Salman-Sisi Summit: Iran, Money, and Reconciliation

Ahmed Ghoneim Egypt, Middle East/North Africa, Saudi Arabia

 

I am not the biggest fan of these two esteemed gentlemen, and neither are they of each other for that fact, but the message here is clear and necessary: Iran, Hezbollah, Bashar Al-Assad et al your party shall be coming to an end soon. 

Riyadh and Cairo; once considered the central axis of the region, the imagined backbone of the Arab world has been shaken since the eruption of the Arab revolutions in 2011. The start of civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the pre-planned ousting of Morsi and the Muslim brotherhood, the death of King Abdullah, The Iranian nuclear deal with the p5+1 and Egypt’s economic volatility; rampant corruption and injustice have been sufficient to change the dynamics of the entire region. Once close friends and partners, have gradually developed diverging interests reminiscent of the 50’s and 60’s when Gamal Abd El Nasser and King Faisal engaged in an intense game of real-politik competing for leadership of the Arab world. Nevertheless after several leaked spats between the two Arab demagogues, which left the world wondering if the notion of being Arab is even relevant in today’s geopolitical map, order seems to have been restored. As usual it is not due to a sudden surge in pan-Arab sentiment or brotherly love, but rather a major crisis blindfolding us into another Nakba-like moment.


What were the on-going disagreements?

As eluded to previously, despite the kingdom’s endorsement of the military establishment after the removal of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, tensions between Cairo and Riyadh have recurrenty appeared in both nations’ foreign policy agenda. Starting from the voice-recording leaked last year when then Field Marshal Sisi essentially mocked the finances his Gulf partners possess by stating “They have money like rice”; rifts between Saudi Arabia and Egypt became more distinct. Adding more fuel to the fire during an Arab league summit in April 2015, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi asked for a letter written by Russian President Vladimir Putin to be read out, drawing the ire of the then Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who lashed out against Russia. The Syrian opposition was also not invited to the summit hosted in Sharm al-sheikh which may also have been interpreted as an attempt by Egypt to further court Moscow.

Nevertheless, both Egyptian and Saudi diplomats reassured the public that relations remained strong and that media coverage of diverging interests between the two Arab powers was mere speculation.

However signs of frustration and tension after the release of the recordings started to show amidst the Yemen crisis, where Egypt was not an ‘insider’ in terms of Gulf Cooperation Council talks regarding the growing threat of Iran as it is welcomed back by the international community. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s concern is that Iran now has significant influence in a number of major Arab cities such as, Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sana’a. More worryingly for Saudi Arabia, Iran is now looking at a brighter economic future post-sanctions as the country continues to prove extremely attractive to the international investment community. Noteworthy is that in response to Iran’s rising regional influence the Kingdom has recently pushed for Hezbollah to be condemned as a ‘terrorist organization’, a matter that has been endorsed by an overwhelming majority in the Arab league. The threat of Iran has meant Riyadh is also scrabbling to consolidate a unified Sunni bloc, which was illustrated through the announcement of an Islamic army to fight extremism. The issue here for Egypt is that reports and research has suggested that this campaign has also resulted in Saudi Arabia re-engaging with Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood as it fears alienating one of the Sunni worlds most organized groups in the region.

Saudi Arabia had deemed any political affiliation with the Muslim brotherhood as an act of terrorism in 2013. Cairo was assured by Saudi Arabia that it has its full support in its fight against the Ikhwan (Brotherhood). However after visits from Hamas, the Tunisian al-Nahda party, and the Yemeni al-Islah party; talks of the kingdom’s détente period with the brotherhood are not misplaced. This is not a stab in the back to Egypt, or even a tit-for-tat affair, however Riyadh’s policies do need the support of the Brotherhood. The objective of creating a Sunni coalition that would resist Iranian, or Shia expansion, in the region would be unachievable without the support of the largest and most organised network of Sunni Islamists across the Middle East. In Yemen for example, Al-Islah is perhaps the strongest force fighting alongside the coalition against the Iranian-funded Houthi rebels.

This is not the first time Saudi Arabia has worked with the Brotherhood, in the 1950s and 1960s the kingdom became a place of refuge for key figures from the Muslim Brotherhood who were being targeted by Nasser in Egypt, and Baathists in Syria and Iraq. Also during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Kingdom and the Brotherhood upheld a united front to export US-sponsored Mujahedeen to fight the invasion. In this case Saudi Arabia has chosen to give weight to the Brotherhood to contain Tehran’s influence and eliminate the threat of Iranian exported democratic–style Islamic revolution albeit frustrating their ‘friends’ in Cairo. For Egypt, and Al-Sisi’s government in particular, rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood is not an option as the current government continues to justify its authority by clamping down on terrorism and the brotherhood in particular.

 

Is the Saudi plan of a Suuni/Arab-Like NATO feasible?

