Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Egypt and Saudi Arabia: A storm in a teacup? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A well-known and professional Al-Arabiya TV presenter asked me whether what happened between Saudi Arabia and Egypt was “a storm in a teacup”, and whether following this we will see the happy ending that characterizes Arabic cinema where good triumphs over evil, the hero marries the girl, everybody begins re-building after a period of dramatic destruction, or the protagonist finally reaches safety after a period of suffering where fear prevailed. This question was asked during an interval between statements made by optimists who spoke at length about the close relationship between the two countries, their mutual interests, and the historic instances when the two allies supported one another during crises, and so on. If this is truly the case, then there can be no doubt that what happened must have been a “storm in a teacup.”

I was asked this question before the visit of the high-level Egyptian delegation, led by Egyptian Parliamentary Speaker Dr. Saad al-Katatni, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where it appeared that the crisis – or shall we say the love – between Egypt and Saudi Arabia unified the Egyptians more than any other issue could have. The reality is that the Egyptian delegation travelled to Riyadh at a time when the mood in Egypt was very unhappy; this took place at a time when the Egyptian Ministry of Defense was being besieged by protesters, whilst the division between the cabinet and parliament is ongoing, and the rift between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] is deepening. This is not to mention the clamor that is taking place as a result of the forthcoming presidential elections and everything else that is distinguishing the Egyptian scene today. Despite all this, the Egyptian delegation travelled to Saudi Arabia as if it was representing everybody, as if this were the first [united] Egyptian national front since the outbreak of the revolution, in order to heal the rift in this strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Despite all this my answer to the TV presenter’s question as to whether what was happening was a “storm in a teacup” was in the negative, and I stressed that this issue must be dealt with the requisite seriousness. I have no problem whatsoever in the description of a “close” relationship between the two countries, nor those who claim that there has been a “strategic partnership” between Egypt and Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the 1970s until today, even if it is not precisely described in this manner. In fact, I would like to add to such descriptions, as we must recall that there are 1.2 million Egyptians residing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whilst there are also 500,000 Saudi nationals who are residing – in one form or another – in Egypt. With human relations inexorably comes investment and economy, whilst the geographic and historical ties between the two countries are clear to see. As for details regarding immigrants and their descendants, these can fill folders. However what was bothering me was that if the description regarding the closeness of the Saudi – Egyptian relations are true – and this is 100 percent true – then why did this crisis which led to the Saudi ambassador to Egypt being recalled and the Saudi embassy in Cairo being closed, happen in the first place?

The issue here is so serious because it does not end with the return of Saudi ambassador to Egypt Ahmed al-Qattan, nor with claims that this entire affair was just a “storm in a teacup” and not with remembering, and that the happy days will return once more. This will not resolve the contradiction between reality and this individual incident, and how such a close and trusting bilateral relationship could be set ablaze with just a small spark? More dangerous than this, we must ask the question: why is it that from time to time – whenever an incident takes place in one of Cairo’s hotels involving a Saudi national, or an incident involving an Egyptian national working in Saudi Arabia – does this lead to diplomatic incidents between the countries in question? Why, despite everything that we said, do we find battalions of media figures prepared to roll up their sleeves and say that all the evil is coming from Saudi Arabia, or that the Egyptians do not know how well they have it?

With every “individual” incident – and all such incidents are individual – this affects the heart of Egyptian – Saudi relations, and ultimately moves this relationship towards destruction, despite the strong historic and strategic dimensions of these bilateral ties. What is even more serious is that even if we are to assume that this was permissible in the past – and it was not – then it is most certainly not permissible today, particularly as the region is now in need of strong Egyptian – Saudi relations, or Egyptian – Gulf relations in general. The aftershocks from the earthquake that struck the Arab world last year continue to strike the region and change its features, affecting social groups and segments of our society, and reforming the regional balances of power in an unprecedented manner since the 1950s.

I have explained the details of these changes in previous articles, and I will continue to follow up on this in the future, however we are still in the early stages, and the aftershocks are becoming earthquakes in themselves, and we cannot maintain regional balances and stability or guide the region to safety unless the balance of power is sound. To be frank, there are some chronic problems in the Egyptian – Saudi relations that are not being dealt with with the required prudence.

To be even more frank, the Egyptian – Saudi relations are of such importance that they should not be left for diplomats alone. The reality is that both countries have different political and legal systems that must be well-known to both parties; these should not be reviewed and rediscovered each time one of these non-incidents – which are characterized by transgression in one form or another – takes place. Rather, this is a case of ambush in which one party is seeking to harm another. This is an important issue, not just with regards to the number of such incidents that take place, particularly as we are talking about two million people, not to mention pilgrims; therefore such incidents will naturally occur, but the reverberations of these incidents transgress the underlying nature in the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

There is also a need for a permanent committee of strategic understanding between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose major political objective would be to strengthen the joint-vision during this historical transitional period, in addition to resolving such individual incidents that crop up from time to time. There is nothing wrong in understanding that such crises may arise when a country is subject to certain circumstances regarding the domestic state of affairs, as is the case with Egypt today, and it therefore becomes more sensitive to incidents such as this than normal. This committee must know that one of the rules of international relations is that the closer and deeper relations between two countries, the more chance this will result in counter-alliances and mutual enemies working openly or secretly to destroy the trust in such relations. Here the media is the sharpest and easiest weapon to use in such circumstance, as it is easy to exaggerate the facts, particularly as nobody knows the major projects in Saudi Arabia that Egyptians have contributed to or the extent of the investment made by Saudi Arabians in Egypt. Nobody knows the number of families who share ties to both countries, or the history of mixed families and tribes. What is no less important than this is the future where there is not just a bridge of ties between these two countries, but a translation of social, economic and strategic relations that is capable of dealing with any “storm in a teacup”.