Besides stirring laughter at times, leaks and slips in diplomatic decorum can be a key to understanding inter-state conflicts. This has at least been the case with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, longtime allies in the region.
The tension begins in February 2015, when an audio recording attributed to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi surfaced. Sisi, allegedly still minister of defense when the audio was captured shortly before he became president, can be heard saying, “We need 10 billion to be deposited in the Armed Forces’ account. We want another 10 billion from the Emirates. They have money as abundant as rice.”
The leaks, which have yet to be authenticated and were published by pro-Muslim Brotherhood websites, pointed to a possible political crisis between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Sisi’s prompt visit to Riyadh in March 2015, accompanied by his office director, Abbas Kamel, challenged those speculations. But this did not stem the tide of criticism from Saudi Arabian media.
Almost two years later, while addressing Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, Iyad bin Amin Madani, the head of the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, mistakenly called the Tunisian head of state “Sisi.” Madani immediately corrected himself, saying, “Your honor, Mr. president, this is a terrible mistake. I am sure your fridge is filled with more than just water.”
Madani’s quip was a reference to comments Sisi made at the Egyptian state-sponsored National Youth Conference held in October only a few days beforehand, where he instructed the gathered audience to be economically frugal. Sisi presented himself as an exemplar, claiming that he keeps nothing but water in his refrigerator. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement in response to Madani’s comments, condemning the former Saudi Arabian official’s behavior and threatening to review relations with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
But what lies behind these political gaffs? Below is an attempt to trace the various disputes that have emerged between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the past few months, with a particular focus on how the Gulf country has felt challenged by Egypt’s geopolitical maneuvering within the region.
During the Arab League Summit held in Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2015, Sisi announced that he had received a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I address his excellency with gratitude, in the name of all of you, and I request that the deputy secretary general of the Arab League read it,” Sisi told the convention.
Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister at the time, publicly protested Sisi’s request, saying: “The Russians are an integral part of the atrocities in Syria. Is to convey their message a disregard of our views on the Arab world? Does it indicate a lack of acknowledgement of the crisis?”
The dispute around reading Putin’s message was the beginning of a deeper disagreement between the countries on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Asaad. While Saudi Arabia insists that the priority in the Syrian crisis lies in the removal of Asaad, Egypt’s has emphasized the need to undermine radical militant organizations in Syria and to protect the institutions of the Syrian state.
In February 2016, Saudi Arabia, in coordination with the United Arab Emirates, considered marshaling a ground operation into Syria. However, Egypt, in the first official indication of a divergence of views on the Syrian question, objected, describing the potential action as “isolated.”
In a joint press conference held in Cairo with Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sabah al-Khalid Sabah, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said, “Egypt considers the decision by Saudi Arabia to undertake a ground intervention in Syria to be an individualistic sovereign decision. It is not being taken within the mandate of the Islamic Force against terrorism.” Shoukry emphasized that Egypt favors a political solution to the Syrian conflict. In the end, Saudi Arabia’s deliberation did not translate into action on the ground.
On the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meeting held in New York in September 2016, Saudi Arabia organized an international meeting to discuss humanitarian action in the Syrian crisis. Egypt did not participate in the meeting, despite being the only Arab nation of the United Nations Security Council and bearing responsibility, alongside Spain and New Zealand, for the humanitarian dimension of the Syrian crisis within the council.
In early October, the dispute between the two countries escalated further when Egypt decided to vote for a French UN Security Council Proposal on Syria, which was supported by Western governments, Turkey and Gulf countries. However, the resolution did not pass, as Russia excercized its veto right. During the same session, Egypt also voted in favor of Russia’s resolution, which had been presented in opposition to the French proposal. Russia’s resolution was met with heavy criticism from Western states and Gulf countries, foremost among them Saudi Arabia.
In an indication of Saudi Arabia’s dissatisfaction with Egyptian diplomacy, Saudi Arabia’s representative to the UN Abdallah al-Moalemi said, “It was painful to find that Senegal and Malaysia’s positions are closer to the Arab consensus position than that of the Arab representative,” referring to Egypt. Social media users heavily criticized Egypt’s position on Syria following Moalemi’s comments.
