What does a GCC rapprochement mean for Cairo?

Dina Ezzat, Tuesday 18 Nov 2014

A warming of relations between Doha, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could have repercussions for Cairo

(R-L) Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, United Arab Emirates' Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sabah Al-Khalid al-Sabah meet during an extraordinary Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders summit in Riyadh in this November 16, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

A nine-month period of tension between Doha and the most influential Gulf Cooperation Council capitals, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, came to an end yesterday with the decision of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to return their diplomats to the capital of Qatar.

Pictures of the Kuwaiti-sponsored political rapprochement were given a full spread in the Gulf dailies. The common line in the coverage is basic, predictable and very true: at the end of the day the six Arab Gulf countries have too much in common to undermine a stable and fruitful cooperation.

However, for some political-executive figures in Egypt, the news coming from Saudi Arabia, where an extraordinary Gulf leaders meeting sealed the reconciliation, added more question marks to a list of queries that Cairo has been having about the support of its best Gulf allies, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, since the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule in the summer of 2013.

The Qatari issue

The new regime in Egypt has been in open political confrontation with Qatar, which had been a key supporter of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and has played host and provided financial and logistical support to many Brotherhood leaders who escaped Egypt following Morsi's ouster on 3 July 2013.

And while Doha had declined to put pressure on Egypt by firmly demanding the return of a high interest rate deposit it provided for the Central Bank of Egypt during the Morsi era, it had allowed the satellite channel Al-Jazeera to do some of the things that the post-Morsi rulers despised most: call the ouster of Morsi a coup d’etat, accuse Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi of ‘orchestrating the ouster of Morsi’ in cooperation with other state bodies and the opposition, and calling the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in August 2013 a ‘crime against humanity’.

"It was not just that [the Qataris] were doing this [through Al-Jazeera] but they were in fact using their channel, which has never reported anything about the problems in Qatar itself, to promote ideas and stories that would incite civil unrest in Egypt," complained an Egyptian diplomat. "We had asked them repeatedly directly and through the Saudis in particular to stop doing this but they declined," he added.

A media source at Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, effectively an anti-Egyptian government propaganda channel whose offices were closed in Cairo for violating the code of journalistic ethics, told Ahram Online that "what the authorities wanted was for us not to report on the grievances of the Muslim Brotherhood and not to give space to the voices who disagree with El-Sisi."

She added that the arrest of an Al Jazeera International team in Egypt, whose members have been convicted of espionage, was "the ultimate sign that the authorities just wanted to silence any voice that is opposing the new regime."

The Egyptian diplomat argued that after both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had pulled out their ambassadors from Doha in March, there has been less "anti-Egyptian bias" in their coverage, "but they would still have a zoom-in video of a 20 or 40 people march and report it as a huge anti-Sisi demonstration."

The diplomat said that the problem between Cairo and Doha was far from being "just about Al-Jazeera as some would like to suggest." Qatar, he said, "is openly acting against stability in Egypt; it is doing so in cooperation with [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan."

The list of accusations against Doha and Ankara include providing money and arms for militants who find their way to Sinai through Gaza; supporting Ethiopian intransigence in the complicated negotiations with Egypt over the construction of a mega-dam that would negatively influence Egypt’s already insufficient share of Nile water; and agitating civil unrest in Libya which is harming security in Egypt.

During the past few weeks, some Egyptian and other Arab officials have reported a change of attitude by Doha and Ankara on Libya. They also spoke of solid commitments that were made by the Qatari rulers to tone down the criticism launched through Al-Jazeera channels on Egyptian authorities.

This account was offered shortly after El-Sisi reportedly conveyed personal apologies to the Emir of Qatar on the fringes of the UN General Assembly for abrasive criticism launched in Egyptian private media against his mother, the spouse of the previous ruler of Qatar.

The rift between Cairo and Doha did not start with the ouster of Morsi. It was there during the last decade of the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak. It was mostly under the surface but at times it was more clear with implicit attacks made by officials and the media on both sides.