The realization of an Arab NATO is an unrealistic project that does not have an appropriate framework of implementation. Billions of aid and investments sent to Egypt by Saudi and its Gulf neighbors were understood by some as a means to preserve Egypt’s military and ensure its support in the event of war. However as in 1990 when Egypt’s’ forces liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, the Arabs did not act alone but rather under the umbrella of US instructions and promises (Egypt was then promised to be relieved of half its foreign debt). Today a coalition would largely need to depend on Egypt’s armed forces that are by far the largest, most equipped and experienced out of its Arab counterparts. However, Egypt’s army is not modernized to the point that it would be able to respond to multiple threats across the Middle East. Egypt’s current struggle to contain the Sinai-based insurgency that has spilled over into the country’s mainland and tourist hubs is sufficient evidence of that. In reality despite the affordance of Gulf funding and efforts to revive a sense of pan–Arab unity, Arab countries have too many paralyzing differences to be able to operate as an effective force as NATO does.

Cairo is also not adamant about creating a pan-Sunni force that would involve any Turkish involvement as hostility between the two nations remains high. In turn President Erdogan has made it quite clear that he does not intend to have a sit-down with Sisi even if it means humiliating him in the 13th Islamic Summit conference due on 10-15 April. Yet, beyond pride and past differences, this ongoing repartee between Ankara and Cairo is a pivotal issue in the current geopolitical map of the region, and Saudi Arabia must act as a mediator between the two if it wants to have a viable chance of creating a Pan-Sunni alliance that could actually rattle Tehran and Co. This force must not only be a propaganda stunt or a loose coalition but a deeply entrenched and unshakable shield that does not leave the rest of the region exposed to Tehran-exported militias and interventions. More than defensive duties the force would also need to strike effectively and retain thousands of acres of Arab land exploited against the will of a majority of its people by malevolent forces such as Dae’sh and the Iranian regime.

 

So what has changed?

Despite the momentary illusion of a pan-Arab or pan-Sunni force, the reality is that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have realized that they need each other to survive and to prohibit the realization of a Persian overtake of the Middle East. The tentacles’ of the new Persian empire have come dangerously close to engulfing the entire Arab peninsula and frankly after the fall of Baghdad, Damascus , Sanaa and Beirut ; the rest of the Mashreq will not wait passively for the what is left to be gobbled up.

In this occasion King Salman and President Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi have chosen to silence critics, foreign press and rumors of ‘a divorce’ between them whilst comforting ‘their children’ in the process. “I agreed with my brother his Excellency president Abddel-Fattah al-Sisi to build a bridge connecting the two countries […..] This historic step to connect the two continents Africa and Asia is a qualitative transformation that will increase trade between the two continents to unprecedented levels” said King Salman. More details about this colossal infrastructure project were not revealed even though the initial plan announced in 2011 included a 32 kilometer bridge stretching over the Straits of Tiran from Ras Humaid in Tabruk , in the northern region of Saudi Arabia to Ras Nasrani close to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The Middle East Economic Digest (MEED) has also recently reported that the causeway may be developed in the port city of Safaga near Hurghada, Egypt’s largest red sea resort.

Of course to those familiar with the Egypt-Saudi relations the plans is no surprise considering it was first discussed as far back as 1988.  Still, it is a clear message of solidarity, a move that will boost economic ties, spark a series of planned causeways across the Middle East and more importantly a reaffirmation of a united stand against the next major debacle that has reached the shores of the Arab world.

However there remains a significant obstacle to this pan-Arab solidarity; and that is Egypt’s economic collapse, embarrassing corruption and unprecedented level of state repression.

 

Egypt must Change and Saudi Arabia must make that clear

Egypt, still lost after Nasser’s catastrophic economic plans, Sadaat’s ‘Infitah’ polices and Mubarak’s 30 year corrupt rule; is a country very much bankrupt and completely dependent on foreign aid and investment. The near collapse of the tourism industry, the lack of money flowing in from the new glorified Suez Canal expansion and massive defense spending has meant that Egypt has still not found a solution to its ‘bread’ problem. Cairo has realized that attracting foreign investment – a formidable task in this climate of uncertainty –  is the only route to salvation and the only way to avoid a third revolution in 5 years, one which will not call for freedom and human rights but rather food, water and electricity.  Such demands, if made on a mass scale, would be of a much more dangerous nature to the regime than on any other previous occasion.

As such, Egyptian ministers have flown to Riyadh almost weekly for meetings with their Saudi counterparts to secure much needed economic assistance. Sources have suggested that Saudi investment of approximately 4 billion will be announced this week in addition to 20 billion worth of deals to finance Egypt’s petroleum needs for the next 5 years. Egypt’s blind spot Sinai is also due to receive a fare portion of aid as Saudi Arabia has strategically promised 1.5 billion to develop the conflict-ridden region.

