In a deepening rift between the Arab world’s richest country and its most populous, Saudi Arabia informed Egypt that oil shipments expected under a US$23 billion aid deal have been halted indefinitely.
Thus, Riyadh is unlikely to have been surprised by Egypt’s decision to begin exploring international energy markets.
The country that imports 4.2 million tons of its gas and petroleum products per month out of the required 6.5 million quickly sprung into action, signing a memorandum of understanding with Azerbaijan’s state oil company for up to 2 million barrels of crude.
The deal signed late last month was quickly followed by a farm-out agreement with Kuwait Energy Plc, giving Egypt’s state oil buyer a 20% participating interest in its Siba field in Iraq.
But the government in Riyadh was probably a lot more surprised at the news that Egypt’s oil minister Tarek al-Molla was planning a trip to its “regional rival”, Iran.
Cracks in the strategic partnership
Today everyone is talking about tectonic political and military shifts across the Middle East. But an interesting undercurrent in the region is often ignored.
The increasingly icy relationship between the Arab world’s most influential states is not just threatening their strategic partnership but the region’s entire “Sunni” alliance – the greatest asset in Riyadh’s regional foreign policy strategy.
“Egyptian and Saudi governments pursue different agendas in the region and the big brother [Washington] is not capable of making these agendas match,” said Middle East expert, Hazem Salem.
For Cairo, the new agenda appears to focus on the restoration of Egyptian sovereignty, and with it a foreign policy suited to its own national interests rather than those of other countries.
Unfortunately for the monarchs in Riyadh, those interests differ drastically from their own, especially when it comes to Syria and Libya.
Those differences were on full display at a United Nations Security Council meeting in October when Egypt vetoed a Saudi-backed draft resolution calling for an end to air strikes targeting terrorists in Aleppo.
Following the vote, the Saudi envoy to the UN, Abdullah al-Muallami, dubbed Egypt’s stance as “painful” adding, “Sengal and Malaysia were much closer to the agreed Arab position.”
Less then a week later, experts described the sudden departure of the Saudi ambassador to Egypt as further proof of a widening rift between the two countries.
Further evidence that the relationship was unraveling came in the form of a major setback for a deal to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. The deal reached earlier this year is now bogged down in an Egyptian court, facing legal challenges.
According to Salem, “the Saudis wanted to be part of the strategic security arrangements in the Red Sea which involves Israel and gets Saudi Arabia indirectly involved in the peace process and the Camp David Accords, and that’s why Saudi Arabia wanted the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir.”
It’s now or never
Persian Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, have pumped an estimated US$25 billion into Egypt’s flagging economy since General Abdel Fattah Sisi took over, ending the Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived reign.
But Saudi Arabia’s investment in Egypt was not a humanitarian gesture.
Riyadh was buying Sisi’s loyalty and expecting his full support on the regional stage. The Egyptian military -the largest in the region- was effectively being bought to serve as a Saudi force in the case of an Iranian-Saudi military confrontation.
However, Sisi has not only been reluctant to back Riyadh’s bloody military campaign in Yemen, but has also expressed his support for Russia’s campaign in Syria, which is annihilating Saudi proxies.
“Both Riyadh and Cairo had higher expectations from each other, but once the expectations faltered, things began to unfold in this negative way…Egypt viewed Saudi Arabia as a bag of money and thought that for every pro-Saudi step that Egypt took it should be rewarded with money or oil,” opined Salem.
The new reality in the Middle East was likely viewed in Cairo as the opportune moment to save Egypt from becoming a Saudi satellite. The Russian military intervention in Syria upset both the global and regional balance of power, and Sisi realized that he would not get another opportunity like this – it was now or never.
Cairo’s efforts to carve out an independent foreign policy were best demonstrated through its negotiations with Moscow over the establishment of a Russian military air base in Egypt’s Sidi Barrani, which housed a Soviet facility until 1972.
A visit to Cairo by Syria’s National Security Bureau chief, Ali Mamlouk, in September was also telling.
The Cairo visit, which was reportedly Mamlouk’s first foreign trip in years, focused – on the surface at least – on bilateral security cooperation to confront terrorism. But the meeting between Mamlouk and Sisi suggests that Egypt is moving a lot closer towards the Russia-Iran-Syria bloc than the Saudis had ever assumed possible.
Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Egypt’s Petroleum Minister was planning to visit Iran to try and strike new oil deals. However, the news was quickly dismissed by both Tehran and Cairo, amid reports that the trip was cancelled after it was made public.
For its part, Iran has been eager to improve relations with Egypt for years, suggesting that a high-level meeting in Tehran is only a matter of time.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif has already held talks with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri on the sidelines of this year’s UN General Assembly in New York, as the two countries find themselves on the same page over the conflict in Syria.
Interestingly, Cairo also appears to be looking for a way out of the Yemen quagmire. Prolonged instability in Yemen is a major hazard to Egypt’s national security interests, as it threatens Red Sea shipping lanes and could potentially endanger smooth sailing through the Suez Canal.
To what degree Sisi’s government succeeds in moving out of Saudi Arabia’s shadow is still an open question. Aside from the suspended oil shipments, Riyadh continues to inject capital into the struggling Egyptian economy. But recent developments have exposed serious ripples in the regional Saudi-led alliance system, which could soon be facing existential challenges.
26-11-2016 | 08:01
Filed under: al-Sisi, Egypt, GCC, Iran, IRAQ, Libya, Saudia, Tiran and Sanafir, War on Syria | Comments Off on The Faltering Saudi-Egyptian Relationship