The company we keep

Ahmed Reda
Wednesday 26 Oct 2022

Ships in Shakespeare were not just for the transport of silk and spices. They were also a symbol of change in the heroes’ fates and the direction of the plot.

 

Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) vessels are now changing the direction of the plot in Egypt’s story, too, symbolising developments the Middle East has witnessed since 30 June 2013.

The top importer of Egyptian natural gas, Turkey, has escalated the situation in the east Mediterranean by signing gas exploration deals with an expired Libyan government. This shows the importance of political efforts to neutralise Turkish influence and highlights growing tensions, in the Middle East, on the back of the OPEC+ decision to cut oil production by two million barrels per day.

The repercussions of that decision will be seen in the next few weeks while Turkey is poised to play a role in the political confrontation between Washington and Riyadh, with the US administration accusing Saudi authorities of taking Russia’s side in the war against Ukraine.

Since the rise to power of King Saud University graduate Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in June 2017, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh have laid the groundwork for what can be described as a counter-offensive to the havoc that stormed the region as a direct result of the US-backed “Arab Spring”.

It is safe to say that political confrontations with Turkey and Qatar, the establishment of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum in September 2020, and the signing of the Abraham Accords between several Arab countries and Israel have been the pillars on which a new Middle East is being built and prepared to weather global storms that might result from a Democrat in the White House.

Joe Biden’s rhetoric on Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the months leading up to his election and right after taking office was no surprise to the parties that closed ranks during Trump’s presidency. The war in Ukraine created a new global political theatre in which the region would assume a more assertive role and emerge as a viable substitute for Russian gas with Egypt being at the heart of the new formula. 

One recent development that testifies to the success of the policies adopted by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo on Doha was the rapprochement between Egypt and Qatar, with visits and commitments to boost economic cooperation exchanged.

Despite early diplomatic differences over Syria and Yemen, the three countries maintained a strategic course of action, enforcing a boycott against Qatar in 2017 which ended in January 2021, the month Joe Biden took office, with the AlUla Agreement. 

The exact terms of the agreement were not made public. But its results were seen in the failure of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to secure a new financial lifeline form Qatar during his December 2021 visit, in comparison to a $15 billion currency swap deal in May 2020 that literally saved the foreign reserves of Turkey which analysts had predicted would be depleted by July. In November 2020, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) acquired 10 per cent of the shares in Istanbul stock exchange, for an estimated value of $300 million.

An announcement by Turkey that it ordered pro-Muslim Brotherhood TV channels to stop attacking Egypt and the Gulf states immediately was also made in March. In March 2022, Turkey had shut down those channels and a considerable number of Muslim Brotherhood members left the country.

Erdogan visited the UAE in February 2022 to secure investments critical to saving his economy, on the back of an announcement by Abu Dhabi of a $10 billion fund for investments in Turkey in late November 2021, which didn’t materialise until August 2022 with a $490 million acquisition deal for a stake in renewable energy firm Kalyon Enerji Yatirimlari. Erdogan and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman later exchanged visits, announcing possible currency swap deals in the future to aid the ailing Turkish economy.

Qatar has also apparently played a mediation role in easing tensions between Iran and the Gulf States, with the UAE and Kuwait announcing plans to reappoint ambassadors to Tehran. No more cash is being funnelled to Hamas following an Egyptian-Qatari agreement in November 2021 to supply fuel and basic building materials to the Gaza Strip. 

Dealing a fatal blow to the Qatari financial lifeline that Turkey enjoyed for years was one of the key objectives of the boycott, together with securing a commitment by Qatar to steer away from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and stop meddling in the affairs of its neighbours.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia thus replaced the crucial financial assistance with promises that would only materialise if Ankara complied with their wishes. The latest stunt by Turkey, signing “illegal” maritime and gas deals with Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, may prove to be just another blackmail card to encourage Egypt to sit at the negotiating table and push for concrete financial assistance from the Gulf.

With the US Senate dropping amendments restricting the sale of F-16s to Turkey early this month, the deal signing seems to serve US interests by exerting pressure on the region especially after the OPEC+ decision and UAE’s president recent visit to Russia,.

If Biden attends COP27 in Egypt, his presence will be significant and its outcome will shed further light on the course the three heavyweights of the region chose to adhere to in the middle of a global crisis.


* The writer is a strategic communications expert. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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