King Salman’s visit to Egypt: The politics of a regional alliance

Emphasis is always placed on economic ties between the two countries, especially with the billions of dollars pumped into Egypt by Saudi Arabia

Sonia Farid

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Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz’s five-day visit to Cairo, which began on Thursday, has made headlines since its announcement in recent months.

This was not only because it is his first official trip since coming into power, with the exception of his participation in the Economic Development Conference in March 2015, but also because of the visit’s implications for bilateral relations.

Emphasis is always placed on economic ties between the two countries, especially with the billions of dollars pumped into Egypt by Saudi Arabia whether in the form of cash deposits, grants, or oil products, and the visit will by no means be devoid of this aspect. It is, however, impossible to overlook the political and strategic nature of the trip.

Former Egyptian ambassador to Washington Abdel Raouf al-Ridi described Egypt and Saudi Arabia as the two major powers in the Arab region, which renders their cooperation vital.

“In fact, the region’s stability is contingent upon the alliance between Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “This is especially the case now with the Syria and Yemen crises needing the input of both countries.”

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Maasoum Marzouk agreed that the situation in Yemen and Syria constitutes a significant aspect of King Salman’s visit.

“The Saudi king and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will discuss the establishment of a new regional security system that addresses the new challenges inherent in the Yemeni and Syrian conflicts.”

Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya

Member of the Saudi Consultative Council Sadqa bin Yehia Fadel argued that in addition to Syria and Yemen, the “Saudi-Egyptian summit” as he dubbed it, also has on top of its agenda the situation in Iraq and Libya.

“The two countries are aware of the necessity of their adoption of a unified stance vis-à-vis the conflicts in these countries and which will not only serve the interests of both countries, but also the entire region.”

Iran is also another important item on the agenda, said Fadel, adding: “Both countries will discuss the means of creating a unified Arab position on Iranian expansions in the region and the means of curbing them.”

Anwar Eshqi, head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, also underlined the significance of the Iranian issue in Saudi-Egyptian talks.

“Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia announced that their top priority is Arab national security and this necessitates facing the Iranian threat,” he said. “When Iran goes as far as claiming it is already in control of four Arab capitals, Egypt and Saudi Arabia need to take a firm stance. This was already manifested in their cooperation in Yemen through the Arab Coalition.”

Waterway security and military exercises

According to Egyptian journalist Akram Ali, the visit has another important strategic aspect.

“Egypt and Saudi Arabia will discuss the security of the Red Sea and the means of protecting international trade going through it from external threats,” he wrote, also in reference also to Iran.

Professor of political science Tarek Fahmy echoed a similar point: “The two countries will discuss the role Egypt can play in the security of the Gulf region, especially as far as waterways are concerned,” he said.

Negotiations on strategic cooperation, Fahmy added, will also include joint military exercises: “This kind of cooperation has already started with the ‘Northern Thunder’ maneuvers, which took place in Saudi Arabia, and is expected to continue in the future.”

According to Fahmy, talks between the Saudi and Egyptian heads of state may also include the possibility of joining a coalition that also involves Turkey.

While admitting that Egypt and Saudi Arabia does not see eye to eye on a few regional issues, Egyptian journalist Antar Farahat argues that King Salman’s visit to Cairo proves that is likely to not affect bilateral relations.

“For example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have different views on the status of Bashar al-Assad and military intervention in Yemen, yet both countries agree that they should work together to resolve the two conflicts,” he wrote.

Farahat also notes the role Saudi Arabia might play in rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey, which is likely to be discussed during the visit. Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed al-Orabi argued that “minor differences” are common in bilateral relations.

“This is the nature of politics and diplomacy and as long as both countries prioritize security and the general good, such differences are easily overcome.

“This is what King Salman’s visit to Egypt proves,” he said. “Egypt and Saudi Arabia might have different views on the means of resolving the Syrian conflict, yet the visit demonstrates that both countries give precedence to the safety of the Syrian people and the unity of Syrian territories.”

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