Nevertheless, rivers of money have been pumped in previously and have produced almost no effect. Thus King Salman’s visit may not only be a reaffirmation of friendship but also a chance to consult with his Egyptian counterparts over the mismanagement of funds. It is critical that these investments are put to good use and that Egypt does in fact address its energy needs, and most importantly push for a significant development of Sinai. The peninsula has had historic implications on Egyptian foreign policy and almost forced Cairo to befriend Israel, betray the Palestinian cause and spend billions to fight terrorism from within. Meanwhile the Arab tribes of Sinai have felt so neglected and marginalized after years of war that many have stopped even having allegiance to the flag.

Saudi Arabia must thus urge Sisi and his cabinet to act responsibly in the upcoming period to avoid another catastrophe in the Arab world’s most populous country.

In turn corruption and repression are two ills that Egypt eradicate, and fast. A prime example of how bad the situation has become was the recent dismissal of Egypt’s top auditor Hisham Geneina. In 2015, the auditor alleged that corruption exceeded 600 billion Egyptian pounds (70 billion U.S. dollars). However, a committee formed by President al-Sissi disputed the auditor’s estimate but still did not publish exact figures to rebuttal. In light of the Panama Papers and the crystal clear evidence of massive corruption allegedly committed by Mubarak’s sons and their cronies, I think it is safe to say that the auditor’s estimates were quite accurate if not lower than expected.

In terms of repression there is not much to say that has not already been said, considering the daily stream of disturbing news; illegitimate arrests, mass death sentences, criminalization of activists and return of the deep state from Port Said to Alexandria. However before I conclude I will leave you with one example that really does strike a nerve, and epitomizes what is going on in Egypt today. Mahmoud Hussein is a 20-year old Egyptian who has been imprisoned for more than two years without charge or trial; his crime; wearing a “Nation without Torture” t-shirt and a scarf with the logo of “25 January Revolution”. Yes this is a true story, but one of thousands of cases of injustice that have touched men, women, teenagers, children, disabled people and hundreds of thousands of families. The revolution has been reversed, stolen and taken away, but the reality is that a western-style democracy is not what the majority is after. Rather what we are clearly after is someone who can represent us and treat us with dignity, equality and provide the future generations with a homeland to look up to rather than one to hate, flee or escape from.

Mahmoud Hussein has been in prison since he was 18 and he may not see the light of day until he is in his mid 20’s if not later, this is not an upbringing, this is not a way to nurture love and loyalty for one’s country and this must stop if we plan to survive the wave of challenges ahead. Saudi Arabia alongside Egypt must ensure that such practices stop not only in Cairo but from Rabat to Riyadh, otherwise the Arab world’s fate this time around will have been doomed by its own leaders and not by ‘externally conspiring forces’.

 

Conclusion: We hope this meeting is what we want it to be

Apart from money invested, construction projects, and diplomatic messages of brotherhood expressed what we want from this meeting is truly a firm stance by both nations to confront the encroaching enemy. If you are Shia, a fellow Iranian, or an anti-Israeli Hezbollah supporter do not take the above in offence because this message is aimed to your leaders’ rather than to you. We do not need to divide our region more than it is already and to let the United States , Israel, Russia and Europe exploit our differences more than they have  but truth be told, the war has already started and we have all picked our sides. This is not because i am a Sunni Muslim this not because I am an Arab and this not because I am Egyptian but this is because I am human and I will not let my forefathers legacy, history, blood sweat and tears go for nothing as certain individuals plan out our Ummah’s path with some sort of perverse god-like legitimacy.

Please Arab and Sunni leaders make a stand at last, not for you, not for us, but for the generations to come. Mahmoud Hussein and all those like him deserve to grow up with the memory of the Tunisian uprising,  the 25th January revolution and not only with that of the collapse of Iraq, Libya,  Yemen, Syria and the absence of a Palestinian state and Bait al-Maqdis. Let us put our differences aside, defend our land, dignity and soul and finally stop watching passively as our world burns before our eyes.

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Political and Security Risk Analyst at a London-based risk management firm that works extensively with NGO’s, Developmental agencies, multinational corporations and humanitarians worldwide. Ghoneim’s work has focused more widely on the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa regions with a particular focus on Greece, Egypt and Syria. He has also produced numerous reports and analyses on the Sahel and West Africa regions covering developments in Nigeria, the Lake Chad basin, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. Ahmed is also engaged in grassroots initiatives in the UK and abroad, he is currently Head of Communications for Ramadan Tent Project an award winning charity whose patron is renowned writer and professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford Dr Tareq Ramadan. Ghoneim is also a regular contributor to international media outlets which have included MEED, BBC Arabic, The Arab Weekly, The International Interest and the European Interagency Security Forum. Fluent in English, Arabic, Greek and French; Ahmed has completed his undergraduate degree in Sociology at the University of Surrey and an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS University of London).