Before the end of March 2015, another dispute arose between the two countries. Two days before the Arab League Summit in Egypt, Saudi Arabia announced the commencement of Operation Decisive Storm, the country’s military intervention in the Yemeni civil wgulgar. Despite Egypt’s Armed Forces announcing its participation in the military operation, the Yemen question remained a source of conflict between the two countries, as Saudi Arabia reportedly expected Egypt to take on a more prominent role.
Egypt agreed to support the maritime siege of the Yemeni coast, in addition to allocating Egyptian pilots for some of the air operations, Sisi stated in a passing note. These actions coincided with regular bombings along Saudi Arabia’s land borders with Yemen, which killed a number of soldiers and destroyed dozens of military vehicles.
In another move that was not favored by many Saudi politicians, Iraq announced an agreement with the Egyptian Armed Forces last February, under which Iraqi security and military personnel would be trained in Cairo.
Iraq and Saudi Arabia’s relations have been souring, as the Saudi Arabian government considers Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abady to be loyal to Iran. Saudi Arabia has accused the Iraqi government of collaborating with “Shia forces to launch a war against Sunnis,” in reference to the Popular Mobilization Forces’ war against the Islamic State insurgency.
There is also close proximity in the Iraqi and the Egyptian views on the Syrian crisis.
On September 23, Shokry met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meetings. According to a statement issued by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, “The meeting addressed several regional issues, as well as current crises in the Middle East, foremost among which was the situation in Syria, as both countries are members of the International Syria Support Group.”
Against the backdrop of the historic feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia frequently looked with great concern upon any rapprochement between the Egyptian and Iranian governments, whose diplomatic relations were severed in the 1970s.
Joint Arab Force
In March 2015, the representatives attending the Arab League Summit held in Sharm el-Sheikh adopted Sisi’s initiative to set up a Joint Arab Force that would “face regional challenges and protect national Arab security,” according to the language of the initiative’s statement.
Egypt’s attempts to establish the joint military force were dealt a blow when Saudi Arabia requested that the meeting to take the Joint Arab Force forward in August 2015 be postponed hours before it was scheduled to convene in Cairo. Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Egypt Ahmed al-Qattan issued a statement to the Saudi Arabian Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, saying the meeting had been postponed because “no comprehensive and final draft has been reached that might be acceptable to all Arab states to set up this military force.”
By at the end of the year, Saudi Arabia declared the death of Sisi’s initiative, while suddenly announcing the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, which counted Egypt among its members. Many considered the Islamic military alliance to be an alternative to the Egyptian proposal, especially given that Egypt would have assumed military leadership in the Joint Arab Force given the size of its army. As for the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, its leadership was assumed to go to Pakistan, a country over whom Saudi Arabia exercises greater influence.
In August 2016, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb and Egypt’s former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa attended a conference on Sunni Islam, in Grozny, Chechnya.
In the conference’s final statement, Salafis and Wahabis were excluded from the definition of Sunni followers, who were said to be only those who subscribed to the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence and the followers of Sufism.
The matter provoked the ire of the Saudi Arabian clergy and politicians. The general secretariat of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars issued a statement, saying the recommendations of the Grozny Conference “aim to increase sectarianism among the different Islamic groups.” Al-Azhar released an explanatory statement concerning its participation in the conference, saying that it wasn’t involved in the organization and that Tayyeb was only a guest.
The US Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) in September 2016, allowing the families of victims of terrorist attacks to seek financial compensation from states that sponsor terrorism, a decision that prompted anger in Saudi Arabia.
While allies of the kingdom immediately issued statements in protest of the law, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s official comment was more qualified. The Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson said that Egypt is “following with interest” the US Congress’s decision regarding the issuance of the law.
