A number of documents from the Saudi Foreign Ministry that were recently released by Wikileaks have cast light on Egypt’s capricious relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has swung between alternate extremes over the past four years depending on the political alignments of the Egyptian administration that was in power.
Former presidential candidate and Hosni Mubarak-era figure Ahmed Shafiq, who has been living in the UAE since his loss to ousted President Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 elections, pops up in several of the cables.
One cable — of which two pages were published by Wikileaks, with Mada Masr exclusively publishing the third and final page — notes a state of apprehension within Emirati political, popular and media circles regarding the outcome of the 2012 vote.
The unpublished document reveals that Emirati investments in Egypt had reached US$5 billion, mainly in the fields of agriculture, communication, real estate and information technology, with an estimated 600 Emirati companies operating in Egypt.
The document adds that Emirati investors “prefer a liberal rather than a religious Egypt. There is currently a sense of reluctance on their part to invest in Egypt until the vision is clearer regarding who will win the presidential elections, for fear that the security [vacuum] and economic instability that has spread in Egypt since the January 25 revolution will continue.”
“On the popular level, most UAE citizens tend to favor Ahmed Shafiq, especially since they are aware of their state’s unfavorable position toward the [Muslim] Brotherhood. They feel that Shafiq’s election will bring an end to disagreements with Egypt, and invite support of and investment in the country. The media is aligned with the official and popular positions, and is known to have previously levied sharp criticism against the Brotherhood for insulting the UAE,” the document reads.
Over the past few weeks, Shafiq has made headlines for allegedly trying to return to political life in Egypt.
Last May, the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper published a report stating that a number of businessmen, one of whom is an Egyptian living in the US while others hail from Gulf states, played a role in supporting the June 30 protests that put an end to Morsi’s rule in 2013. The report claims that these same businessmen have relations with other executives known to be loyal to Mubarak’s fallen government, and arrived in Cairo shortly before the report was published in an attempt to form a strong electoral coalition capable of winning a parliamentary majority.
This report was followed by other news published by the same paper concerning a senior Egyptian intelligence official’s visit to Abu Dhabi. One of the official’s reported demands included Shafiq’s return to Egypt’s political scene, especially after several media figures claimed that the former aviation minister had, in fact, won the 2012 presidential elections, and that Egyptian authorities had manipulated the results and declared Morsi president instead. As a result, the broadcast of Emirati TV host Abdel Rehim Ali’s televised interview with Shafiq was postponed. It was claimed that the delay stemmed from technical issues, but there was also speculation that the interview was postponed because Egyptian authorities were irritated by Shafiq’s behavior at the time.
Following Morsi’s election, tensions between Egypt and the Emirates only escalated.
A Saudi report titled “Political consequences of the crisis between Egypt and Emirates: January 2013” describes the political divide. Pages 1, 4 and 5 of the six-page report have already been released, with Mada Masr exclusively publishing pages 2, 3 and 6.
The first section of the report lists the causes of the feud and the accusations exchanged between the two countries. It also refers to diplomatic developments since 10 Egyptians affiliated with the Brotherhood were detained in the Emirates after being accused of collaborating with Emirati individuals to form a Brotherhood outpost in the UAE. In response, the Brotherhood in Egypt accused the Emirates of standing against the Egyptian revolution and giving shelter to a number of Mubarak-era figures, the most prominent being Shafiq himself.
Mohamed Saad Yaqout, a leader in the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political arm, made statements to several media outlets indicating the presence of a group of individuals in the Gulf that sought to oust Morsi with the help of states opposing Egypt, hinting at the UAE.
The document adds that some experts confirmed “that this crisis between the two countries could lead to a possible confrontation that will have a negative effect on some 400,000 Egyptians working in the Emirates, which constitutes the third largest expatriate community in the UAE, after Indians and Pakistanis.”
In January 2013, the UAE announced that it had detained a Brotherhood cell that had allegedly attempted to overthrow the Emirati regime.
The last page of the report indicates that the UAE insisted on “exposing the relationship between the Brotherhood in Egypt and the Egyptian detainees, who are members of the Brotherhood organization in the Emirates.” Emirati security sources said that investigations revealed “that this organization succeeded in recruiting a number of Egyptians in the Emirates, founded companies to illegally transfer funds to the mother organization in Egypt, and were trained by local Islamists on how to overthrow the government.”
The report also noted the amount of sarcasm and ridicule that the Egyptian delegation, headed by Morsi advisor Essam Haddad, received in Emirati newspapers in January 2013, especially in regards to their proposed meeting agenda. Said agenda purportedly contained only one item — the detainees in the Brotherhood case — while ignoring the estimated 350 other Egyptians imprisoned in the UAE. Newspapers reported that the delegation confirmed its partisan motivations, as well as the impossibility of a political release for the Brotherhood detainees.
The report adds that a number of experts in Cairo had stated that “the Iranian foreign minister’s visit to Egypt in 2013 was a strong sign from Egypt to the Emirates that the alternative is Iran, amid the tension between the two states due to the detainee crisis.”
The Saudi document lists what it describes as “the most salient indications of the increasing animosity between the Brotherhood and the UAE” in the following points, which are presented as they appear in the report:
Egypt proved unable convince the UAE to release the detained Egyptians who were allegedly affiliated with the Brotherhood. Communication between the Egyptian Embassy and the UAE Foreign Ministry failed to allow for a meeting with the detainees, nor provide them with consular services. The official Egyptian delegation failed to solve the crisis, despite a message from Morsi to his Emirati counterpart Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The Emirates responded by saying that the issue of the detainees would be pursued according to legal procedures.
