Egypt-Saudi ties: What is in store?

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 10 Aug 2014

Egyptian President El-Sisi arrives to Jeddah Sunday evening for the second, but this time longer, meeting with King Abdullah, where the two regional allies will discuss matters from security to investment

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (L) meets Egypt's new president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during his visit to Cairo June 20, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

When Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi arrives to Jeddah Sunday evening for talks with Saudi King Abdullah, it will be the second encounter between the two men since El-Sisi was inaugurated in June.

The first encounter was in Cairo only a few days after El-Sisi was officially sworn in, when the Saudi monarch made a brief stopover in Cairo upon return from a long stay in Morocco.

King Abdallah, aging and ailing, "received" El-Sisi aboard his royal plane on the tarmac of a Cairo airport in what was interpreted by some commentators as an afront to El-Sisi, while others defended El-Sisi’s choice as a gesture of respect to old age and the health of a man who has been very supportive to Egypt in face of turbulence following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi amid mass demonstrations against one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule. 

Riyadh, which had tried everything in the winter of 2011 to get Washington to spare ousted president Hosni Mubarak, a very close ally, has been in full support of the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood rule and the ascent of the former chief of the army, El-Sisi, to power to "serve the stability of Egypt and the region" found "compromised" by the choices of Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Saudi support for El-Sisi was made apparent through generous financial and energy aid tabled following the announcement by the former chief of the army of the ouster of Morsi on 3 July 2013.

In a recorded TV interview upon his nomination for the presidential post, a decision that was "firmly" supported by some leading members in the Saudi royal family, El-Sisi expressed vocal appreciation for Saudi support and particularly saluted King Abdullah as "kabir Al-Arab" (the leading and most responsible and wise of all Arab figures).

El-Sisi’s compliment raised eyebrows given that it came from a man who was running for the position of president of Egypt, supposedly the leading Arab nation since the 1950s under the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who always kept a comfortable distance from Riyadh.

Despite the advice accorded to him during the recording to "rephrase" his compliment, El-Sisi, who had previously served as military attaché in Saudi Arabia, insisted on sticking to his words.

Militant Muslim groups, plus

King Abdullah, insist several Egyptian and other Arab diplomats, is genuinely supportive of Egypt.

“He was always supportive of Egypt. Under Mubarak, of course, he was very supportive, and he and Mubarak had always been in direct consultation. And although the Saudis did not favour the election of Morsi, and would have rather seen (Mubarak’s close aide and last prime minister Ahmed) Shafiq elected, King Abdullah was supportive there again, until he saw the exceptionally close cooperation that Morsi was establishing with Qatar, which is basically the Saudi arch-adversary in the Gulf,” said a senior retired Egyptian diplomat.

According to a Saudi diplomat who spoke during the second half of Morsi’s rule, Riyadh was not expected to like the strategic choices of Morsi, that were “basically setting the foundation for the widespread influence of militant Muslim groups across the Arab world.”

At the time, said one retired Egyptian Intelligence source, Saudi Intelligence provided its Egyptian counterpart with clues on the expansion of networks of radical Muslim militants in the Arab world. “And, of course, we did not like it, because we knew it was going to be a big problem. And it is proving to be a big problem, especially in Sinai, that remains infested with many terrorist spots that have proven to be many more than our initial assessment after the ouster of Morsi.”

It is no secret that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been during the past three decades very uncomfortable with the operation and influence of the radical Muslim groups that they both helped found in the 1970s, during the presidency of Anwar El-Sadat, in cooperation with US Intelligence to confront the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, which in turn is failing to rid itself of rampant militant Muslim groups.

This "animosity" is not just about groups like Al-Qaeda, or its newest and more radical version, ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), that is "disturbing" Saudi authorities, according to Egyptian, Arab and Cairo-based Western diplomats. It also includes the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas, which is disliked for its ties to Iran, another "regional adversary" for both Egypt and Saudi Arabia since the days of Sadat, Hizbullah, which is also disliked by the Saudis for being a Shia group at a time when the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia complain of discrimination, or outright oppression.

The Shia question

"Discomfort with the Shia" is a wider Sunni mood, especially in the Arab Gulf, which is partially attributed to an assumed "hidden association" between Shias in the Arab world and Iran. Towards the end of his rule, Mubarak was one of several Arab leaders, all close associates of Saudi Arabia, who had warned of a rising "Shia crescent."

The notion of an Iranian-led "Shia crescent" has been used to justify serious constraints on Shias in almost every Arab country.

Suspicions have been exacerbated recently by the ultra-sectarian rule of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, whose anti-Sunni stand is blamed in several world and region capitals, including Washington, Riyadh and Cairo, for signs of sympathy that ISIL has received in parts of Iraq in its assumed capacity as an "anti-Maliki force." 

The need to replace the government of Al-Maliki is something that has been discussed by Cairo and Riyadh with other international and regional allies and is expected, according to Egyptian and Saudi sources, to be discussed during talks between El-Sisi and Abdullah tonight, Sunday, in Jeddah.

At the same time, joint Egyptian-Saudi disdain also goes to the Muslim Brotherhood whose members were warmly welcomed by the Saudis during Nasser's rule before they were given a cold shoulder as they built a network of affiliates and members across Saudi society.

Egyptian diplomatic and intelligence sources and their counterparts from several regional and Western states, including Israel, have pointed to Egyptian-Saudi coordination to keep these groups "under the lid."

Today, in Jeddah, El-Sisi and Abdullah will give special focus to ISIL, which is giving the Saudis nightmares given its proximity and growing presence in neighbouring Iraq, and Hamas, that is still an annoying factor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is supported by the West and "moderate Arab states" (as dubbed by former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni), including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The official spokesman for the Egyptian Armed Forces this week denied accounts shared by the Western media indicating a joint military presence of Egypt and Pakistan, another close Saudi "associate," on the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. to face up to any potential infiltration of ISIL.

However, speaking on condition of anonymity, "concerned" Egyptian officials told Ahram Online that Egypt would do all it could to keep ISIL in check, and better eliminated, but certainly at bay from the seat of Saudi rule.

The Egyptian official take on the matter is that it is as much about ISIL as about Saudi Arabia. The expansion of ISIL, which is already in Syria with some cells circling Sinai, is a nightmare for the stability of Egypt, say official sources.

The stability of Saudi Arabia, according to the same officials, is not only something that the rule of El-Sisi — as that of Mubarak, who had El-Sisi as chief of military intelligence during in 2010 — owes for the support the Saudis have offered, but rather that it is what the regime owes to its national security interests.

What does Egypt have at stake?

Egypt has close to three million Egyptian expats working in Saudi Arabia. This community, which has been accused by many of exporting radical modes and religious views to Egyptian society over the last three decades, is the supplier of a good share of the foreign currency that the state coffers amasses from expat remittances, the second largest source of foreign currency after the Suez Canal, in view of the sharp decline of tourism revenues due to stability concerns.

“Do you want them to come back and add to the cancerous lot of the unemployed? We are already having a disaster with those coming back from Libya due to the havoc caused by radical militant Muslim groups there,” argued a cabinet minister.

The "stability" of this working force and the hope of its expansion had been the rationale offered by the regime of Hosni Mubarak to forgo complaints about "recurrent violations" of the human rights of some Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia.

“Mubarak always said, ''If I have to choose between millions who work there, who support millions here, and one or five or 100, I will choose the millions of course,'” recalled a former minister under the ousted president.

This attitude did not change under Morsi who also, and despite Qatari support, had his eyes on the Saudis for economic assistance and for investment. Morsi made a point, and he admitted it, of having Saudi Arabia as his first overseas visit.

In Jeddah tonight, El-Sisi will be expressing hopes for a much wider volume of foreign currency inflow to Egypt.

Saudi Arabia had promised — and is still to deliver — a generous financial aid package to Egypt. During a recent meeting with chief editors of state-run and independent papers, El-Sisi declined to answer questions about the reasons behind the delay of this promised assistance.

According to a Saudi source, this aid would be transferred to finance agreed upon projects, rather than be channeled as transfers to help with the acute budget deficit suffered by Egypt. And it would "most likely," unless the Jeddah meeting decides otherwise, be granted following a major financial conference that Cairo is hoping to host towards the end of the year, or right after the New Year holiday season.

El-Sisi will also be pursuing direct Saudi investment, especially for mega projects, as well as urging more energy assistance to help with a severe power shortage that Egypt continues to face.

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