Riyadh, Sunday April 23, 2017
The fickleness of Arabian potentates was again on display today as the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fatah el Sisi landed in Riyadh. The aged and dementia-afflicted Saudi King Salman received him at the airport as Sisi stepped off the plane. Did Salman recognize the balding man from Cairo?
The visit was described as aimed at “boosting ties” after months of tension between the Arab world’s most oppressive regimes. The Egyptians had already announced the visit on April 21. An official statement from the Egyptian presidency said Sisi’s trip was in response to an invitation by Salman and aimed at “bolstering strategic relations between the two countries.”
The statement further said Salman and Sisi would discuss “regional and international issues of common interest.” It is not difficult to see what these issues are. The Egyptians are facing a serious challenge from Saudi-backed terrorists that Cairo’s security forces have failed to curb despite adopting brutal tactics.
“The struggle against terrorism which threatens security and stability” in the region and beyond would top their agenda, the Egyptians said. Would Sisi be able to ask Salman to stop sending takfiri terrorists to Egypt? This is unlikely. Besides, the Saudis use the takfiri terrorists to advance their own agenda to destabilize countries they do not like.
Clear evidence of this is provided by developments in Syria and Iraq.
The Saudis had financed Sisi’s military coup of July 2013 overthrowing the first-ever democratically elected government in the history of Egypt. They not only paid $5 billion in immediate handouts but also mobilized fellow Arabian potentates to provide $13 billion to shore up the crumbling Egyptian economy.
The Saudi oil company, Aramco, had also agreed to provide 700,000 tons of petroleum products that were abruptly halted last October amid growing rift between the two regimes, especially after Egypt voted in favor of a Russian resolution at the UN Security Council relating to Syria. The Saudis were opposed to the resolution.
The Security Council resolution proved the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back (or Saudi-Egyptian relations).
Relations had already become tense over ownership of two islands—Tiran and Sanafir—at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba near Sharm el-Sheikh.
Exactly a year ago, the Sisi regime agreed to hand over the two islands to Saudi Arabia in return for some more bakhsheesh (for the record, the two islands have been under Egyptian control for more than 70 years!). Egypt is a basket case and cannot survive without handouts.
The decision led to uproar in Egypt, even one under a brutal dictator. A court challenge was mounted and in January of this year, an Egyptian court ruled that the government had failed to provide convincing evidence that the islands belonged to Saudi Arabia.
Relations between the two regimes deteriorated further. Saudi-backed terrorist strikes intensified in Egypt while Sisi sought support elsewhere. He tried to revive relations with Russia as well as made overtures to Iran sending his foreign minister to Tehran last February. This caused alarm in Riyadh.
The Jordanians stepped in realizing that tensions between the strongest Arabian country—Egypt—and the richest—Saudi Arabia—would undermine all of them.
During the Arab League summit in Jordan on March 29, Sisi and Salman met, courtesy of the Jordanians, and resumed kissing and rubbing noses. Did Sisi apologize for the spat over the islands? It appears to be the case although he cannot do anything about the handover since an Egyptian court has ruled against it.
Rather than let two uninhabited islands spoil relations between them, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have decided to patch-up. Aramco also resumed oil supplies following the Arab League summit meeting. Sisi’s visit to Riyadh is the next step in this tortuous saga.
The American factor must also be taken into consideration. Donald Trump received Sisi at the White House on April 3 and described him as a “strong leader” and ally. American Defence Secretary, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis’ followed this by a visit to Riyadh on April 19.
Soon after Mattis left Riyadh, the Saudi regime announced two changes. Information Minister Adel al Toraifi was sacked and Salman appointed his own pilot son, Khalid bin Salman as ambassador to Washington. This announcement was made on April 22.
The new information minister will be Awwad bin al-Awwad, hitherto Saudi ambassador to Germany.
What these changes indicate—especially at the information ministry—is that anti-Sisi diatribe on Saudi television and other media outlets would stop. After all, if Sisi and Salman are now on kissing terms, it hardly behooves the regime’s media to be insulting the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Sisi wants bakhsheesh but what do the Saudis want in return? Reports from Riyadh say that they are pressing the Egyptians to send ground troops to Yemen where the Saudis have demonstrably failed to achieve their objectives despite a two-year long brutal war.
Would Sisi oblige given Egypt’s disastrous experience of the 1960s and 1970s in Yemen? It would depend on how desperate he is for money.