History of Saudi King Salman as a skilled diplomatic craftsman

Assaf bin Salem Abuthnain
Assaf bin Salem Abuthnain
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The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977 astounded the Arab world and the whole globe, but to some key Arab states it came as no surprise.

But what was most startling would come just a year later during the American-brokered Camp David agreement signed by Sadat and the then Israel prime minister. Present at the time was the former US President Jimmy Carter at Camp David resort on September 17, 1978.

The Egyptian president’s unilateral action sparked exasperation and anger from Arab states opposing the deal. Subsequently, an Arab League summit was held in Baghdad on November 2 of the same year, for which the rejection of the accord was the most significant recommendations issued at the conclusion of that summit. The Arab foreign ministers meeting a month later unanimously agreed to severe diplomatic ties with Egypt by withdrawing their ambassadors and transferring the headquarters of the Arab League to Tunisia. Saudi Arabia was one of the main signatories of those resolutions. Iraq, Syria, and the PLO have embraced a stringent stance while the Sultanate of Oman abstained.

Saudi Arabia put the sanction into action and the kingdom’s diplomatic mission was vacated and was represented in Egypt by the Embassy of Pakistan in Cairo. Even then, bilateral and commercial relations between the two nations did not cease and daily flights between Riyadh and Cairo did not halt. The Egyptian labor influx to GCC countries continued as normal. However, Sadat’s media attacks on Saudi Arabia were incessant. Aware of the kingdom’s heft and stature, the late Egyptian president anticipated, at the least, that Riyadh would be sympathetic and neutral. Nevertheless, the latter opted to chime with the Arab consensus. The status quo would remain for eight years from 1979 to 1987, and so on after the assassination of Sadat in 1981 until Hosni Mubarak would rise to power as president.

In December 1986, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz - then the Prince of Riyadh - was on an official visit to France at the invitation of the then French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. The occasion was the patronage and opening of an exhibition titled “The Kingdom between yesterday and today”. Paris was the third stop for the famed exhibition after successful tours in Germany and Britain. By then, I was in-charge of the tour’s program and interviews and a member of the organizing committee of the exhibition under the oversight of the then ambassador Jamil al-Hujailan.

The timing of the exhibition and the official program of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques coincided with an official visit of President Mubarak to Paris. King Salman informed me that I would be accompanying him to visit Mubarak, a meeting arranged by both countries ambassadors. In a cold Parisian night, the meeting was held at Mubarak’s residence. The two leaders discussed the bilateral relationship between the countries. Mubarak made reference to the Saudi exhibition and the king offered to host it in Cairo, a suggestion well received by Mubarak who immediately called his prime minister, Atef Sedky, to facilitate the arrangements. Egyptian-Saudi press purveyed the leaders meeting with not much detail. Afterward, King Salman instructed the organizing committee of the exhibition to travel to Cairo where we would go one to hold several meetings with Egyptian officials, and despite the hard work of the late Assad abu al-Nasr, who was the Chargé d' Affaires at the time, we encountered some impediments due to the lack of an official ambassador. King Salman conveyed the situation to the late king Fahd, who accordingly issued an order to appointment Nasr as the kingdom's ambassador to Egypt and the return of the diplomatic mission to its former status.

For all, these historical events conspicuously show King Salman as the main reason behind the resumption of ties with Egypt as he was and is an accomplished, seasoned politician, enthusiastic and conscious of Egypt’s significant role in the Arab world.

Assaf bin Salem Abuthnain

Thusly, we can say King Salman was the architect of the resumption of relations between the two countries and that the Saudi exhibition at the time was just the medium in doing so. The embassy resumed its diplomatic mission and the committee started organizing the exhibition in Nasr City, which was inaugurated by president Mubarak and King Salman (then the prince of Riyadh) in March 1978, yet again the exhibition scored huge success.

King Salman was warmly received by the Egyptian government and was hosted in Al-Tahira Palace, he was engaged in a hectic official program meeting top officials including Mubarak, the president aides and defense minister Mohamed Abu Ghazala, the prime minister, the interior minister and Cairo governor in addition to Egyptians intellectuals and journalists. Afterward, he toured Suez city and October war battlefield where Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi briefed the king about the historic battle. Again, the king was warmly received in Alexandria before returning to the Kingdom.

The exhibition came to an end amid the continuation of its positive traction, the Saudi diplomatic mission in Cairo deftly carried its operation. Next, other GCC states resumed diplomatic relations with Egypt, followed by several official visits by king Salman to Egypt, one was to resolve a major issue that had escalated between the two countries involving Mubarak’s sons, a tension the king adeptly moderated.

Architect of the resumption of the Egyptian-Saudi relations

For all, these historical events conspicuously show King Salman as the main reason behind the resumption of ties with Egypt as he was and is an accomplished, seasoned politician, enthusiastic and conscious of Egypt’s significant role in the Arab world.

Relations between the two countries is deeply entrenched which is clearly reflected in the mutual, agreements and strategic partnerships, the latest was signed last year during the visit of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to Egypt. It is worth nothing the downside role of some media outlets, which contributed toward widening the gap between the two countries, especially following Egypt's vote in the Security Council in the Syrian case.

On the occasion of the forthcoming Arab summit in Amman, Jordan, and considering the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ wisdom and vision who is basically the architect of the resumption of the Egyptian-Saudi relations, I would expect him to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to rescind ambiguity of some of the key Arab issues and that one concerning the bilateral political relations between the two countries, so to have a bright and clear future for a coercive Arab world, which currently enduring enough conflicts and civil wars, now we need to unify our outlook and approaches and that's exactly what we anticipate to realize in Amman summit.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Asharq al-Awsat on March 26, 2017.

Assaf bin Salem Abuthnain is currently a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council. He tweets @abosalman16.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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