Negotiations crumbled between an Egyptian delegation and Emirati officials to extradite Shafiq to face corruption charges back in Egypt. The delegation did not receive a satisfactory answer, even after the head of the Egyptian intelligence provided authorities in Dubai with information on communication between Shafiq and a number of Mubarak-era figures suggesting he was working to turn Egyptian public opinion against Morsi.
Essam al-Erian, vice chairperson of the Freedom and Justice Party, and Yasser Abdel Tawab, head of the media committee of the Salafi Nour Party, accused the UAE of “hostility against the changes that took place in Egypt and other Arab Spring nations, for fear that the train of the revolution would reach it.” The leaders added that the UAE “fears democracy, hosts individuals associated with the old regime and defends them, as shown by the continuous attacks on Egypt and its elected president by Dahi Khalfan, head of Dubai’s police force.”
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed invited the Gulf Cooperation Council to “collaborate to prevent the Brotherhood from conspiring to undermine governments in the region, which resulted in negative reactions from the Brotherhood and a demand by some for a response.”
Egyptian newspapers published an “alleged” article by American intellectual Naom Chomsky on the Egyptian revolution, which stated that the real reasons behind Dubai’s animosity toward the new government lie in the Suez Canal development project. The project, as described by the article, will constitute a major blow to the service-based Dubai economy, which relies on providing logistic services to naval ports crossing through the international strategic location of the Suez Canal.
The report highlights the consequences of escalating hostilities between the two countries, including Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater canceling a visit to the Emirates in protest against Khalfan’s statements.
Another cable sent by the Saudi Embassy in Cairo to the Foreign Ministry in Riyadh notes that the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau met to discuss possible solutions to the rancor. A number of members suggested waiting for the results of the president and Foreign Ministry’s efforts, while others demanded that Shater travel with a senior Qatari official to the Emirates to discuss a resolution. This proposed resolution stipulated that Shater make clear that Egypt’s democratic experience would not to be replicated in the UAE and that Egypt would not interfere in the UAE’s internal affairs.
Additionally, Mada Masr published an exclusive cable revealing accusations by security sources in Egypt that “an important Emirati personality funded sabotage and vandalism attempts in Egypt during the celebration of the second anniversary of the January 25 revolution.” News of these claims was published in the state-owned Al-Akhbar newspaper in January 2013.
Most of the documents released by Wikileaks addressing Egypt-UAE relations between 2011 and 2014 noted the rapprochement between Egypt, Qatar and Iran as one of the main causes of increased tension between the two states.
According to one cable, Shater visited Doha in March 2012 to assure Qatari investors that their investments would be secured through favorable legislation after the Brotherhood had been elected to power.
In addition, during Morsi’s visit to Iran during the Islamic Summit held in August 2012 — a historic moment, as no Egyptian president had visited Iran since the 1979 revolution — the former statesman invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Cairo. The Iranian foreign minister visited Egypt shortly after, followed by General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Al-Quds Brigades, who met with Haddad during his visit.
However, the Emirati campaign against Egypt is not limited to that time’s regional arrangements and the dispute between the Saudi-Emirate-Kuwait axis, on the one hand, and the Egypt, Qatar and Iran alliance, on the other. Internal disputes further complicated the matter.
Several members of the Emirati Brotherhood-affiliated Association for Social Reform and Guidance (founded in 1974) were arrested in 2012 and 2013. According to a study published by the Mesbar Center for Studies and Research, through the association’s activities the Brotherhood had controlled the public education sector as well as the committees for curricular development in the Emirates. Two of the association’s leading members had participated in two successive governments during the 1970s during a time of the association’s expansion.
However, toward the end of the 1980s, the Emirates began to clash with the association after a long period of mutual tension. In 1988, authorities decided to ban the association’s “Islah” magazine for six months. When it reappeared again, its tone was notably less provocative. In 1994, the government dissolved the group’s board and reduced the internal and external activities of its branches in Dubai, Fujairah and Ras al-Khaimah. The government allocated the supervision of these activities to the Ministry of Social Affairs — except for the Ras al-Khaimah branch, which continues to enjoy some independence until today through the protection and sympathy of its governor, Sheikh Saqr al-Qasimi.
Since 2003, a wide campaign began to diminish of the association’s influence in the education sector, with a large number of affiliated employees transferred to other governmental circles. A similar situation took place in 2006, after several reconciliation attempts between the association’s leadership and Abu Dhabi Governor Mohamed bin Zayed all failed to reach consensus. Members of the association subsequently took a different path when they began to organize protests and write articles criticizing the performance of the ruling authorities in the Emirates.
Observers note that the association, especially in recent years, was a voice of reform in the Emirates, defending human rights and public freedoms.
Finally, the rise of the Brotherhood in Tunisia and in Egypt after 2011 constituted a worrying indicator to the Emirati authorities, which translated into a new cycle of constraints on the association.
But more recently, political developments in Egypt over the past two years have thawed the Cairo-Dubai relationship. After a marked decline in investments during the Brotherhood’s time in office, after Morsi fell from power the UAE sank more than US$4.5 billion into its former foe, according to March 2014 statements by Investment Minister Ashraf Salman.
However, the relationship between the two governments remains complicated. Dubai’s persistence in sheltering Shafiq, whose political-minded activities have recently appeared to aggravate the Egyptian authorities, is still a thorny issue. Other tensions relate to conflicting news reports regarding the cancellation of the memorandum of understanding between Emirati investor Mohamed al-Abbar and the Egyptian government regarding the establishment of a new capital city in Egypt.