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Cairo-Riyadh Tension Rising Again

Egypt’s President Abdul Fatah Al Sisi sent a public message on October 16 related to Cairo-Riyadh ties, confirming that those ties are “unshakeable” and will not be affected by any misunderstanding. Furthermore, Sisi called for “better coordination” between the two countries to avoid any future tension.

However, tension between the two countries is too obvious to deny. Egypt voted in the UN Security Council in favor of a Russian resolution related to Syria that Riyadh rejected in principle. The Saudis responded by instructing Aramco to suspend shipping of refined oil products to the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation starting from October. Later, Aramco denied that there is a decision to discontinue the vital monthly cargos to Egypt. It explained the decision by the need to adapt production levels to a new energy policy in the Kingdom. A high level Egyptian delegation headed to Riyadh to discuss the matter, but no sign yet was detected of a resumption of the shipments.

The episode was followed by intense and unusual mutual attacks in the media of each of the two countries against the other. Riyadh’s ambassador went back to his country. It is not clear why the ambassador left Cairo. Egypt’s authorities said he returned to work on a solution to the crisis, but he may have been summoned back in protest.

Many fireworks soon surrounded the story. An Iranian marginal publication said that Iran can replace Saudi Arabia by sending discounted oil products to Egypt with easy terms of payments. Another said it can send 10 million pilgrims to Egypt annually to visit historic Shia shrines built when Egypt was ruled by the Shia Fatimid Dynasty (909 1171). And the Egyptian media tried to blow in the fire with calls to respect independence and need to respect Egypt’s sovereign decision. All the while, some Saudi commentators started in turn to count Saudi previous assistance to Cairo hinting that the financial aid was stolen. The atmosphere was poisoned by the unrestrained media attacks.

The differences between Saudi Arabia and Egypt concerning the Syrian and Yemeni crises are not new. Cairo resists the rise of any Jihadist movement or Islamists in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Riyadh looks at an Islamist group from two pragmatic perspectives: The potential impact on Iran’s incursions in the region since 2011 and the condition of refraining from global terrorism.

A common ground between the two central regional powers already exists. This makes disputes between them a mainly subjective contingency-that is to say secondary and easy to solve if they both decide to discuss it and limit it to manageable differences. Furthermore, this crisis happens in a critical moment in terms of regional security. This fact should compel the two countries to brush aside any subjective views and move quickly to end the dispute and manage their differences on ground of common objectives. Both countries are too important to regional stability to allow their differences to go uncontrolled.

It is understandable that Cairo does not want to see Jihadist groups winning in Syria. This ultimately threatens the national security of Egypt and risks of planting Al Qaeda deep in the heart of the Middle East. But instead of standing against any reasonable solution in Syria, Cairo should seek a more practical approach to the crisis there. Any solution that ends with Assad remaining in power is no solution. Therefore, a different approach than that seen by Assad-Russia-Iran axis is not merely a “concession” to the Saudis, it is rather the only possible solution to really prevent radicals from gaining power in Syria.

But this problem of seeking a policy that is essentially maximalist does not surface only in Cairo; it can be detected in Saudi Arabia as well as almost all of the region’s nations.

The art of building a coalition, by its own definition, is an art of compromise. When Riyadh seeks gathering the Arab countries in one line to repel Iran’s regional expansion, it should be ready for a laborious endeavor of give and take. No country can draw a fine line and invite all parties to walk exactly on it, without one inch of deviation, even if deviation is sometimes is dictated by the partners’ own national interest.

Egypt’s main concerns are currently domestic in nature. Riyadh’s concerns are mostly regional. It is not an overstatement to say that both sets of concerns are based on existential threats. None of the two countries should expect the other to give up its own concerns and move to adopt the others’. Sisi is fighting an uphill battle in a country where nothing stands right. If Sis collapses, regional security will dramatically deteriorate. His success is success to Saudia Arabia’s own agenda. Saudi Arabia is fighting an Iran that becomes more dangerous and more ambitious by the day. On this ground, the two sides should search for ways to help each other, not to confront each other.

Saudi Arabia provided Egypt with some very important aid packages in very critical moments. Egypt is defending the GCC when it fights its own terrorists, Jihadists and other versions of political Islam. If any of those forces control Egypt, none of the GCC nations will be safe.

It is time for a gesture from any of the two countries to end this small crisis. It is time that President Sisi visits Riyadh, or one of the Saudi principle leaders visits Cairo to mend fences. It will take only few hours of candid talks between the leadership of the two countries to end this distraction.        

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