Since coming to office, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said his policy has focused on promoting relations with Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia.
“We must not forget the support our brothers have given us,” said Al-Sisi, before making reference to “articles and social media reports which have tackled our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
“What is being published on social media platforms, and even in our newspapers, about relations with our brothers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is inappropriate,” he said.
“If people don’t have anything good to say, the least they can do is remain silent. They should only write to improve and strengthen relations, not the opposite.”
“Some platforms seek to drive a wedge between us and our brothers. We will not let ourselves be dragged along by those who want to sow sedition and foment trouble.”
“Even at times of crisis, we decline to make negative comments. Take Ethiopia as an example… a country with which we have differences over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Yet despite these differences, we have not released any negative statements.”
Addressing Egyptian journalists and social media platforms, he continued: “When we have an official statement about anything, we will let you know. And until there is an official statement saying otherwise, assume relations are good and well.”
Al-Sisi’s comments came against a backdrop of media spats between Saudi Arabian and Egyptian journalists which came to a head when Abdel-Razek Tawfik, editor-in-chief of the state-owned Al-Gomhouriya daily newspaper, heavily criticised Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, leading to speculation that his words had been approved by the regime.
On 9 February, President Al-Sisi said Tawfik’s criticism was baseless and accused websites of attempting to create divisions between Egypt and its Arab Gulf allies. Tawfik’s article has since been deleted from Al-Gomhouriya’s website and replaced by an editorial describing Egyptian-Saudi relations as “historic and eternal”.
President Al-Sisi’s remarks were welcomed in parliamentary and political circles. MP Mustafa Bakri, a member of parliament’s Arab Affairs Committee, noted that “President Al-Sisi has always been keen to highlight the support Egypt has received from Arab Gulf countries — particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait — since he came to office in 2014.”
“Arab Gulf countries’ appreciation of this policy is reflected in their interest in investing in Egypt. President Al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman have close relations on both the official and personal levels.”
“President Al-Sisi visited Saudi Arabia several times last year, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman also came to Egypt. An estimated three million Egyptians live and work in Saudi Arabia and remit billions of dollars to Egypt every year. That Saudi Arabia’s Embassy in Cairo is its biggest in the world is testimony to the historic and deep relations between the two Arab heavyweights.”
Describing the latest media spat as an example of “friendly fire”, Bakri pointed out that “last week was not the first time President Al-Sisi has voiced his appreciation for support coming from the Gulf.”
In September 2022, during a visit to Ismailia, President Al-Sisi paid tribute to the support Gulf states had offered Egypt, saying that “had Arab Gulf countries not moved quickly to help Egypt in 2013 and 2014, the country would have been unable to move forward.”
“We can never forget that our brothers in the Arab Gulf provided us with substantial support in the form of cash transfers and crude oil, and we continue to express our appreciation for them.”
Ikram Badreddin, professor of political science at Cairo University, told Al-Ahram newspaper on 8 February that “Egyptian-Saudi relations have always been strong.”
“There was a very brief period of tension during the civil war in Yemen between 1962 and 1967, but the two countries quickly recovered their strategic relations and set up an Egyptian-Saudi Coordination Council to coordinate their positions on the Arab, regional, and international levels.”
“There is also close military coordination. Both countries face the threat of terrorism, and both are committed to ensuring Red Sea navigation remains safe.”
Saudi Arabia signed deals worth $7.7 billion with Egypt in June 2022 and Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund has said it intends to pump $30 billion worth of investments into the Egyptian economy.
“Some groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, do their best to drive a wedge between the two countries, but we should pay them no heed,” said Badreddin.
Saudi commentator Mohamed Al-Ati echoed the sentiment. He told Cairo news channel on 10 February that “Egyptian-Saudi relations are too strong to be negatively affected by battles on social media.”
“Relations are strategic and deep-rooted, and should not become hostage to groups or states that seek to disrupt Arab relations.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly