Just when you thought the MENA region could not churn out any more crises... This time two giants are locking horns over conflicting geopolitical ambitions, or rather, Saudi Arabia might have overstepped one boundary too many against Egypt.
With so many eyes locked in on Aleppo, much of Cairo and Riyadh’s belligerent political foreplay has gone largely unnoticed, labelled by most as unimportant in comparison to the Syrian furore.
Without taking anything away from the breath-taking advances the Syrian Army has accomplished against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in Aleppo – a victory we know will change the course of the war forever, and firmly assert Syria as a grand pillar of resistance against the insanity of covert western imperialism, Egypt’s growing ire towards the kingdom could lead to a tectonic political shift of such magnitude that it could spell the end of all Persian Gulf monarchies. And just like that, the ghost of President Gamal Abdel Nasser is coming back to haunt Riyadh's golden palaces.
Call it poetic justice if you like, but there is a certain irony to Saudi Arabia’s mounting arrogance, since every move it has played towards expanding its gravitas in the region has in fact diminished its relevance... and bled its coffers dry.
Yes, undeniably, the kingdom is still wealthy, but like any other nation, its core power lies in its ability to coerce others to its will. And, if Riyadh has played its chequebook like a violin, the war in Yemen and mounting dissent within the ranks of its political and military coalition have taken much wind out of Saudi Arabia’s political sails.
As it turns out, the Saudi lobby might have overestimated its traction.
It all began in April 2016, when Egypt was still keen to assuage Riyadh’s concerns over its political choices in exchange for a healthy injection of cash into its stressed economy. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s infatuation with King Salman would be short lived though, being far more motivated by money than ideology.
Saudi Arabia’s core power is tied to its wealth, not its ability to inspire nations.
But back to Egypt.
In exchange for a series of lucrative contracts and promised diplomatic support, Egypt agreed to transfer some of its territorial integrity to the kingdom by ceding control over two of its islands: Tiran and Sanafir. Located at the southern entry to the Gulf of Aqaba, where both Israel and Jordan maintain important ports, the islands are of great geopolitical importance, so much so in fact that Tel Aviv has long coveted them for itself.
Egyptians were not exactly pleased. In fact, news of the deal ignited an impassioned debate on the legality of the move, since Egyptian territorial integrity is the cornerstone of the Egyptian Constitution.
Taking to social media to express outrage, Hamdeen Sabahi, once a presidential hopeful (2014), denounced the planned handover, saying it went against the Egyptian Constitution which prohibits ceding territory. As he called for a complete withdrawal of the agreement, Sabahi implied Riyadh was taking advantage of Egypt’s economic vulnerability to play empire-building.
Egypt was angry – so angry that Sisi had to concede a parliamentary review. Saudi Arabia’s deal was dead in the water before it could take its first breath.
This one incident has now metamorphosed into a full-blown spat, as each party has raised its fists in defiance, keen to remind the other just how mighty they can be if pushed too far.
And so the dance began!
The first real blow came when Egypt voted this October in favor of Russia’s draft proposal on Syria to the United Nations Security Council, thus directly positioning itself against Saudi Arabia and its ambition to see Syrian President Bashar Assad fall from power. In an analysis for al-Monitor, Khalid Hassan wrote: “The draft was unacceptable to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which seeks to depose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and which viewed Egypt’s vote for the resolution as a deviation from the Arab position.”
Riyadh responded in kind this November when it froze all oil imports to Egypt. Reuters reported: “Saudi Arabia has informed Egypt that shipments of oil products expected under a $23 billion aid deal have been halted indefinitely, suggesting a deepening rift between the Arab world's richest country and its most populous.”
Note that Riyadh’s snub came as Egyptian Oil Minister Tarek El Molla was rumored to have scheduled a visit to Iran, as part of an economic and energy broadening effort.
Whether Egyptian officials will break bread with their Iranian counterparts in the near future or not is irrelevant. What matters are long-term political alignments, and if anything, the past few months have proven that Cairo and Riyadh sit on very different political tables altogether. As for Iran, experience has proven that for every misstep the Kingdom has taken, Tehran’s traction has amplified tenfold. When one needs only to sit still to grow in strength, the impatient tend to miscalculate.
Although a reconciliation with Egypt is still possible, Saudi Arabia’s latest stunt in the Horn of Africa is likely to further aggravate grievances, and awaken Egypt’s national anger.
Earlier this December, news broke that Saudi Arabia would open a military base in Djibouti. The Egyptians were not amused.
The New Arab quoted an official Egyptian source as saying: “Cairo is totally against the deal because it considers Djibouti to be under the Egyptian sphere of influence and because its location is important for national security... This move goes against the generally accepted customs between Arab countries as the area has a direct influence on the passage of ships towards the Suez Canal. If Saudi Arabia wants to ensure that Iran does not take control of the area, that is understandable – however, this must take place with Egyptian oversight and permission.”
But why is the Horn of Africa so crucial to Egypt’s national security? One word: water.
A dispute over access to water resources in the region would ignite an existential struggle which would explode the MENA and feed dangerous fires given Africa’s recent descent into radicalism. Nigeria comes to mind.
I will say this: the kingdom’s belligerence will only further strengthen those resistance movements which have emerged across the MENA, each in reaction to both imperialism and Wahhabism.
How long before those different movements merged into one to tumble al-Saud’s house, and like dominoes those monarchies fall...