Sisi’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia: Mission possible?

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 28 Feb 2015

On Sunday, Egypt's president will work to consolidate the strategic alliance between Cairo and Riyadh as the new rulers of Al-Souad ponder new regional priorities

Salman and El-Sisi
King Salman (crown prince then) greets President El-Sisi in the Presidential inauguration in Cairo last July 2013. (Photo:AP)

On Sunday afternoon, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will arrive in Saudi Arabia for talks with the Saudi new monarch Salman Ben Abdel-Aziz on a range of regional and bilateral issues.

This is not the first official encounter between the two leaders since the latter took over following the death of his brother King Abdullah, El-Sisi's strongest supporter in the political transition in Egypt since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013.

El-Sisi and Salman met at the condolences ceremony for the late monarch, as they did a few days before the death of Abdullah, 

In these first extended talks with the new Saudi monarch, the Egyptian president's key mission is to ensure that Riyadh's support to Cairo, both financial and political, does not seriously drop.

Saudi financial support to Egypt had already inexplicably dwindled during the last months of Abdullah's rule, according to highly informed Egyptian sources.

Egyptian diplomats say that reports suggesting a change in the Saudi approach towards Egypt should not be fully dismissed. But they argue that the volume of this change has not yet been fully decided in the new ruling quarters in Riyadh, despite the clear abscence in recent internal shuffles of some of the strongest supporters of El-Sisi's government and some of the strongest opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, the strongest adversaries of El-Sisi.

“We don’t think that it is at all possible for Saudi Arabia to fully turn its back to Egypt, it is simply not doable," said one diplomat. "But we do think that, yes, things are and will be changing. We don’t know yet the kind of changes we should expect.”

In the past few weeks, Egypt managed to reassure its Saudi allies of its commitment to stronger bi-lateral relations betwen the two countries in the wake of two consecutive incidents of possible tension.

The first incident was related to an allegedly leaked conversation between top state officials, including El-Sisi, who spoke for granted about financial support of the Arab Gulf countries to Cairo. The second incident was a direct Egyptian accusation to Qatar, a member of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council, of supporting terrorism.

According to the Saudi perspective, Egypt will have to come to terms with two key points if it wishes to maintain a solid alliance with Saudi Arabia: First, Riyadh’s financial support to Cairo is neither unconditional, nor likely to be as generous as it has been. And second, previous regional dynamics that were based on the confrontation between two confronting axes, Egypt-Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates versus Qatar-Turkey, are coming to an end.

Today, Riyadh has already shown a significant rapprochement with Doha – even if Saudi Arabia did make a clear request for a less aggressive Qatari-sponsored media offensive on the authorities in Egypt, according to Doha-based media sources.

Moreover, Riyadh is sending what Ankara-based diplomats qualify as positive signals of a political will to rebuild bridges between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to attend to three key regional concerns. These are the continued unravelling of the regime in Syria, the rise of radical-militant political Islam, and the anticipated diplomatic resurrection of Iran, following an expected deal this year between Tehran and key Western capitals over Iran’s nuclear programme, according to informed European diplomatic sources.

Another regional fact that Egypt seems to be expected to acknowledge, according to one Saudi source, is the fact that it has to reciprocate support to Saudi Arabia when faced with security challenges, such as the rise to power of the Houthis – who hold a strong Iranian affiliation – in Saudi Arabia's immediate backyard in Yemen, or the threat of the militant group Islamic State (IS) group at the Saudi borders with Iraq.

A reluctant Cairo has already – at a very short notice, according to a concerned Egyptian source – decided to recall its diplomatic mission from the Yemeni capital Sana'a, after it was taken over by the Houthis.

Cairo has also decided to discontinue the channels of dialogue it had opened with the new rulers in Yemen in Sanaa through Lebanese mediation.

Yemen is of crucial strategic interest to Egypt, given its control over the Bab El-Mandab strait on the Red Sea to the south of the Suez Canal.

Cairo had hoped to keep its channels open with all political forces in the country, but had ultimately chosen to bow to the Saudi demand -- especially during the recent diplomatic showdown with Doha.

Egypt might have to go further and follow the Saudi example of reallocating its diplomatic mission to Aden, where the Saudi diplomatic mission has been operating at the new seat of the practically-ousted Saudi-supported Yemeni President Hadi Saleh.

Moreover, Cairo would have to reach a decision in response to a Saudi request to establish a joint Arab, but predominantly Egyptian, military force to intervene in support of "key Arab strategic interests" – an indirect reference to the Saudi concerns over repeated Houthi infiltrations across its border with Yemen and IS group infiltrations through its border with Iraq.

