President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday for an official visit that would allow for a presidential participation in a high-level energy conference and to review mutually crucial bilateral relations.
It is El-Sisi’s first official visit to the UAE since he was inaugurated last June. The Gulf state is a firm backer of the political transition in Egypt that has been taking place since Mohamed Morsi was ousted from the presidency power in 2013. Over the past 18 months, the UAE has been forthcoming with both financial support and with shipments of fuel, both vital in view of Egypt’s economic difficulties.
“The support of the UAE has been crucial for sure. It is certainly widely appreciated. During his visit the president will express appreciation for this support and pursue a wider and longer term cooperation that should eventually graduate from aid to investment,” a presidential source told Ahram Online.
El-Sisi is particularly keen on encouraging a wide range of UAE investors to come to a major economic conference in Sharm El-Sheikh on 13 March.
The vice president of a leading UAE construction company said that investors are hoping for “not just economic reforms but also political reforms, to assure investors about the stability of the situation in the country.”
“What we need goes beyond more cohesive and inviting investment laws; we need a sense of certainty that Egypt is safe from any potential political hiccups in the coming couple of years,” he said.
According to the same financial source the Emirati government has been trying to encourage his and other companies to go to Egypt, but skepticism still prevails. “We are hoping that during his visit, El-Sisi will offer sufficient assurances,” he said.
“This is not to say that we have bypassed the point where we need financial and energy support,” said a government official close to the file.
“The president will discuss during his visit the possible help we could get to establish mobile power plants, in view of the terrible decline in the state of our power plants, with several expected to suffer serious drops during the coming summer,” he added.
Beyond the financial and fuel support, El-Sisi while in the UAE will also seek a continuation of the political support the nation has been providing. The Emirati ambassador to Washington has been and still is, according to sources in Cairo, Abu Dhabi and DC, “a crucial lobbyist for Egypt” following the ouster of Morsi.
“The ambassador had daily meetings with everyone in DC in the first few weeks that followed the ouster of Morsi, to convince the US administration and Congress that the ouster was only an outcome of the political will of the majority of Egyptians,” said an Emirati diplomat.
The UAE was, like most other Gulf Cooperation Council states, apprehensive about the ouster of the regime of Hosni Mubarak following the 25 January Revolution.
What counts most for the UAE now, the diplomat said, is to help secure the stability of Egypt under the rule of a friendly regime that refrains from allowing any political hiccups in the UAE itself or other friendly GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the chief political and economic guarantor of Egypt’s post-Morsi authorities.
Today, with doubts looming about the health of the Saudi monarch King Abdullah – some Western diplomats in Cairo say they suspect the ruler of the richest Gulf state is nearing the end – Egypt is firmly dependent on the support of Abu Dhabi.
“We are closely following the developments in Saudi Arabia and we are hoping that, whatever happens, the close ties between the two countries will never be subject to any unfortunate developments,” said an Egyptian diplomat.
Mohamed Ezz Al-Arab, a GCC expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, argues that the close ties “which are not quite an alliance but which are much more than just a form of cooperation” between Egypt and both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are immune to any serious disruption.
“Whatever happens in Saudi Arabia -- and one should be careful about the Western accounts regarding the health of the Saudi king -- the ruling family in Saudi Arabia is not going to turn its back on Egypt,” Ezz Al-Arab said.
Unlike some Middle East-based Western diplomats who argue that there are factions within the ruling family of Al-Saud who are sympathetic to the regime of El-Sisi, Ezz Al-Arab is argues that regardless of nuances, “the next ruler of Saudi Arabia, like the current rulers of the UAE, is ultimately supportive of Egypt.”
“We have to be careful here in our analysis. These two countries do not support El-Sisi in the sense they supported Mubarak, who was obviously a very close ally and who demonstrated immediate support to the GCC states at all critical stages, especially during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait,” Ezz Al-Arab argued.
"The current Abu Dhabi-Riyadh support for Cairo is more about supporting a non-Islamist, strong regime which can keep Egypt intact and can help in the war against the expansion of militant Islamic groups in the Arab region, and not just the GCC zone."
“Obviously both countries are counting a lot on the current regime when it comes to the war on ISIS,” said a Middle East-based Western diplomat, who argued that the UAE is particularly proud of its cooperation with Egypt to support secular political groups in Libya, while Saudi Arabia is proud of the willingness that Egypt showed regarding providing immediate military help to stop any possible threat from ISIS on the Saudi borders.
The cooperation between Egypt and the two Gulf states is also essential in what diplomats from Egypt and the UAE qualify as “limiting Iranian political and religious expansion in the region.”
