OP-ED: Ethiopian dam between Egypt and Saudi Arabia

Disputes between two friendly countries are not about what is being projected, writes Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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The picture of former Saudi minister Ahmad al-Khatib visiting the Grand Ethiopian Dam was used by some to debate in media outlets. Close relations between Riyadh and Cairo were thus subjected to a low rhetoric.

Even if we assume that the picture and the visit imply more than tourism and investment, raising the issue in the media still remains an old, outdated, failed and harmful means to exert pressure.

Ethiopia is an important country for the African economy. The US depends on it to resolve a number of its military and political problems in the continent. For example, it succeeded in containing Somalia by force, unlike Afghanistan, and disciplined Eritrea.

Egypt is bigger and more important to the Saudis than Ethiopia, regardless of the contradictory statements made by some Egyptian and Saudi media figures.

Yes, there are times when relations are cold but this is not over major regional political issue as it is being made out to be, or at least that’s not the case yet. Skillful diplomats must isolate reasons behind the dispute from relations in general. It is understandable that disputes happen when there are interrelated and strong relations.

This is why our relations with Scandinavian countries are always stable. Disputes between two friendly countries are not about what is being projected – they are also not about Syria as it is rumored.

The Yemen connection

As for allegations that Egypt is supplying rebels in Yemen with arms, I rule that out as Egypt is aware that this is a dangerous act as Houthis have killed Saudi civilians after they intentionally used their missiles to target cities and towns inside Saudi Arabia.

All these narratives about relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are being promoted by figures affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Some Iraqi parties’ announcement that the government intends to supply Egypt with oil products to replace suspended Saudi oil shipments is not possible. It is difficult for Iraq to supply this because it does not have enough for its own use and it cannot continue to provide them for free.

Egypt’s stance toward Syria is realistic and has not been different from Turkey’s position in recent times. During the last two resolutions submitted to the UN General Assembly, Egypt voted in favor of the Syrian people and against the Assad regime, unlike what some Arab allies did.

Egypt’s recent stance in the UN Security Council regarding Israeli settlements is linked to Cairo’s compelling circumstances and we do not expect it to subject its security and major interests to danger especially when other countries did what was required of them. Cairo was thus spared a potential crisis and embarrassment for the sake of a symbolic decision.

Saudi-Egyptian disputes are over bilateral issues and will end in agreement after a month or a year or they may not be resolved. Relations must not be left for compromise because they are strategic. It is wrong to believe that Egypt’s position is out of solidarity when it supports Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries against Iran. Egypt’s position against Iran serves Egypt’s larger interests by preventing Iran from expanding and dominating in Syria, Iraq or the Gulf.

Iran’s influence

Iran’s influence is expanding at the expense of Egypt, which is a big country in the region. If Cairo wants to retreat and give up its role, other big regional countries will be eager to fill it. Gulf countries are the ones which strike a balance between Turkey, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Iran. Playing the regional role also increases countries’ political, economic and military value.

Egypt receives the second biggest American economic and military aid and this is not just due to the Camp David Agreement but is also due to Egypt’s regional importance. This is why those who oppose this aid at the Congress failed to suspend it or decrease it.

I think the biggest defect in Egyptian-Gulf relations lies in their limited horizon. They remain mere relations with simple context. The recent move, around two years ago, to build economic partnerships are good because they guarantee the sustainability of relations instead of the policy of granting and providing aid.

Partnerships expand economic activities and can change the reality of the Gulf and Egyptian economies. This is what the Saudi and Emirati governments have proposed to Cairo. What is always to blame is Egyptian bureaucracy which is more of an enemy to the Egyptian government than all of its rivals put together.

If Egypt does not quickly walk the path of reforms, it will lose historical opportunities in the Gulf and it will not become a giant economic partner. Moreover, it will just continue to look for aid, which is impossible to sustain.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on December 27, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.

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