For its part, Egypt, which officials say has been accommodating of the newly formulated Saudi policies, has been asking for the continued support of Riyadh in confronting concerns on its own western border: Islamists in Libya.

According to the predominant view in Egyptian ruling quarters, all Islamists in Libya – whether highly militant like IS group, or not – are subject for concern given their willingness to provide financial, militant and political support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Egypt is already feeling a little dismayed following the low level of Saudi diplomatic support to an Egyptian diplomatic initiative at the UN to coordinate an international military intervention against the Islamists in Libya, and to fortify the Cairo-supported and internationally-recognised parliament of Tobrouk in east Libya against the largely Islamist political forces in west Libya.

Earlier this week in the French capital, top Egyptian diplomat Sameh Shoukry managed to solicit the support of his Saudi counterpart for a package of diplomatic-military action on Libya that would lead to strengthening the political weight of the Tobrouk political alliance vis-a-vis the western Libya Islamist political alliance.

Shoukry has been promoting the new package with possible influential parties in Tunis, Moscow and Beijing.

With the support of both the Saudi and Emirati delegation heads at the spring foreign ministers meeting at the Arab League in Cairo, the foregin minister should secure larger Arab support for this package, and for a new diplomatic scheme to bring stability to Syria.

The matter is also expected to be discussed with the UN Envoy for Libya, Bernardino Leon, during an expected visit to Cairo.

In Cairo on Wednesday, El-Sisi had managed to secure the support of his closest Arab partner now, King Abdullah of Jordan, on the Egyptian formula for Libya and the Egyptian elementary ideas on a joint Arab military force, both designed to the liking of the Saudis.

The new formula for Egyptian-Saudi engagement, which is still being drafted by both sides, is not expected to include the same avid support from Riyadh against the Muslim Brotherhood.

“This is not the position of the new team in Riyadh,” a senior Egyptian official has stressed.

The retreat of anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment in Riyadh is not at all reciprocated in Abu Dhabi.

However, Abu Dhabi has not traditionally been willing to act away from an agreement with Saudi Arabia - its closest GCC ally - and is unlikely to do so now with GCC countries' facing many strategic challenges, either due to the expansion of IS group or the increasing signs of a new Iranian diplomatic dawn. 

Egyptian authorities seem to be reconciling with the fact that they will have to rework their "war on the Muslim Brotherhood".

The new policy on the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to include less media attacks against the banned group.

A source at one of the most anti-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-25 January revolution satellite TV channels said that there are already new directivess to “ease down” aggressive references to the Muslim Brotherhood.

It also includes a planned release of over 10,000 younger Islamists from jail, including some young members of the Muslim Brotherhood, under the banner of encouraging "intellectual revisions" in the Islamist camp.

Egypt is expecting a long process of re-adjustment, rather than sudden changes or politically shocking moves, from Saudi Arabia. 

However, Cairo is hoping the process of Saudi adjustment would not be prolonged.

Egyptians are already hoping for considerable – the word "generous" is not in the vocabulary these days – Saudi participation at the Egyptian Economic Development Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh on the second week of March, and also a high level of Saudi participation in the Arab summit scheduled for the last week of the month, also in Sharm El-Sheikh.

A high-level Egyptian source said that the Saudi monarch is expected, “despite his frail health”, to head his country’s delegation “at least for the opening session of the summit."

But the real clue that would alert Cairo as to the new Riyadh regime's long-term intentions, said the same high-level source, is whether or not the Saudi ambassador to Egypt, who has held this post for over five years, will remain, as had been the plan under the former Saudi monarch.

“We don’t expect him to be replaced anytime soon," he said, "but if they do choose to replace him with someone else, then that is a strong indication of winds of change – but it can never be a sea of change. That is not in the textbook of bilateral Egyptian-Saudi relations established since the 1970s.”

The source added that what Washington expects now is a closer rapprochement of its allies in the Middle East to face up to the terror threat.

Washington, sources say, are not just hoping for Riyadh to wisely manage its relations with Cairo, but also to also recreate an understanding between Cairo and Ankara.

This is something, the same source added, that the Saudi monarch is expected to “only explore at a very elementary level” with El-Sisi on Sunday.

The topic is also expected, according to a highly informed Turkish source, to be “examined in a very elementary fashion” with the Turkish president Reccep Tayeb Erdogan on Saturday upon his visit to the Saudi capital.

The one thing that seems to be certain today, according to all diplomatic and political sources speaking to Ahram Online, is that the house of Saoud is reconsidering its regional priorities - something that would be thoroughly discussed towards the end of the week in Riyadh upon an expected visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Saudi new considerations means Riyadh might embark on no small overhaul of current regional choices, a change from which Egypt cannot be exempt.

Search Keywords:
Short link: