Cairo has been slowly but determinedly pressing for a more participatory approach in managing the regional order.
“We have certainly counted a lot on the support of Arab Gulf states in the past five years and obviously we have been keen to accommodate them but we have not given Gulf capitals carte blanche to lead the region,” commented an Egyptian diplomat.
With the reverse of the Arab Spring, Gulf capitals assumed a definitive role in managing inter-Arab politics and, by extension, deciding who could be considered a friend and who not. Iran emerged as a definite enemy, Turkey a possible adversary and Israel a likely friend, as one Emirati source put it.
“It was the collective efforts of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that helped end the tide of the so-called Arab Spring which, rather than bringing democracy to Arab countries was bringing the rule of political Islam,” the source continued.
For Arab Gulf states, with the exception of Qatar which had allied itself with political Islam, the Arab Spring “had to be stopped before it hit the Gulf.
“The UAE and Saudi Arabia took it upon themselves to reach out to moderate leaders who wished to spare their countries from falling under the sway of Islamists, and especially the Muslim Brotherhood. We deserve credit for having saved the region.”
According to the Emirati source, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s lead in deterring political Islam, including the pressure both countries, along with Bahrain and Egypt, put on Qatar to reduce its support to Islamist movements, is what “leadership of the region is all about.
“We have also been pushing back Iran’s ambitions to manipulate Arab countries like Iraq and Bahrain with large Shia populations. By cutting back political Islam in Arab countries and putting pressure on Qatar we also pushed back at Ankara’s attempts to expand its influence in the region.
“Only the UAE and Saudi Arabia could do this. It is not just a question of financial resources, but also about our weight with leading world capitals, especially Washington, and the way our think tanks masterminded the push back against political Islam.”
The echoes of the position first proposed by the Emirati intellectual Abdul-Khalek Abdullah in late 2018 are unmistakable. A close associate of the effective ruler of the UAE’s Mohamed bin Zayed, Abdullah argued that without the investment of political and financial capital by the leading Arab Gulf states the region would now be in serious trouble: this being the case, and given that “traditional leading capitals” — Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and Algiers — were embroiled in domestic troubles, it was up to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to assume the driving seat in organising regional affairs.
Cairo-based foreign diplomats say Egypt is the one country that has resisted this implied demotion. When all is said and done, they say, Cairo still considers itself as a leader, if not the leader, of the Arab world.
“Egypt remains keen on keeping the financial support of its Gulf allies. Until quite recently it also needed their political support but this is no longer the case,” said one foreign diplomat. Despite this, Cairo has more than once resisted the wishes of the Gulf allies.
An Egyptian diplomat notes that since 2015 Cairo has resisted Riyadh’s desire to set up an Arab military coalition to be led by Saudi Arabia. It has also opposed the establishing of a coalition of Red Sea states to be based in Riyadh.
“Both issues have been repeatedly brought up and repeatedly turned down, as have Saudi demands for Egypt to send combat troops to Yemen,” agreed a second Egyptian diplomat.
“There have been times we have said yes to the Saudis and Emiratis and there were times we said no. This was very clear in closed door meetings of the Arab League, especially during the past year,” he argued.
Both diplomats say when to act in agreement with either Saudi Arabia or UAE and when to take a step back has been subject to careful calculations.
A retired Egyptian diplomat who represented Egypt in a leading Arab capital insists give-and-take in the management of relations with the Saudis is not new though “the role of the Emirates is something that only emerged in the current decade.”
In 1991, following the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, Egypt, Syria and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) signed a political and military cooperation agreement. The Damascus Declaration was never very effective but it allowed for a three-way coordination mechanism that essentially brought together Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The coalition lasted for only a few years before it was forgotten.
“It is a mistake to think of Egypt as somehow leading the Arab world following the defeat of 1967. And throughout the Mubarak years the president would consult with the Saudis regularly. There were frequent exchanges of visits between Mubarak and the Saudi monarch, and also with the [late] Sheikh Zayed [of the UAE],” says the retired diplomat.
Diplomats who served on the Arab desk at the Foreign Ministry since the final years of Mubarak’s rule say good relations with the Arab Gulf countries have remained a consistent priority.
It was also a priority for the Gulf states to have Egypt on board,” says one diplomat. “The fact that the joint Arab military force that the Saudis wanted did not go ahead is just one example of the consequences of Egypt declining to join.”
According to this diplomat, Egypt’s management of the Libyan situation today is dependent, at least in part, on the “financial, and let us say logistic”, support of the UAE. However, he argued that “it would be a big mistake to assume that Egypt’s role in Libya is only a reflection of the political agenda of the UAE.”
Cairo’s position on Libya “is not 100 per cent concurrent” with the UAE’s. “Let’s say we agree 98 per cent of the time,” he said.
“We have our own calculations. We don’t get into arguments with the UAE but sometimes we don’t do what they want us to.”
Egyptian diplomats also point to the fact that Egypt has been relatively restrained in expressing hostility to Iran in comparison to the Saudis and Emiratis. Cairo has made small gestures, such as publicly expressing sympathy for Iranian earthquake victims, in order to distance itself from the anti-Iranian rhetoric coming out of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
At the UN, in New York and in Geneva, Egypt maintains generally friendly relations with the Iranian mission, though with a degree of cautiousness.
The same diplomats say that throughout the last 12 months Egypt has been trying to balance the Arab order by engaging in bilateral coordination with Jordan, a policy that has caused unease in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi given Jordan’s rejection of Washington’s blueprint for a Middle East peace plan.
Egypt had also tried to create a trilateral network of coordination with Jordan and Iraq, and to improve its relations with Algeria despite differences over Libya.
Recent rapprochement within the GCC — the beginning of the end of the boycott that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt had subjected Qatar to in the summer of 2017 — could see the growing influence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE gain momentum.
But according to diplomatic sources, Cairo is not sweeping coordination among GCC members. Differences with Qatar over the role of political Islam will remain, and the Riyadh/Abu Dhabi alliance is itself under strain following disagreements which emerged in the autumn over how to manage the situation in Yemen.
Concerned officials in Cairo also say Cairo still has a number of new cards that can be played in the coming months. One of them is the possible nomination of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri to head the Arab League (AL).
Egypt, they argue, is still in a position to maintain the tradition that allows Cairo, as host to the AL, to name the secretary-general.
Moving Shoukri to the AL could kick-start a more participatory approach on the part of the pan-Arab body, leading to a more balanced regional order.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Competing poles of influence