Egypt and Saudi set for new period of co-operation?
King Salman Bin Abdelaziz of Saudi Arabia’s visit to Egypt, which started on April 7, 2016, carried particular importance for a number of reasons. First, it coincided with the rising threats faced by countries in the Middle East. These threats come from various sources, whether it’s the increased involvement of regional powers in the domestic matters of other countries or the increased of activity from terrorist organizations trying to move into new locations having come under attack from the “international coalition” in Syria and Iraq. Second, it provided numerous indications that there is an increased awareness both in Cairo and Riyadh of the importance of allied action and coordination between the two parties to confront these threats. This, however, does not negate the fact that there are discrepancies in the policies of the two parties regarding some regional issues. These discrepancies mainly stem from each country’s calculations and vision of various possible directions these issues could take and their potential effects on their safety and interests. Third, it aimed to increase the level of cooperation of the two parties. The visit culminated in the signing of a number of agreements totaling around $25 billion in various sectors, including the economy, education, health and population, and infrastructure.
What is interesting in context, however, is the signing by both parties on a maritime borders agreement, which has received a lot of attention due to the controversies it has stirred. The controversy does not negate the fact that the signing of the agreement in the first place reflects a regional direction in the Middle East to start resolving border issues, one of which was between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The past period, especially 2015, has seen a number of countries in the region signing agreements to define their borders, in addition to other countries taking procedural steps in that direction.
In May, 2015, during the visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Jawad Zarif to Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, the two countries signed a maritime border agreement delineating the countries’ borders in the Sea of Oman. In April, 2015, during the trilateral summit held in Nicosia, Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece reiterated the importance of increasing negotiations regarding the delineation of their maritime borders. In January, 2016, Mali and Mauritania continued negotiations to determine their borders, and in March, 2016, Sudan announced the creation of a national commission to determine its borders with neighboring countries. These steps taken by region’s countries stem from their desire to increase coordination and contain border-related disputes, as well as face some of the threats that arise from cross-border smuggling activities.
The issue of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, unlike border issues between several other countries in the region, has not been subject to any clear dispute or escalation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It never rose to the level of a conflict between the two countries, indicating their desire to keep the issue consensual without affecting their strategic relations. This was clearly reflected in King Salman’s most recent visit to Cairo.
The controversies that arose about the border agreement did not retract from the importance attached to the visit, which has been received well by many different groups. This may stem from the sheer number of agreements signed by the two countries in various fields, amounting to $25 billion, or to the fact that it was a 5-day visit during which King Salman visited the Egyptian parliament, Cairo University, and al-Azhar, as well as meeting with a number of Egyptian public figures, including Grand Imam of al-Azhar Dr. Ahmad al-Tayeb and Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark. All of which reflects the importance the two parties place on supporting bilateral relations on both the official and popular levels.
It was made clear during the visit that Egypt and Saudi Arabia both made use of it to broadcast a number of regional messages. The message that there is an agreed-upon alignment between Cairo and Riyadh on the importance of developing an institutional mechanism to fight terrorism, which has become a threat to the safety and interests of the countries of the region. This was made clear when King Salman expressed his hope for the formation of a joint Arab force as soon as possible and the confirmation from Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jbeir that this does not contradict the Islamic alliance Saudi Arabia has called for and which Egypt has joined.
Riyadh and Cairo are careful to put aside any lingering disputes in handling the various regional issues, which cannot be separated from the fact that many indicators point to possible upcoming calm in a number of them. In Yemen, Kuwait is hosting peace negotiations between the Houthis and the Yemeni government in parallel with the beginning of the ceasefire on April 10, 2016, to support the peaceful resolution the United Nations is trying to achieve. In Syria, the third round of Geneva negotiations between the Syrian opposition delegation and the Syrian regime are starting on April 13 with the aim of reaching a joint agreement on the various points of contention. In Libya, the likelihood of the Libyan Government of National Accord, led by Fayez Al-Sarraj, receiving a vote of trust from parliament in Tubruk is increasing, which will be the first step in preparing to fight terrorist organizations in Libya, the agreement receiving special attention from numerous regional and international players.
Increasing the level of cooperation and coordination will help the two countries stand up to numerous attempts from regional powers to intervene in the internal affairs of Arab nations. The prime example of this is Iran, which is trying to use the nuclear agreement and the noticeable change in the policies of international powers, including the United States, towards it to promote its regional role, with no regard to the negative repercussions of this role on the security and stability of some countries in the region.
In light of all the above, it would be safe to say that King Salman’s visit to Egypt indicates a new period of coordination and cooperation between the two parties in the face of traditional and non-traditional threats that now have a direct effect on the security and interests of both Cairo and Riyadh.