Prime Minister Sharaf's visit to Riyadh went 'quite well', officials say

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 26 Apr 2011

Interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's visit to the Gulf alleviates diplomatic tensions and reconfirms mutual commitments to cooperation

Essam Sharaf
Saudi King Abdullah meets Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf at the Royal palace in Riyadh (Photo: Reuters)

"All things considered, it went quite well; I cannot say it had the same air of the visits by [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak to Saudi Arabia but still it showed that we could continue our cooperation," commented an official on the visit by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to the Saudi capital.

Saudi King Abdullah received Egypt’s interim prime minister which according to the same source “is a sign in and of itself; it goes to show that the Saudis are still keen on [maintaining] relations with Egypt.”

Sharaf’s visit to Saudi Arabia is the highest ranking visit of an Egyptian official to the influential and oil-rich kingdom following the January 25 Revolution. The trip marks the second visit by a senior Egyptian official after Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi travelled to Riyadh for talks with his Saudi counterpart earlier this month.

"That visit too went very well," stated the official.

The reasons Egyptian-Saudi dialogue is proceeding well, according to Egyptian diplomats, are two-fold. On the one hand, Cairo has not changed its traditional support of basic regional diplomacy issues, especially in regards to cooperation on stabilising Iraq and Lebanon. "We had a revolution that changed the regime but the basic lines of our foreign policy are largely the same, especially when it comes to regional stability," said one diplomat.

He added that Cairo made it "crystal clear" during several Egyptian-Saudi encounters, including the recent Sharaf-Abdullah meeting, that it remains committed to oppose any intervention in the affairs of the Gulf countries by their politically influential neighbours in Tehran. "We made it clear that we decline any Iranian interference in the internal affairs of the Gulf countries on the basis of mutual Shia affiliation and that we consider the citizens of each states as full-fledged citizens, religious belief aside," he stressed.

In press statements made ahead of and during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Sharaf made a point of emphasising that "for Egypt the security of Gulf states is a red line."

Foreign Affairs Minister El-Arabi also stated that Egypt's plans to normalise diplomatic relations with Iran are not intended to compromise Cairo's commitment to the interests of Gulf countries.

Meanwhile, the Saudi keenness to maintain good relations with Egypt, according to the official, comes with an “awareness” of the continued crucial role that Egypt is set to play in relations to key Middle East matters, especially the peace process.

The official believes that Sharaf shares with his Saudi interlocutors some "fresh diplomatic solutions" which Cairo is currently contemplating as a means to end the long stalemate over the Arab-Israeli, especially the Palestinian-Israeli, peace talks. He suggested that Riyadh gave its nod of approval.

Moreover, the official said that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia promised Sharaf "in clear words that Saudi Arabia would lend Egypt all necessary political and economic support."

This said, Egyptian officials acknowledge certain "unease" on the part of Riyadh over the current legal charges levelled against toppled president Mubarak and his family. "The subject was tactfully raised," he stated.

Meanwhile, a Saudi source indicated that his country is pursuing a consensual end to the currently launched process of litigation against the Mubaraks, especially the president and his spouse, on the basis that they are both too old and too unwell and that "at the end of the day Mubarak fought for the liberation of Egyptian territories when he served at the military forces".

"We are not intervening; we are just pursuing the call of mercy," he stressed.

It is not clear whether Egypt would ultimately heed the Saudi call and under what conditions, but according to an Egyptian and a Saudi diplomat, a deal could be possible provided that Mubarak goes through the trial process and, if indicted, offer some compensation. The ousted president could then be offered amnesty on certain health and age complications.

Egyptian-Saudi relations certainly experienced its pitfalls during the rule of Mubarak, but generally speaking, Egypt, according to the assessment of several Egyptian diplomats, went well out of its way to accommodate certain Saudi views and policies.  

These same diplomats believe that the events of January 25 Revolution will seriously change Egypt’s overly supportive affiliation to Saudi views and policies. Nevertheless, the source believes this shift in tone will not imply a break away from close coordination with Saudi Arabia. "We will just act with a bit more independence and we will continue to consult and coordinate," said a senior Egyptian diplomat.

Saudi Arabia was the first stop of a Gulf tour that was launched by Sharaf yesterday. The two other stops include Kuwait and Qatar.

Sharaf’s talks in the three Gulf countries cover the Egyptian nomination of Mustafa El-Fiqi for the soon-to-be vacant post of the Arab League secretary-general, as the current head of the Arab organisation, Amr Moussa, will end his term on 15 May.

Saudi Arabia is "in full support of this nomination", according to the Saudi diplomat. Kuwait hasn’t shown any opposition to the nomination while Qatar is running a counter candidate and upping their campaign against El-Fiqi.

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