With much press coverage on Syria, scant attention has been paid to the Saudi-Egypt rift, and China’s rising influence as a crucial player in Egypt and the Middle East.
Rift over Syria
The Riyadh-Cairo spat began in April 2016, when Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi agreed to cede territorial integrity over two of its islands in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir, in exchange for a series of lucrative contracts and promise of Riyadh’s diplomatic support.
However, ceding territory prompted outrage from the Egyptian population, with former presidential hopeful (2014) Hamdeen Sabahi denouncing it violated the Egyptian Constitution, and provoked attacks on Sisi’s legitimacy for subjugating the once proud Arab nation of Egypt to the Saudis. The Egyptian court subsequently nullified the deal, only to be overturned in September, with the possibility of being appealed once more. Currently it is still unclear whether the two islands will remain with Egypt or be annexed by Saudi Arabia, punctuating what Issandr El Amrani from the International Crisis Group describes as a relationship “based on a kind of asymmetric passive-aggressive perpetual renegotiation.”
In October the rift widened when Tehran invited Egypt to join international talks over Syria, and days later Cairo voted for Russia’s UN Security Council resolution that backed the Syrian government. Riyadh retaliated by cutting off 700,000 tons of refined oil products as part of US$23 billion deal signed earlier this year.
Despite Egypt enjoying good ties with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in the past, relationship soured after he was replaced by King Salman who is friendlier towards the Muslim Brotherhood—which Egypt considers a terrorist group. As such Sisi began to distance Cairo from the pro-Islamist axis of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar in the Middle East. The Obama administration’s support for the Brotherhood further fuels Egypt’s sense of betrayal, compounded by GOP threats to cut off aid over Sisi’s anti-democratic legislation, and austere IMF conditions of rolling back energy subsidies that could further destabilize Egypt in midst of waves of terrorist attacks.
Unlike Washington, Sisi sees Assad as a secular bulwark against Islamic extremism in the Levant. If Assad falls, Lebanon and Jordan would be next, and Egypt does not want to end up like Libya with the Brotherhood and other Islamists carving up the country. In response, Cairo is turning towards Russia and Iran, and forming what former Oxford University scholar Sharmine Narwani describes as a new “Security Arc” in midst of Mideast terror.
Egypt pivots to Eurasia
As Egypt pivots towards Syria and Iran, this now further solidifies the emerging Eurasian coalition of Syria, Iran, Russia, China, India, and also highlights the divide between the Eurasian coalition to counter Salafi terrorism, and the current US/Turkey/Saudi/Qatar coalition to support Salafi jihadists for regime change.
Moreover, with Egypt as a large Sunni Arab nation aligning with the Syrian government and the Eurasian bloc, Riyadh’s argument that this is a sectarian conflict is no longer valid.
Cairo is also rapidly upgrading ties with China to help stabilize its economy. As the world’s largest trading state, a soon-to-be largest economy that has the EU as its top export market, China’s trade and economic well-being depends on the Suez Canal as an important lifeline.
China and Sisi recognize that foreign support for the Muslim Brotherhood and increasing terrorism in Sinai threaten the Suez Canal’s stability, which is inextricably tied to Egypt’s own economic development and future. According to military sources, Morsi’s collaboration with Sinai jihadi groups was a source of their disagreement and eventual fallout. Indeed, with US$5 billion a year in revenues from the Canal, it is a vital source of hard currency for a country that has suffered a slump in tourism and foreign investment since 2011.
To that end China has helped build the Suez Canal Economic Zone, and now has plans for a US$45 billion business capital east of Cairo as well as investing US$15 billion in electricity, transport and infrastructure projects. Some of these projects will be funded by China’s Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) where Cairo is a founding member.
The EU can also participate in these projects, as most European countries have joined AIIB, while the US and Japan decided to stay out. Indeed this opens up the possibility for China and EU to coordinate AIIB and EU’s own Juncker Fund for co-financing of projects in third countries, in line with the European Neighborhood Policy to integrate EU’s eastern and southern neighborhood in the Mediterranean.
A recent Al Ahram article outlines Egypt’s discomfort with US interventionist/regime change policy as reason for its Eurasia orientation, wherein Al Ahram chairman Ahmed El-Sayed Al-Naggar lauded the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative as “an example of peaceful cooperation, justice, equality and free choices of relations between countries” that stands in stark contrast to US exploitation of “democracy as a pawn to blackmail other countries,” and “vile, obsessive invasion policy” that destroyed Iraq, Libya, and now seeking to destroy Syria with “hordes of barbarian terrorists.”
This view also echoes long-term Asia Times contributor George Koo’s rebuke of US vision of leadership, juxtaposing Xi Jinping’s inclusive OBOR as offering “cooperation and collaboration on a path for common prosperity” while “Obama offers umbrella of missile defense protection and a path to death and destruction.”
As Japan’s Professor Saya Kiba argued in a new Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) newsletter, the Philippines’ recent “separation” from the US is not driven by the amount of economic or military aid between the US and China, but by competing values. While the US champions a narrow definition of democracy and human rights as election and political expression, with little regard for longtime strategic engagement to combat terrorism or poverty reduction, China’s stance of noninterference and respect for sovereignty is gaining traction in developing countries.
For Duterte, US policy is a “potential trespasser on Philippines’ sovereignty,” a concern shared by Sisi and other allies. As such, without a reset of invasive American foreign policy, it appears the new security arc will continue to solidify, and realign the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.