Can the Egyptian-Saudi partnership last amid disagreements?

Omar Halawa , Monday 4 Apr 2016

Experts say that the disagreements between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over some regional issue will not affect the long term partnership

Sisi and Salman
An archival for a previous meeting between Egypt's President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi (Left) and Saudi Arabia's King Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz (Photo :Al Ahram)

In June 2014, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah flew to Cairo to hold a meeting with newly-elected President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

The visit was a mark of the Saudi monarch's consistent support for El-Sisi; in July 2013, the king was the first Arab leader to support the ouster of Egypt's Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

King Abdullah passed away in 2015, but on Thursday, his successor King Salman is set to continue his legacy of support for Egypt, arriving for his first official visit to the country as monarch.

The trip aims at "boosting bilateral relations between the two countries in different sectors,” according to the Saudi embassy in Cairo.

Behind the scenes, however, it seems that there are a number of disagreements between the two allies over regional issues such as the situation in Syria, in Yemen, and Egypt’s frosty relationship with Turkey, a vocal opponent of Morsi’s ouster.

Some Egyptian media outlets have been seen by many as opposed to Saudi foreign policy, but Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said last week that while Riyadh is "not comfortable with what is being circulated in the media, we can assure them that the Egyptian state is not directing any press views."

"The relationship with the Saudis is interdependent and inseparable," vowed the minister.

Experts say that despite the bubbling disagreements under the surface, the bilateral relationship is strong because neither party can risk losing the mutual benefits the alliance assures.

Yousri El-Azabawi, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, believes that both countries are aware of the importance of being allies or at least maintaining a stable relationship, despite any differing views.

"Each country, without the support of the other, remains weak. The Saudis need Egyptian expertise in terms of military cooperation and Cairo needs Riyadh's economic assistance, while both states need to maintain strong ties and collaboration in international forums such as the Arab League and the United Nations," El-Azabawi told Ahram Online.

Last month, Egyptian forces participated in Saudi's "Thunder of the North" military exercise alongside over 20 other Arab and Muslim-majority countries.

Those countries are members of the Saudi-led "Islamic military alliance against terrorism" which was established in December 2015.

A few hours after Cairo said that it would join the alliance, Riyadh announced an economic aid package for Egypt in the form of agreement to supply five years worth of oil, and $8 billion in additional investments.

Saudi Arabia has supported Cairo with billions of dollars in aid, grants, oil products and cash deposits to help buoy the country's economy following the toppling of Morsi in July 2013.

Different perspectives

Mutual cooperation aside, both Cairo and Riyadh share different views on the Syrian civil war.

Riyadh has demanded an immediate removal of Bashar Al-Assad and his regime, whereas Egyptian diplomats do not consider his removal to be a prerequisite. Egypt has consistently called for the stability of the Syrian state institutions to be prioritised.

The two states are also diverging on Yemen. Experts argue that Cairo is opposing the rise of the Saudi-backed Islah Party to power in the conflict-torn state, given that it is affiliated with Egypt’s now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

However, Egypt has extended its participation in the Saudi-led coalition which is fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen for another more year.

Egyptian forces were originally deployed to the Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Bab Al-Mandab strait in March 2015, and has been limited to navy and air forces only, with some media reporting that Egypt had refused to deploy ground troops in the conflict.

Ahmed Rakha Hassan, a former diplomat and member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, explained to Ahram Online the reasons behind the Egyptian stances on both the Yemeni and the Syrian crisis.

"Egypt is not supporting Al-Assad's regime," Hassan said. "Egypt needs to keep the Syrian state institutions stable and in particular the national army, as Damascus in considered instrumental by Cairo when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Lebanese internal political crisis," he said.

"Also Egypt is against the circulating idea of making Syria a federal state, which will lead to a division and will produce a new sectarian Iraq," he added.

"Egypt fears that resorting to this option will help the Brotherhood rise to power in Syria."

Hassan also said that Egypt is uncomfortable with the idea of Saudi Arabia backing the Islah Party in Yemen due to its Brotherhood affiliation, but also because it is a Sunni union, whereas Yemen is a majority Shia state.

"Egypt is participating in the war against the Houthis mainly to secure the regional water way in the Red Sea which leads to the Suez Canal," he said, adding that in his view Egyptian diplomats are trying to “seek a strategic balance, rather than looking into regional affiliations and whims," he explained.

Anwar Ishqi, a Saudi political commentator and director of the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah, acknowledges that Saudi diplomats are now "implementing different policies than before due to the latest developments and the balance of power calculations in the region."

But Ishqi agrees that such changes and the aforementioned disagreements about regional issues won't affect the "strong ties" between the two countries.

"Each country has its vision," Ishqi told Ahram Online. "This will never make the relations frosty."

"We know quite well that Egypt is busy with its internal development process and its domestic war on terror and thus the Egyptian military is not required to participate in the war in Yemen with its full force," he said.

"Each country in the Yemeni war coalition has its strategic role which is agreed upon with Saudi Arabia," Ishqi explained.

Ishqi also argues that Egyptian fears about the rise of Brotherhood-affiliated groups in the current zones of conflict may be unfounded.

"I don't think that the Brotherhood rising to power in either Syria or Yemen would cause harm to Egypt," he said.

"We know that Egypt's Brotherhood is different from its counterparts in other countries and now each affiliated group has its very own strategy away from the leading group in Egypt, which is now much weaker due to the recent political developments," he explained.

Reconciliation with Turkey?

Some in Egypt questioned whether the decision to join the Saudi-led Islamic military coalition, dubbed by experts a "Sunni bloc" to counterbalance the power of Shia Iran, could lead to an eventual reconciliation with fellow coalition member Turkey.

On Sunday, Saudi columnist Khaled El-Dakheel, writing in London-based Al-Hayat Arabic daily, said that King Salman would raise the issue of Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement during his visit to Cairo on Thursday.

"Saudi Arabia has been playing a mediating role for a while between Egypt and Turkey, either to achieve a reconciliation or at least to ease the tension between them," he wrote.
"But why Riyadh is keen on this?" he added.

"Because, at the least, coordination between Riyadh, Cairo and Ankara is needed to restore balance in the region in the face of the US retreat, the Russian invasion, and Iran and its allies," he argued.

"This will achieve significant balance to maintain the interests of the three countries while discussing solutions to regional issues, especially the Syrian crisis," El-Dakheel added.

However, El-Azbawi argues that Saudi Arabia can't force Egypt to reconcile with Turkey.

"Even if there are efforts to reach a reconciliation, I think that the Saudis are aware that Turkey has good ties with Iran, so they might be cautious about considering it a tangible ally," he added.

Former diplomat Hassan stresses that despite such issues, both countries will not allow disagreements to affect "important strategic constants."

"The security of the Gulf is maintained from Egypt and the security of Egypt is maintained from the Gulf," he said. "This fact will always last."

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