King Salman’s visit to Cairo last week was of exceptional importance, not only for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but the entire region.
The visit offered the opportunity to get past the chill in relations that emerged due to differences on key regional issues, reinvigorate economic ties, and restore balance in the Arab region.
Although it’s still too early to fully assess the visit, some positive economic and political outcomes are already apparent.
Economically, there are reports so far of four major developments: oil for Egypt for the next five years under affordable terms; an agreement for a $1.5-billion Sinai development program, including residential communities, a university, a sewage plant, roads, and agricultural settlements; around $4 billion in investment in the Suez Gulf region; and various other agreements, most significantly the construction of two power plants in western Cairo and Dayrout and the development of the Qasr al-Aini Hospital.
Politically, it’s clear that the Saudi monarch sought to break with the usual model of official visits—typically limited to ritual pageantry, closed meetings, and concluding statements—to reach out to the Egyptian people.
His visits to Al-Azhar, Cairo University, and the parliament, as well as his meetings with Pope Tawadros and representatives of the business community, demonstrated his desire to open new channels to Egyptian society, which is certainly a laudable step.
Nevertheless, the positive impact of the visit was partially undermined by the Egyptian side’s refusal to communicate about the anticipated developments, in the apparent belief that springing projects and policies on the public heightens the impact and excitement—a sort of surprise policy party.
But such methods are no longer appropriate in this day and age, and they generate needless anxiety. In fact, the Egyptian public is right to feel anxious in light of previous surprises.
At the Sharm Al-Sheikh economic conference, we were surprised by fully formed plans for a whole new capital city, unveiled without any prior public debate or dialogue. The same style was used to announce the decision to expand the Suez Canal and reclaim millions of feddans of land.
Unfortunately, the same tactic made another appearance during King Salman’s visit. I know the Saudi side marshalled all resources and energies to make sure the visit would have a tangible impact on the Egyptian economy and turn a new page on official and popular relations between the two countries.
The Egyptian side, which presumably better understands its own public, should have known that transparency was needed, especially on three issues.
The first of these is the matter of the bridge slated to connect the two countries. In the absence of any information about its proposed location, cost, financing, economic return, and environmental impact, people are right to feel apprehensive about the project, the opacity of decision making, and the absence of any society-wide debate.
The second issue is the nature of Saudi financing for all these projects. What comes from the government and what from the private sector? Which parts are grants and which are loans that must be repaid? If loans, what are the terms? How were projects prioritized for implementation? Why weren’t these projects mentioned when the government presented its program to the parliament a few days ago, and what effect will they have on Egypt’s external debt?
All of these questions are legitimate, even if the terms of the financing are favourable.
Finally, the way in which the issue of Tiran and Sanafir was raised was neither appropriate nor acceptable. I claim no knowledge of the two islands’ history or their status under international law—they may in fact be located within Saudi territory as stated by the Egyptian government - but I do know that announcing the decision of the border-drawing committee without prelude or preparation was a serious misstep.
Egyptians should have been informed that a joint Saudi-Egyptian committee would issue recommendations after considering the issue, to inform the public, allow parliament to exercise oversight, and allow the media report.
We appreciate and welcome Saudi assistance to address the economic crisis and sincere desire to continue offering support in difficult regional and economic circumstances. I’m certain that Egyptian-Saudi cooperation is necessary to restore balance and stability to the Arab world and put it on the road to development and advancement.
But our mismanagement of this cooperation and the policy of governing by surprise are outdated methods that only create more problems and inflame sensitivities and anxieties which could easily be avoided with more transparency.
Ironically, Saudi ministers and officials who spoke with the Egyptian media in recent days were more forthcoming in responding to questions and fears than their Egyptian counterparts.
The Egyptian people gave a warm, sincere welcome to the Saudi monarch, reflecting the strong fraternal ties between the two countries and the importance of bilateral economic and commercial cooperation.
Managing this relationship from our side requires more seriousness and transparency, lest every positive initiative become further grounds for disagreement and misunderstandings.
*The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.
This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Monday, 11 April.