Handshake between king and president points to waning tensions
There are indications tensions between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are easing but haven’t disappeared

Some signals suggest a possible de-escalation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose usually tight relations have recently witnessed turbulence.

The Jordan Arab Summit, held on March 29, saw the leaders of both countries, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and King Salman bin Abdulaziz, meet and shake hands, while their respective ministers of foreign affairs agreed to set up a “committee for political follow-up.”

Meanwhile, earlier in February, King Salman visited the Egyptian wing at the Jenaderiyah cultural festivalin what was interpreted as a gesture of restoring relations.

One of the latest points of contention between the two countries concerns the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which Egypt ceded sovereignty over in April 2016, following an agreement between the two governments. However, the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court ruled on January 16 against the agreement, declaring the islands Egyptian. The court argued that the Egyptian government failed to submit documents in support of Saudi sovereignty.

But the legal contest didn’t stop here. On April 2, a court of urgent matters annulled the supreme court’s ruling. Parliament took a decisive step forward on April 10, one day after Coptic Christian churches in Alexandria and Tanta were bombed in attacks claimed by the Province of Sinai. In its first session after the bombings, Parliament referred the case to its legislative and constitutional affairs committee, where it will undergo a preliminary vote before a final vote takes place in the general assembly. It is a development aligned with what officials have said in closed quarters for some time. 

“Saudi Arabia has reassurances from Cairo that it will receive the two islands in any case. But it also blames Cairo for managing this issue poorly,” says an Egyptian official working at the General Secretariat of the Arab League, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.

“The issue of the islands should not be left to affect the relationship. Resorting to supervision by an international arbitration committee could be the only way out. Egypt had a similar experience with the conflict over Taba,” says Saudi writer and political researcher Abdel Aziz al-Khamis. Taba, which is located on the current border with Israel, continued to be a contested space between the neighboring countries until it was ceded to Egypt through a process of international arbitration in 1988.  

Meanwhile, according to the Egyptian official, the state has committed itself to silencing voices that have angered Saudi Arabia by being highly critical of the kingdom.

One of these voices, Ibrahim Eissa, announced the suspension of his show in January. Eissa’s show was aired on the privately-owned Al-Qahera wal Nas channel, and was generally aligned with Egypt’s authorities. This was a “suitable moment” to suspend the show, Eissa commented vaguely.

“Saudi Arabia has been promised it will receive the two islands, but blames Cairo for managing the issue poorly.”

Egypt has turned to the close-to-Iran Iraqi government to supply its oil needs, following a halt on shipments from the Saudi state-owned company Aramco, which was part of a US$23 billion aid deal that included monthly shipments for five years.

In a speech given during a cultural seminar addressed to the Armed Forces last October, Sisi denied that the suspension of the oil shipments to Egypt is a reaction to the Egyptian position on Syria, adding that the issue of oil shipments “is a matter of a commercial agreement signed last April. On our side, we have taken the appropriate procedures to provide for our needs, and we don’t have a problem regarding fuel and petroleum.”

In March, six months after the halt, Aramco announced the resumption of oil shipments to Egypt.

Meanwhile, Khamis argues that “these agreements cannot continue amid the instability in relations between the two states.”

Saudi Arabia has been a key financier of Egypt following the June 30, 2013 military-backed protests that saw the Muslim Brotherhood ousted from power.

A Saudi deposit worth US$2 billion that Egypt received played a major role in the approval of an International Monetary Fund $12 billion loan to Egypt in November 2016. However, sources confirmed to Mada Masr that Saudi Arabia might use this bond as a way of putting political pressure on Egypt by demanding its return.

A former senior Egyptian official, also speaking anonymously, precluded the possibility that Saudi Arabia would once again provide “generous support” to Egypt, adding that maybe the situation would improve if the two islands were ceded, “but even in this case, support would not be the same as it was before this crisis erupted.”

Meanwhile, the official source, who recently visited Saudi Arabia, said that Emirati and Kuwaiti officials reported to him that they faced Saudi pressure to suspend their aid to Egypt, but that the two states told Riyadh that “this is an uncalculated risk and that they will continue to provide aid.”

Despite gestures of reassurances from both countries that tensions are waning, there remain some contentious issues, particularly on Syria. A statement from Egypt’s Foreign Ministry following the April 7 US air strikes on the Syrian state’s airbase of Shuairat in Homs called on both the United States and Russia to contain the situation and de-escalate the conflict. The strikes followed a suspected chemical attack on the Idlib town of Khan Shaikoun by Syrian regime air raids taking off from the same military planes, killing over 80 people.

Last September, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry admitted to the existence of a dispute with Saudi Arabia regarding Syria. In a press meeting conducted in New York, he said the kingdom “is adamant about the need to change the Syrian government or leadership. Egypt does not follow the same approach.”

Despite reassurances from Egypt and Saudi Arabia that tensions are waning, there remain some contentious issues, particularly on Syria.

The Egyptian official maintains that “the Syrian issue is one contentious topic with Saudi Arabia in which Cairo is prepared to go to extremes.” He proposes two reasons for this position: Fear of an Islamist take over following President Bashar al-Assad’s fall and concern that the fall of the regime in Syria would highlight a success of the Arab Spring protests. Both are issues of national security, the official says.

Shoukry himself is another cause of contention between the two countries.

Two diplomats — one Egyptian and one European — both speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, confirmed that extensive Saudi pressure has mounted over the last weeks to dismiss Shoukry. “Saudi Arabia was not happy about Shoukry’s meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif in the US on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly Meeting last year,” the Egyptian diplomat said, adding that Saudi officials think Shoukry is behind some of the tensions between the two countries.

But according to the diplomat, Egypt doesn’t appreciate what it deems to be interference in its internal matters. A February Cabinet reshuffle saw the change in nine ministers, and Shoukry wasn’t one of them.

Asmahan Soliman 

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