There can be no two opinions that it was indeed an exceptional visit. From Thursday 7 April till Monday 11 April King Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz of Saudi Arabia was in Egypt for a State visit, the first since his inauguration as king in January 2015. But the singularity of the visit lay not merely in the fact that it was the first, but in that it confirmed and emphasised a desire by both Saudi Arabia and Egypt to reach common understanding and cooperation on a number of regional issues. It is no secret that relations between the two countries had been particularly strained of late, since Cairo did not see eye to eye with Saudi Arabia on the conflict in Syria, and was moreover unwilling to send ground troops to participate in the Saudi-led military operations against Iran-backed Shiite rebels in Yemen.
King Salman stressed that his visit to Egypt aimed at boosting relations between the two countries, cementing cooperation, serving the causes of Arab and Islamic nations, and supporting regional and international peace and security. He reminded that King Abdel-Aziz, the founder of the Saudi Kingdom in 1932, had made only one foreign visit during his rule; this was to Egypt in 1946, confirming the great significance he attached to ties with Cairo.
“I believe the special nature of the Saudi-Egyptian relationship … will enable us to confront together shared challenges and deal seriously with whoever tries to harm Arab national security,” President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, for his part, said.
In a historic first, King Salman met Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Pope Tawadros welcomed King Salman to the land of Egypt, and said he aspired for the good relations between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Kingdom of Saud Arabia to grow even further. He said that Egyptians one and all can never forget that Saudi Arabia stood by Egypt and strongly supported her when the massive people’s revolution of 30 June 2013 succeeded in overthrowing the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime that came to rule Egypt in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring.
The Pope talked with the King about the situation and conditions of Copts in Saudi Arabia.
The meeting is the first to take place between a Saudi monarch and a Coptic Pope. Saudi Arabia is known to ban the presence or building of any church on its land, and to confiscate Bibles or Christian religious material with travellers entering the country. In November 2007 King Abdullah Bin Abdel-Aziz of Saudi Arabia, King Salman’s predecessor, met Pope Benedict XVI while the King was on a European tour.
King Salman’s visit saw Egypt and Saudi Arabia sign a number of political and economic agreements, including a maritime border demarcation agreement.
He announced plans to build a bridge over the Red Sea to Egypt, physically connecting the two countries. “This historic step to connect the two continents, Africa and Asia, is a qualitative leap that will multiply trade between the two continents,” he said. President Sisi, who minutes earlier had presented the king with the ceremonial Nile Collar, suggested naming the bridge after King Salman. The Collar of the Nile is Egypt’s highest State honour, awarded for exceptional services to the country.
Representatives of the two countries signed 17 investment deals and memorandums of understanding. An agreement was signed to set up a Saudi-Egyptian investment fund with a capital of 60 billion Saudi riyals (USD16 billion); USD22 billion finance for Egypt’s five-year petroleum needs; USD1.5 billion concessional loan and USD200 million grant from the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) to upgrade Egypt’s Sinai infrastructure and to finance transportation, housing and agricultural projects; and a USD100 million SDF loan for the expansion of the West Cairo power station to generate an additional 650 megawatts.
King Salman University will be built in Sinai, and a USD120 million concessional loan from SFD will serve to renovate Cairo University’s historical Qasr al-Aini teaching hospital. King Salman laid the foundation stone of the Beouth Islamic City, which includes a dormitory for up to 30,000 students, at the al-Azhar University in Cairo. Riyadh and Cairo also agreed to set up a “free trade zone” in the Sinai Peninsula.
The volume of trade exchange between the two countries recorded USD5 billion in 2014 / 2015. Saudi nationals top the list of investors in Egypt with contributions in capital issued totalling USD6.13 billion in 2016.
Willing to cooperate
The Saudi monarch’s trip to Egypt confirmed that Riyadh views Cairo as a cornerstone to its ambitions in the changing region. Local and international analysts are in agreement that for Saudi Arabia, which is in competition with regional rival Iran, keeping Egypt under its aegis is crucial.
Saudi Arabia has been a key backer of Egypt since 2013 when the massive revolution on 30 June prompted the military to step in and the post-Arab Spring Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime was overthrown. The kingdom, which views the MB with great suspicion, has since played a key role in propping up Egypt’s economy whose vital tourism industry has been devastated by the years of political turmoil and jihadist attacks that came in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring. Now that it is rid of the Islamists, Egypt needs support to move out of the circle of danger on the political and economic fronts. The Saudis are obviously willing to offer this support since they need a stable, strong Egypt to counter the escalating Iranian influence in the region.
Egypt, for its part, has shown it is willing to cooperate with Saudi Arabia. On the eve of King Salman’s visit, the Egyptian government announced it was discontinuing the broadcast of the Iran-backed satellite TV channel al-Manar over Egypt’s NileSat. A few days earlier, Egypt had joined the Arab League nations in declaring the Shiite, Iran-backed Hizbullah in Lebanon a terrorist organisation. Both moves were taken to represent a nod of approval at Saudi Arabia.
The overflowing welcome granted by to King Salman in his visit to Egypt sent a clear message that Cairo was willing to cooperate.
Apart from the Iran and Yemen issues, and the common challenge of battling terrorism in the region, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have other regional concerns. Ahmed Abul-Kheir, former deputy to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, sees that the Saudis are out to work a rapprochement between the current archenemies: Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar. The Islamic Summit is to be held in Istanbul later this month, but the Egyptian President will not participate on account of the exceedingly hostile stance Turkey has adopted vis-à-vis Egypt. Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry will attend in President Sisi’s stead.
Another former deputy to the Foreign Minister, Maasoum Marzouq, told Watani that Middle East stability hinges on good relations among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, since it is only through such an alliance that terrorism in the region may be defeated. Yet he thinks it highly unlikely that Saudi efforts at rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt would work. “Turkey has to offer Egypt a formal apology for having supported and funded extremist organisations that worked to undermine Egypt, and should also pledge not to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs. As matters stand, this is far-fetched.”
Soliman Shafiq, a political analyst and journalist, says that Egypt is currently in the unenviable position of being besieged on the security, political and economic fronts. To break this stranglehold, Mr Shafiq says, Cairo should ally itself to a regional power: Iran, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia. The latter was the obvious choice in view of historic relations and current political interests. Hence, he says, the warm welcome granted to King Salman. The great show of solidarity during the recent visit, according to Mr Shafiq, works in the interest of both Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Recent moves on the front of Egyptian international relations seem to suggest some development is brewing in the region. Western countries which had since the 30 June 2013 Revolution been hostile towards Egypt, appeared to suddenly reverse their positions. A few weeks ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Egypt was an important ally to the US when it came to combatting the many challenges facing the Middle East. Despite vocal condemnation of what he said were human rights abuses in Egypt, he said that: “Egypt is working with us to counter terrorism,” and was also playing a vital role in reaching a peaceful resolution to the situation in Yemen, Syria and Libya. In retaliation to his allegations of human rights abuses, Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry urged critics to “check their sources”, saying there was absolutely no evidence to back such claims.
Next week will see French President François Hollande visit Egypt to “deepen relations” with Egypt. It is expected that Egypt and France will sign an arms deal, as well as 30 agreements. And some two weeks later, a high-level German delegation is also expected in Cairo.
On social media, a few voices have posed the all-important question of why the sudden interest in fostering cooperation with Egypt. Could it be that the Middle East stands on the threshold of a Shia-Sunna divide, bloggers have suggested, and that the West wishes to secure some specific Egyptian involvement—or non-involvement? In which case it would matter which side Egypt allies with. Or is it premature yet to judge?
13 April 2016