Saudi Arabia is particularly mindful of the Iranian influence on the Gulf area. Like its close GCC follower Bahrain and close GCC ally the UAE, it is mindful of the influence that Iran might have on the Shia communities – a minority in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and a majority in Bahrain.
Egypt is already apprehensive about the weight of an Islamist Iran, and has been closely coordinating its policy on Iran with the Saudis since the last years of president Anwar Sadat and throughout the three-decade rule of Mubarak and beyond. The only exception is the year-long rule of Morsi.
“The only time Egyptian relations saw a low profile with either the UAE or Saudi Arabia (since the second half of the rule of Sadat) was during the rule of Morsi, and this is essentially due to the support of the Muslim Brotherhood regime at the time for Islamist movements in both countries,” Ezz Al-Arab argued.
There has however been no major change in the profile of relations with Bahrain, Oman or Kuwait, said Ezz Al-Arab.
“Kuwait might have been more forthcoming with its support when Egypt was under Mubarak, given his historic support for Kuwait during the war to end the Iraqi occupation,” the GCC expert argued.
He added that following the outbreak of the Arab Spring and given the prevailing political apprehension in Kuwait due to the strength of Islamist influence, the Kuwaiti ruling family might have taken a step back.
It is also, said a leading official at a key oil company in Kuwait, a function of uncertainty about the chances of political stability in Egypt.
Earlier this month, President El-Sisi visited Kuwait – with hopes of expanding Kuwaiti support to Egypt, especially on the crucial energy front.
“You cannot say that Kuwait turned its back on the Egyptian president, but you could safely argue that yes Kuwait is not offering what the Egyptian president would have hoped for,” said the Kuwait-based oil source.
Egyptian diplomats argue that for the most part, Cairo’s relations with the GCC are fairly stable for now. They argue that the tough phase in relations with Qatar, which was a major backer of the Morsi regime and very opposed to his ouster, has been put to an end.
“We cannot say that we have normal relations with Qatar because obviously we do not see eye-to-eye with Doha on the future of the region as a whole – it is not just a question of the Muslim Brotherhood – but we could say that for now the situation is fairly contained,” said a senior Egyptian diplomat.
A few weeks ago, before he became seriously ill, the Saudi monarch brokered a cold peace deal between Cairo and Doha that brought about an end to the exchange of media hostilities and a suspension of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, the Egyptian channel of the Doha-based media network which was considered as highly inflammatory by the El-Sisi regime.
A meeting that the Saudi monarch was planning to host in the first week of the month was put on hold, partially due to the failure of both Cairo and Doha to agree on the terms of a comprehensive political truce – Egypt wanted Qatar to expel and extradite some Muslim Brotherhood figures and Qatar declined – and partially due to the king’s declining health.
Egypt’s decision to pursue a neutral phase of relations with Qatar, the same senior diplomat said, is not just about seeking the end to the media campaign against the ruling regime but also about the Egyptian realisation that going too far in antagonising Qatar is counterproductive to Egyptian attempts to stabilise explosive situations in two crucial countries where Qatar has a strong on-the-ground influence: Libya and Syria.
“I think we have managed to convince the Saudis that trying to oust the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, a clear Saudi wish in view of the hostility between Assad and the ruling Saudi family, is neither attainable nor purposeful; we also have to secure a less destabilising Qatari influence if we want to put Syria on the beginning of a normalisation track,” argued the senior Egyptian diplomat.
Qatar, he said, has been “somewhat but not at all fully cooperative with reducing the level of financial support to the militant groups in Libya.
“This was the outcome of joint pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but we still have to get the Qataris to cooperate more on this front. This matter will be subject to the consultations that President El-Sisi is having in the UAE,” he added.
Egyptian diplomacy has always maintained that stability in the GCC zone is essential to Egyptian strategic interests. Following the liberation of Kuwait, Egypt and Syria went into a coalition with the GCC states under the banner of ‘The Damascus Alliance”, which was very short-lived.
“It was essentially an attempt by Egyptian diplomacy in the 1990s to have a direct consultation and cooperation channel with Gulf states, but it was not possible to keep it because the Gulf countries have already shifted their focus since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait to the West which effectively sent its troops to defend the ruling regimes there against the troops of Saddam Hussein,” said a retired Egyptian diplomat who had served in both Riyadh and Baghdad.
Today, Ezz Al-Arab argued, these dynamics have not changed: the GCC is not planning to forgo its close association with the West “nor will it give up on its flexible alliance with Egypt either.”