egypt is also a strategic ally that reinforces Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s positions regionally and internationally, whilst they have secured Egypt’s subordination for their reckless foreign policies.

Read more: Protestors gather outside UAE embassy against Middle East conflicts

The attempt to discourage Shafik from running in the elections is another sign of political bankruptcy and strategic short-sightedness. Al-Sisi running in the elections without respectable rivals, in predetermined elections, weakens Al-Sisi more than it serves him. It is humiliating to him and the electoral process and strips the elections of the minimum criteria for competition, therefore stripping it of credibility and democracy. Moreover, it compounds the desperation and frustration experienced by the Egyptian people and encourages all opponents, even the most violent and extreme, to become more active.

Even if Shafik definitely poses a threat to Al-Sisi’s chances of winning the elections – as he did with Mohammed Morsi in the 2012 elections when he won over 12 million votes – he can be tamed and is willing to negotiate and make political deals by virtue of the school of thought he adopts. However, trying to eliminate Shafik in this clumsy and blatant manner is the perfect recipe for increasing his popularity amongst the people, strengthening his self-confidence, and increasing his belief that he is more deserving and entitled to what they are trying to deprive him of.

It is likely that this information is available to those who acted the way they did towards Shafik because these facts are considered the basics of political and electoral manoeuvres in the Arab and non-Arab world. It seems that the issue is more related to political blindness and recklessness, which led to copying Riyadh’s detention of Hariri. This action warrants the question, who is leading who in this race of the reckless.

This article first appeared in Arabic on Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 5 December 2017

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