A Tense Period for Egyptian/Saudi Relations

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Last week, protests against Riyadh’s decision to press charges against an Egyptian human rights lawyer forced the closure of the Saudi Arabian embassy and the withdrawal of the Saudi ambassador to Egypt. Even though the embassy has been reopened since and the ambassador returned, the fallout highlighted the challenges that exist for both countries in the aftermath of the regional transformation brought about from the Arab Spring.

Immediately following the protests, the Lebanese Daily Star editorial tried to soften the reality of what had just happened, while gently reminding the Egyptians that it wasn’t enough to say “It was a mob mentality that drove Egyptians to take the law into their own hands, and the country and its people may come to regret those actions…An effective government would pour its attention and resources into shoring up the country’s shaky finances, and ensuring its citizens have jobs to keep food on their tables…Authorities in Egypt must work to prove this is an isolated incident and not a model for future relations with countries, especially those that it will undoubtedly rely upon as it builds a hopefully strong nation.”

But others were not so subtle. Asharq Alawsat’s Adel Al-Toraifi makes it clear why he thinks the Saudi action was necessary: “The recent attack on the Saudi Embassy is not the first of its kind….The Saudis had to choose between accepting the abuse launched by some — I do not say all — towards the Saudi leadership and people, or responding firmly to it, even though this would impact upon bilateral relations between the two countries…Relations between the two countries will not return to how they were before unless the vision of those who want to consolidate Egypt’s interests with Saudi Arabia overcomes those who advocate change. Thus we should lend support to the voices of friendship in confrontation with the advocates of division. This will not be possible if any party resorts to fuelling the division and justifying this with distorted stereotypes of the other party.”

For Hussein Shobokshi, what was particularly damning for Cairo was that it “all happened amidst the strange silence of the Egyptian government, which argued that it too was on the receiving end of criticisms and insults. Yet such an excuse is not acceptable….Saudi-Egyptian relations are significant and vital, yet the appropriate atmosphere must be ensured for them to remain safe and secure, a situation that does not exist today. The measures taken by Saudi Arabia are the minimum required in view of this overclouded climate of mistrust. Al-Gizawi is not the story here…[t]he real story is that important relations between countries must be safeguarded.”

Moreover, as Doaa El Bey notes on the pages of Al Ahram, “The detention of El-Gizawi in Saudi Arabia…also cast light on issues such as the role played by Egyptian embassies abroad, the fate of Egyptian prisoners detained in Saudi Arabia, and the post-revolutionary opinions of the Egyptian people….Demonstrators in front of the Saudi embassy in Cairo protested against the arrest of El-Gizawi, and the chaotic scenes may point to serious post-revolutionary problems among Egyptians. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, defended the protests as a reflection of Egyptians wanting to stand up for their rights and preserve the dignity of fellow citizens visiting, living or working in Arab countries.”

While some of the facts on the events are well-known it is less clear who exactly was behind the protests at the Saudi embassy. Sparing the countries no blushes, Al Hayat’s Jameel Theyabi writes, “What is certain is that the Saudi decision was necessary and was met with wide popular support, but there should be no media slide behind the actions of the foolish, the rowdy and the hypocrites who want to ruin the relations between two major and brotherly countries at a critical stage in the history of the Arab world and at the level of these relations. In reality, the Egyptians are emotional and love Saudi Arabia just like the Saudis perceive Egypt as being a brotherly, great and very dear state.”

For others, like Emad El Din Adeeb, it is clear where the strength of the relationship lies: “What is interesting about the relations between Cairo and Riyadh is that relations were always immensely strong at the upper levels, but extremely fragile at the lower levels….I imagine that a joint ministerial committee for Egypt and Saudi Arabia may meet soon to discuss several urgent bilateral issues, and I also imagine that a permanent crises management subcommittee may be formed, incorporating the ambassadors of both countries and a number of experts and public figures, to undertake instant and prompt handling of any emerging crisis before it erupts.”

Yet, there are some fingers pointing in familiar directions outside of the country. In an op-ed for the Egyptian Gazette, Mohssen Arishie suggests “The truth the Saudi ambassador refused to tell is that these anti-Saudi protests were part of a bigger conspiracy concocted overseas and implemented by local agents (including U.S.-funded NGOs) to undermine post-revolution Egypt politically and economically….The Israeli and Saudi embassies were chosen deliberately. On the one hand, Israel signed a peace accord with Egypt that ended the hostilities between the two countries. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia pledged its economic and financial support to Egypt in view of the post-revolution problems. By renewing the hostilities with Israel and denying Egypt’s dying economy the kiss of life from Arab Gulf countries led by Riyadh, the SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) will be seen as too inefficient and impotent to hold the fragmented Egypt firmly together.”

In the midst of this debate, Hamad Al-Majid tries to find something positive from this incident: “The silver lining of this issue is that a broad category on the Egyptian side has requested in a civilized manner that the Saudi authorities grant al-Gizawi the right to a fair trial with a lawyer to defend him. At the same time, this category has condemned what a small minority of the Egyptian people did in front of the Saudi embassy. Similarly, there is also a broad category of Saudi people who saw the attack on their embassy as an act of aggression limited to a handful of people, maintaining their love and appreciation for the Egyptians in general, and also attacking those Saudis who made generalizations and unfair judgments.”

Ultimately, after days of rising tensions between the two countries, in an announcement posted on the Saudi Gazette, the Saudi monarch “King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, told the Council of Ministers here Monday that his directive to reopen the Saudi Embassy in Cairo and the Kingdom’s consulates in Alexandria and Suez came in response to the noble and sincere feelings expressed by a high-level Egyptian delegation representing all sections of Egyptian society and also because of the history linking the two countries….The decision was announced after the high-ranking Egyptian delegation called on the King. The Egyptian delegation, headed by Parliament Speaker Dr. Saad El-Katatni and the head of the Shoura Council Ahmed Fahmy, arrived in Riyadh Thursday on a mission to defuse tensions.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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