With great interest, I have been following the celebrations held in Cairo and Riyadh on the occasion of the Saudi National Day, first due to the special significance of the Saudi-Egyptian relations, and secondly because the occasion necessitated a discussion of the reform in Saudi Arabia and its results, which recall a similar experience in Egypt. Both experiences represent signs of hope for the future of Arab countries following long decades that witnessed a rather poor Arab performance, with no Arab country gaining a status similar to that of Japan, South Korea, or any internationally emerging economies.
The only Arab country that became close from acquiring such a status is the United Arab Emirates, with its model which resembles that of Singapore. In fact, most post-independence Arab countries became rentier states that depend on a single source which is oil and gas or, as in the case of Egypt, relies on a particular set of products such as oil, tourism, transactions from Egyptians working abroad, and the Suez Canal. Through this reliance on one production or a limited set of productions, a social contract has emerged where the Arab state should care for its citizens in exchange for their approval of a centralized political system that preserves the status quo without any major change or an adventure for off-shoots that might destabilize the situation. The result was a bare-minimum political and economic stability that led neither to famines like the ones in Africa, not to progress and advancement like that witnessed in Asia. The events of the so-called Arab Spring and its disastrous consequences in the entire region proved that the status quo cannot go on forever, and that apart from the birth of many failure states, the lack of change gave space to a fascist religious revolutionary condition, intensifying its negative effect and the attempts by neighboring countries to exploit the vacuum generated by the chaos, especially with the downfall of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
A reply to this backward revolutionary condition could have taken a military or a reformative direction. It is astonishing that, back in 2015 the latter was Egypt’s choice under President Abd-al-Fattah Al-Sisi, and Saudi Arabia’s choice under His Highness the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques kind Salman Bin Abdulaziz, and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, as the 2030-Vision was born in both countries to lead a major change by the two central countries in the Arab World. This vision resonated in several other countries such as Kuwait, Oman, and Jordan, with each having its own estimated time-span to achieve a similar leap. In all these cases the cornerstone of progress was the concept of national state which regained its old roots. Hence, it was no wonder to see how in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia there was a rediscovery of each country’s ancient history, which enhances the national identity much more than solely focusing on a particular era. In Saudi Arabia, which seemed to have been under the effect of a close-minded dogma, this rediscovery of history revealed itself in front of wide horizons relating to the deep connection with the Saudi history and geography. Meanwhile, in Egypt the exploration of the pharaonic history at the beginnings of the 19th century formed the core of the Egyptian national state, and the newer pharaonic, Hellenistic, Roman, and Islamic discoveries along with the modern developments in museums and the Egyptian cultural arena in general, has all enhanced the Egyptian national identity.
Economy and construction might have been the main concerns of both the Egyptian and Saudi public, but the implementation of the Vision made the change deeper and more effective. Egypt wished to redden itself of its old burdens, whishing to expand outside the boundaries of the river she lived by for thousands of years, and to go beyond it to the oceans and the world which is full of chances and opportunities. On its part, Saudi Arabia wished to expand beyond oil and fossil energy, which constituted 85% of the Kingdom’s exports, and to becoming a multi-resources state. In that aspect, the Egyptian economy might have seemed more balanced, but in reality it needed a sway in various economic sectors with high growth rates, especially following the years of revolution and recession. Both countries met at this point, sensing the great geographical potential by them. As Egypt felt the need to head eastwards to the Red Sea and Sinai, and westwards through the northern coastline and the western desert, the Kingdom, which earlier focused on the east where the oil and the GCC countries are, rebalanced things by expanding westwards to the Red Sea in construction and tourism, which would add new flavors to the religious tourism by featuring tourist destinations to Saudi, Arab, and foreign visitors.
Hence, and 6 years following the deep reform in both countries, and beside their historical, societal, political, and economic common grounds, both countries have opened a new chapter on the arena of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The maritime border demarcation agreement between them has far-reaching economic and strategic effects, as it launched the potentials of both countries in exploiting their own economic regions, and opened the door to great demographic changes that started to emerge in Egypt in terms of settling in Sinai, starting by the eastern side of the Suez Canal and expanding to the erection of new cities and the expansion of agriculture, tourism, mining, and the exploration of oil and gas in the Red Sea and its islands, and through the European prospects in Madinat Al-Salam city.
Meanwhile, the Saudi side has also started an economic and touristic exploitation of the Red Sea’s islands, also constructing a number of cities including NEOM, which can be seen with bare eyes from the Egyptian coast. In the same vein, the Saudi city of Al-‘Ula and the Tabuk region are growing in the Kingdom’s northwest. To sum up, and without indulging into several further details, the area of the northern Red Sea is already very promising to both countries in terms of prosperity and cooperation.
This article was originally published in, and translated from Egyptian daily Al-Ahram.