Commentary

Saudi Arabia and Egypt Forge Closer Ties

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

In a sign of warmer relations and closer cooperation, Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to announce the signing of more than a dozen agreements, including the settlement of a long-time maritime border dispute. The two leaders also announced a groundbreaking agreement to build a bridge that would span the Red Sea between the two countries, promising the flow of further economic aid into Egypt. Some greeted the meeting initially with skepticism, but many have now reacted with surprise at the depth and breadth of the cooperation reflected in the agreements. Saudi editorials are predictably congratulatory about this recent development, while others focus on the geo-strategic implications of the Saudi-Egyptian relationship.

The Turkish Hurriyet Daily News’ reflection on the development has so far been limited to a posting of an Agence France-Presse report on the agreement, pointing out that “Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman agreed to set up a $16-billion investment fund on April 9 and settled a long-standing maritime dispute as the monarch continued his rare visit to the country. A day after Salman announced a plan to build a bridge over the Red Sea to Egypt, the heads of state met at the historic Abdeen Palace in Cairo to oversee the inking of a string of agreements Egypt hopes will help boost its battered economy. In one of the most high-profile announcements, Cairo said it had agreed to demarcate its maritime borders with Saudi Arabia, officially placing two islands in the Straits of Tiran in Saudi territory....More than a dozen other accords, including a memorandum of understanding to set up an industrial zone in Egypt, were also announced. Saudi Arabia has been a key backer of Sisi since the overthrow of Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood movement was viewed by Riyadh with suspicion. It has since pumped billions of dollars in aid and investment into Egypt.”

 Al Ahram’s Hassa Nafaa, writing last week before the start of the talks, expressed pessimism over the prospect of meaningful cooperation between the two countries, even though in Nafaa’s view the two leaders needed to strike a historic bargain to bring more stability in the region: “Over the long history of Egyptian-Saudi relations, which have swung between extreme tension and the closest degrees of cooperation, Cairo and Riyadh have always taken pains to sustain a minimum degree of communication and coordination at all times, even under the most stressful circumstances. Therefore, this visit, like all previous visits of this kind, will probably conclude with a statement that it “succeeded in boosting cooperation between the two countries in the various fields”. Perhaps, too, during the visit some “protocols” will be signed, outlining or detailing the various aspects of this cooperation. However, statements of this sort will not elevate Egyptian-Saudi bilateral relations to a level commensurate to the challenges that both countries face at a time of momentous and perilous changes taking place in this region at an exceptional moment in its history.”

But, as this op-ed in the Daily News Egypt by Moataz Bellah Abdel –Fattah indicates, there was a recognition from the start that cooperation between the two countries is indispensable for stability in the region, and therefore the two countries needed to find a way to expand their cooperation beyond the existing status quo: “There will be no Arab renaissance without Saudi Arabia, and no such thing as Arabs without Egypt. Without Egypt, which is the wedge that prevents the collapse of Arab countries, many Arab countries would return to a state of tribalism, rivalry and warring clans. Without Saudi Arabia, which the leveraging force of the Arab region, we would remain weak, begging for grants and loans from the powerful and living on the generosity of others....There is a regional danger, and only the naive are capable of ignoring it—this danger has been named by the King of Jordan as the ‘Shia Crescent,’ stretching from Iran to the eastern region in Saudi Arabia, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Indeed, Arabs are at their weakest point.”

As a result, the Khaleej Times editorial greets the announcement of the construction plans of a bridge spanning the Red Sea as “a historic step…. This is an epoch-making moment for both the Arab countries, as the proposed 30-mile-long concrete connection will take their trade relations to new heights....The proposed causeway over the strategic straits connecting Nabq in Egypt and Ras Alsheikh Hamid in Saudi Arabia has parallels with the Bosporus Bridge, which links Turkey with Europe. The steel suspension geographically connects Asia with Europe. Similarly, the Red Sea Bridge will connect the Middle East with Africa....Of late, Saudi Arabia's role in assembling the Syrian opposition for a meaningful dialogue over their war-torn country, and its efforts to salvage Yemen from the Houthi rebels are highly appreciated. This colossal crossing connecting the two continents will have far-reaching geo-economic dividends.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Salman Aldosary notes that the proposed agreements will bring in much needed investments in Egypt, which may be partly why Egypt has finally relented and signed on to the maritime border agreement: “The surprise on defining naval borders — which was a decades-long ticking time-bomb all countries avoided due to the shared significant relationships — is destined to defuse any future crisis which could be sparked on spur of moment just like any other border issue left unattended....Saudi Arabia has killed two birds with one stone, first it has further endorsed its political and military alliance with a country as significant as Egypt and second, it is supporting Egyptian economy based on mutual benefit. Saudi Arabia is pumping in large flows of investment in the land of Kinanah (an old name for Egypt); exactly what Egypt really needs, at a time in which most world countries refrain from, due to political concerns or shying away from risk taking.”

The National editorial staff sheds more light, in a recent editorial, on the subject of economic aid and investment, characterizing it as a symbolic link between two continents: “There is no doubt that the Saudi investment will boost the Egyptian economy through trade and tourism as it will open a new route for pilgrims visiting holy sites in Saudi Arabia....The bridge project, estimated to cost between $3bn and $4bn, will augment Mr El Sisi’s long-term strategy to use mega-projects to boost the economy and create jobs. This vision became clear when the president opened a major extension of the Suez Canal last year. A strong Egypt is also vital for the security of this region....However, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be aware that this project represents an enormous engineering challenge. Even at the narrowest point of the Gulf of Aqaba, there is still 16km of water between the two countries.”

In Saudi Arabia, the media response has been predictably and overwhelmingly positive. The Saudi Gazette editorial focuses on the responsibility that Saudi Arabia and Egypt have to provide stability in the region, suggesting the economic and security cooperation between the two countries will provide just that: “Saudi Arabia and Egypt have a resilient entente that benefits not only the two countries but the Middle East and its future security and stability, and the world at large. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have a special responsibility to forge a united vision on regional crisis resolution. It is vital now for these two cornerstone states of the Middle East to set a course for the future. Attention to the future becomes an essential component of strategic planning. Egyptian-Saudi relations are the lynchpin of the Arab region in the struggle to confront the enormous challenges facing the Arab world. This is a time of considerable overlap between their strategic goals, extensive cooperation in economy and high degrees of coordination at all levels.”

The other main Saudi daily, Arab News, accepts that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have not always seen eye to eye but suggests that recent developments in the region have helped both countries realize they must work closely with each other in the interest of political and economic stability: “The trip is significant on several levels. At its most fundamental it is a clear demonstration that the two most important Arab countries are not at all divided, as some commentators have hinted. The ties between the Kingdom and Egypt are deep. Egyptians play a valuable role within the Saudi economy and make up the largest proportion of Arabs who work here. Meanwhile, Saudi investors continue to play a key role in Egypt....It is crucial that Egypt continues to play its leading role in the Arab world and help to check Iranian interference in the affairs of fellow Arab states....At a time when so many dangers encompass it, the Muslim world cannot afford division. No one could be better qualified than King Salman to act as a peacemaker between these two major Muslim states. There can be no doubt. The Kingdom will do all that it can to improve relations between Egypt and Turkey. Its guiding principle is enshrined in the OIC. This is that the Muslim Ummah must be guided by peace, education and cooperation.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.