It is said that, whenever he addressed international relations issues, Charles de Gaulle would always ask for a map. The geopolitical and geostrategic dimensions were crucial to presenting his analyses and what decisions he felt might be both feasible and beneficial. In this part of the world, what the map tells us is that a whole sea and a gulf lay between Egypt and Saudi Arabia: the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. Since antiquity, these bodies of water have never prevented the movement of people between the two countries. They never stood in the way of commercial relations, shared cultural evolution and religious unity. This is why it did not surprise me to find Pharaonic statues among the items on display in the exhibition of Saudi history in Houston. Perhaps the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As in Cairo, the location of which still stands in commemoration of the famous Arab conqueror of the seventh century, best epitomes this ancient bond. In that long history, there were bound to be moments of tension. However, time testifies to the fact that geography and history have always prevailed over ephemeral difficulties.
In the modern era, maps played their part in bringing the two countries closer together. Saudi-Egyptian relations improved steadily since the Treaty of Friendship signed in 1926. The treaty was a means for the kingdom to express its support for Egypt’s nationalist demand for the evacuation of British forces. In the 1940s, the two countries worked together to establish the Arab League and they have generally shared the same stances in international forums. On 27 October 1955, they concluded a mutual defence agreement and on 27 August 1956, Riyadh gave Egypt $100 million after the US withdrew its offer to build the High Dam. After the June 1967 War with Isreal, Saudi Arabia helped compensate Egypt for the closure of the Suez Canal. Then, on 17 October 1973, following the military victories Egypt achieved on the Sinai front and other Arab armies achieved in other occupied territories, the Saudi monarch, King Faisal Abdul-Aziz deployed an alternative weapon to guns. He called an emergency meeting of Arab oil ministers in Kuwait, which resulted in a collective Arab decision to lower oil production by 5 per cent per month until Israel withdrew to the pre-June 1967 borders. King Faisal also donated $200 million to the Egyptian army while, during the October war, the current monarch, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, founded a committee to collect donations for it. When Iraq under president Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, Egypt marshalled its political and military energies to counter the threat and contribute to the liberation of Kuwait. After the June 2013 Revolution in which Egypt ousted the Muslim Brotherhood, Riyadh once again leaped to Egypt’s side with generous support.
Egyptian-Saudi relations are, in a word, deep, and this spirit is further exemplified by two recent military exercises in which Egypt took part: Red Sea 5, which aims to strengthen the security of the Red Sea; and Faisal-12, which brought together the Saudi and Egyptian air forces for several days of manoeuvres in Saudi Arabia. The two drills are a continuation of the long and multifaceted military cooperation between Cairo and Riyadh as further exemplified by the Morgan, Tabuk and other joint exercises which aim to share and transfer knowledge and expertise and strengthen the interoperability of their forces. Saudi and Egyptian forces have also taken part in various multilateral international manoeuvres such as North Thunder, Gulf Shield, Eagle Salute and Bright Star. All these are an important part of the two countries’ defence strategies. But, more than that, they contribute to enhancing regional security in the Red Sea and the Middle East as a whole. This security dimension is essential to safeguarding the profound reform processes unfolding in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are driving them to increasingly extensive and diverse economic cooperation.
The historic visit to Egypt undertaken by King Salman Abdul-Aziz in 2016 was a landmark in the evolution of agreements and frameworks for bilateral cooperation. These have led to more than 60 agreements, protocols and memorandums of understanding covering cooperation in virtually all domains and ensuring closer mutual coordination and consultation. The Saudi-Egyptian Coordination Council, which emerged from that visit, set the roadmap for economic cooperation in housing, energy, education, agriculture and health. In addition, there were ten MoUs on funding new development projects in the Sinai. These included the establishment of King Salman International University as well as 13 agricultural complexes. In concrete figures, the agreements have resulted in $6.12 billion in investments by 30 January 2020 in 6,017 companies with a total capital of $22 billion, making Saudi Arabia the second largest foreign partner after the UAE in development projects in Egypt. Egyptian investments in Saudi Arabia by October 2020 came to $1.38 billion across 555 projects.
According to the figures of the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) on bilateral trade between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the first 11 months of 2021, the volume of trade rose to $8.3 billion, up from $5 billion for the same period in 2020. That is a 66.1 per cent increase. Egyptian exports to Saudi Arabia rose 21 per cent from $1.6 billion in the first 11 months of 2020 to $2 billion in the same period in 2021 and Egyptian imports from Saudi Arabia rose 88.2 per cent from $3.4 billion to $6.3 billion in the same period. Remittances from Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia rose 12.4 per cent from $8.5 billion in 2018/2019 to $9.6 billion in 2019/2020. By contrast, remittances from Saudis working in Egypt fell by 17.6 per cent from $21.4 million in 2018/2019 to $17.6 million in 2019/2020. In 2021, bilateral trade for the whole of 2021 climbed to $9.1 billion compared to $5.6 billion in 2020, or a 62.1 per cent increase. Also in 2021, Egyptian exports to Saudi Arabia came to $2.2 billion and its imports from Saudi Arabia came to $6.9 billion, up from $1.9 billion (17.3 per cent) and $3.7 billion (84.5 per cent), respectively, in 2020.
In short, take a look at the map.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.