The take of successive Egyptian diplomats who worked on the file is almost identical: Qatar is trying to assume a larger regional role and in trying to do so it is rubbing shoulders with long-established Egyptian diplomacy.

"Of course, as Mubarak was very lazy during his last years and as Egypt got too engrossed with its internal affairs in the three years that followed the ouster of Mubarak, Qatar found an open field to expand its position," said one retired Egyptian ambassador. He added that the "submissive rule of the Muslim Brotherhood was very opportune for the Qataris and also for the Turks who had both wanted to marginalise Egypt’s biggest asset, namely its regional diplomatic influence, in favour of their own."

More questions than answers

Upon the ouster of Morsi, which was warmly welcomed in both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Egypt was counting a great deal on the generous support of both countries.

In the words of a leading Egyptian politician "it is in the interest of all the Gulf states with no exception to see a stable Egypt. This is not about their support for El-Sisi or their anger with the intervention during the Morsi era; it is about the strategic set-up."

He added, "Egypt is a central regional balancing factor; its role in supporting Gulf security for example during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait [in the 1990s] was crucial and its role in promoting Arab-Israel peace is also consequential and cannot be replaced by the efforts of any other country."

This said, it has been perplexing for the Egyptian authorities to see the support of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi far less forthcoming.

One highly informed government official spoke of an "incomprehensible Saudi hesitation to be as forthcoming as we would have expected with financial support for Egypt."

The Saudis, the source said, are well aware of the size of the financial and economic crisis Egypt is facing. They, he added, had promised to provide support – both financial and political – following the ouster of Morsi, whose political choices were not in line with Riyadh's regional views.

"But the money has not come and they are not saying when it will; some have suggested that they would give it under the umbrella of an economic conference which has been delayed from the third week of February for a few weeks – maybe until March or maybe a few weeks later," the same source said.

A "kind reminder" of the financial support has been put forward at a very high level, several economic sources, both government and private sector, say. And the reminder was only met with kind promises of continued support.

According to one cabinet member, "the role of the Saudis was instrumental in supporting the political transition after we managed to get rid of the Brotherhood but the financial support has been hesitant and during the past few months it has not been coming although we had expected that following the election of El-Sisi, who was inaugurated in June, that they would be more forthcoming."

On Monday, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met his Saudi counterpart Saoud Al-Faisal in Paris, where they both discussed the recent developments in terms of the resumption of Saudi diplomatic representation to Qatar. According to an informed diplomatic source, during the meeting Al-Faisal promised to maintaing political Saudi support and to advance financial support.

The United Arab Emirates, who ahead of the announcement of the return of the ambassador had announced its designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, had been slightly more forthcoming but it is still favouring the generation of economy-stimulus investment over budget support. It is making these investments conditional upon investment legislation support.

Some government officials in Egypt attribute the hesitant support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to American pressure. One said that Washington "is unhappy that El-Sisi sided with the will of the nation to ouster Mori and is trying to make things difficult for him by pressuring its Gulf allies to delay their financial support."

This official viewed the recent GCC rapprochement as another move that would not benefit Egypt given that it was done without sufficient Qatari guarantees to "stop its interference with Egyptian affairs."

The official argued that the UAE and Saudi Arabia "settled their bilateral disputes with Qatar with regards to Qatari intervention with Shia minorities in both countries which were coordinated with Iran, the Saudi arch-enemy, and they also secured that Qatar would be no longer violate the hierarchy of influence within the GCC, which puts the Saudis ahead of everyone else." He added that along with that came some very "loose promises on Egypt but they are not tight enough."

Concerned Egyptian sources say that they have been seeing the GCC rapprochement but they did not expected this to happen so soon. They added that they hope the new reconciliation would prompt Qatar to adopt ‘more positive’ choices at the Arab front. However, they said, they were not too sure that this would be the case.

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