Tiran and Sanafir
During Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz’s visit to Egypt in April 2016, the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian governments signed an agreement to redraw their mutual maritime borders, facilitating the transfer of sovereign control over the Red Sea islands Sanafir and Tiran from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The islands’ transfer was announced to the Egyptian public without any preamble, prompting a wave of political and popular protests, the largest since Sisi came to power and featuring the arrest of dozens.
In June 2016, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court annulled the agreement, as well as the implementation of its stipulations.
However, immediately after the court ruling, the Egyptian government – represented by Sisi, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal, the defense minister, the foreign minister and the interior minister – appealed the decision. The appeal proceedings are scheduled to begin on November 8. With the case still in court, the government has not been able to present the agreement to Parliament for a final endorsement.
Delays and withdrawals
Egypt and Saudi Arabia also announced during King Salman’s April visit that the Gulf country would make a US$2 billion deposit in the Central Bank of Egypt. However, Egyp’ts central bank received the deposit in late October, when Cairo was urgently seeking financing to support its attempt to close loan proceedings with the International Monetary Fund.
Saudi Aramco also agreed to provide the Egyptian General Petroleum Company with 700,000 tons of refined petroproducts per month during King Salman’s visit, in a five-year deal valued at US$23 billion
However, in October, Saudi Aramco officially informed the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum that the October shipment of petroproducts would not be delivered, declining to clarify the reason for the suspension. In response, the ministry issued a call to tender to international providers to meet domestic demand. The Petroleum Ministry has stated that the Egyptian government has not been informed of when the next shipments from Saudi Aramco will arrive.
The state-owned company’s decision came shortly after Shoukry and Zarif’s meeting in New York, but also amid the disagreement on the Syria question.
A real crisis?
Despite the seeming rise in disagreements between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, close followers of the relations between the countries do not suggest that the situation has reached a crisis mode.
Nael Shama, a foreign policy researcher, doesn’t see a serious threat to the long existing diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, a relationship that has remained solid since 1967 and the Khartoum Conference, where Saudi Arabia issued large financial reimbursements to Egypt and Jordan for their losses during Arab defeat in the Six-Day War.
According to Shama, the media plays an important role in amplifying these issues, and this can be traced to the fact that Egyptian intellectuals feel there is a tension between Egyptian civilization and Saudi Arabian wahhabism.
Agreeing on the fact that the conflict is exaggerated, an Egyptian diplomat, preferring to remain anonymous, tells Mada Masr: “It is not a secret that there are disagreements with Saudi Arabia on several fronts, but who said that this is a crisis? There are some disagreements on Syria and this is not new. I don’t think anyone has bet on a complete alignment of foreign policies between the two countries. What is surely the case is that there is a consciousness from the two sides on the inevitability of complete collaboration and coordination of positions. Saudi Arabia has supported Egypt in very difficult moments and knows very well that our diplomacy is independent, and they respect it.”
For Yasmine Farouk, a professor of political science at Cairo University, the tensions might pertain to a struggle over leadership in the region. Natural leadership, she claims, lies with Egypt, as it is the country that can most affect the region, as an extension of its internal affairs. “The question becomes: What does leadership mean and how does it work? If Egypt calls for an international meeting to solve the Syrian crisis, would other Arab countries respond positively? If Saudi Arabia makes the call, will there be an Arab consensus? The answer to both questions would be no.”
Shama says, “When Egypt had aspirations to lead the region during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time, for example, it stirred major conflicts with Saudi Arabia. But, in reality, Egypt is not seeking a leadership position now. We can say it wants to be a major player in the region. Saudi Arabia, instead, is governed by an obsession with Iran, which is its first priority.”
Historically, Farouk contends, there has been a regional division between the two countries, as much as a respect for this division. “But starting in 2003, with Mubarak’s regional weaknesses, Saudi Arabia began hijacking Egypt’s traditional space in the region, hosting delegations from Gaza and mediating in the Sudan crisis. We can say that Egypt is now trying to restore this division, but the problem is that we don’t have what it takes,” she says.
Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla