The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in his own consulate in Istanbul on October 2 sparked a geopolitical firestorm and made headlines around the world. Saudi Arabia tried in vain to downplay the incident and Egypt, its close ally, followed suit.
Khashoggi had been a fierce critic of Riyadh’s support for Egypt and the first official statement regarding his murder came twelve days after Khashoggi “disappeared.” In the statement, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a warning against “any attempt to exploit this issue politically against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
This particular statement was part of a coordinated effort between Cairo and Riyadh and was released based on a specific request from a Saudi official to Cairo, according to an Egyptian official with knowledge of the case, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
In a telephone call, the Saudi official affirmed his confidence in his country’s position, and said that it merely required holding out against what he called “Erdogan’s games,” a reference to repeated leaks made by the Turkish government about the Khashoggi case, which have exposed Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the murder and have resulted in exacerbating already-strained relations with Saudi Arabia. The release of this Foreign Ministry statement also coincided with similar statements from a number of Arab capitals with “close ties” to Riyadh, as well as the General Assembly of the Arab League.
The Egyptian official claims that the primary concern for Cairo was that the political fallout from Khashoggi’s murder would lead to a change in policies in the region. “We will certainly have to deal with some of its consequences in light of our strong alliance with Riyadh— built with UAE support— over the past two years,” the official says.
Khashoggi’s murder shone a spotlight on Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with potentially wide-reaching repercussions. The ripple effect may alter regional political dynamics, and, in some cases, hasten slow-moving adjustments to policies across the Gulf and North Africa.
A second Egyptian official knowledgeable about Egypt-Saudi relations says that Cairo’s primary concern is for the future of the group known as the “Arab Quartet,” which is comprised of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. The quartet initiated an economic and political blockade against Qatar a year and a half ago, to combat what it said was Qatar’s support for terrorism.
According to the second official, Egypt’s basis for joining the alliance was not solely based on Qatar’s opposition to the 2013 ouster of then-President Mohamed Morsi, the open hostility of its satellite TV networks to Sisi’s government, and the country’s status as a refuge for leading Muslim Brotherhood figures. In a broader sense, Egypt also joined the alliance to counter Qatar’s approach of supporting Islamist movements in a host of regional states, primarily the Arab Spring countries, to create a bloc of ground support allied with Turkey.
Over the past few weeks, the Egyptian government has closely followed news from the Gulf — with officials from National Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in close communication with their counterparts in the UAE and Saudi Arabia — and has concluded that Riyadh intends to offer some compromises to Doha.
“It was based on an American request conveyed by the US Secretary of State to senior Saudi officials during his visit to Riyadh in the early days of the [Khashoggi] crisis,” the first source says. “We learned that he told King Salman that the time had come to reduce tensions in the Gulf and improve relations, with the aim of building a strong Sunni Arab alliance that could challenge Iran.”
The UAE also appears to be amenable to offering certain concessions to Qatar as well.
Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, the second-in-command and the de facto ruler of the UAE, has, in many respects, been the driving force behind a regional policy backed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt against political Islam.
As the most ardent advocate of isolating Qatar amongst the four quartet countries, the UAE was, in fact, angling for even more decisive action, according to the source. This accords with reports that the UAE had infiltrated Qatari media and engineered news that was aimed at prompting Egypt and Saudi Arabia to carry out a limited military operation against Qatar at the beginning of the blockade. European diplomats in Cairo sought to establish the accuracy of these reports, but could not do so definitively.
Yet, in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, the UAE appears to be willing to back down from its hardline stance on Qatar.
According to the same source, King Salman told bin Zayed during the latter’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week — where he met the king himself and not the crown prince — that everyone must acknowledge the Khashoggi issue. Bin Zayed himself was reportedly already apprehensive about the issue when the story first broke, having initially cancelled all his foreign affairs activities.
Now, Cairo has indications that the UAE has become less rigid in its refusal to end the blockade against Qatar, according to the source. “In fact, we have intel that says there have been meetings between the security officials of the two countries with counterparts from western countries also attending to look into the demands on either side,” the official says.
The source says that the issue is under discussion between the four quartet countries.
He adds that Egypt is making clear it doesn’t want to let Qatar off the hook too quickly for its opposition to the Sisi regime. He points specifically to the last visit by the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry earlier this month to Bahrain— the weakest link in the alliance and the country whose policies do not diverge even slightly from that of Saudi Arabia— as well as the statement released for the visit which reaffirmed the quartet’s position and its 13 demands.
“But we know in the end that the internal calculations in Saudi Arabia today, as well as in the UAE, are very complex and sensitive. The US wants to move forward with forming the Arab military alliance known as MESA or the Arab NATO and we are not necessarily far from a dissolution of the Arab quartet,” the source says.
According to the second source, Egypt’s interest in the Arab alliance is also linked to its desire for Qatar to lessen, perhaps even cease, all forms of support for political Islam, particularly when it comes to countries where Egypt’s strategic interests are involved, namely Libya and Syria.
The same source says that the pressure Qatar was put under forced it to partially amend its choice to support Islamic factions in these two countries. This enabled Cairo to push its policies through and support allied factions in those countries — especially Libya, where the Egyptian state says militant groups responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in Egypt are based.
Over the past few weeks, both the Saudis and Emiratis have softened their stances and are open to the idea of Islamist groups being a part of the new political landscape in Libya, a goal pursued by the head of the UN support mission for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. This change in attitude, according to a European diplomat who closely follows Libya, mirrors Egypt’s position, which, he says, became less rigid in opposing any Islamist participation in the political arena “as long as the military is in [Libyan National Army head] Khalifa Haftar’s hands, whom Egypt has supported from the beginning,” the diplomat adds.
The same European diplomat did not hide his astonishment regarding the recent shift in Egypt’s position. He points to Sisi’s participation in the Palermo conference on Libya earlier this month, despite the inclusion of the head of the Libyan High Council of State, Khaled al-Mishri, a representative of a political faction often referred to by Egyptian officials as “the Muslim Brotherhood of Libya.”
“Sisi and Mishri were together in Palermo just days ago,” the European diplomat says. “This wasn’t Italy’s doing, but the result of political developments in the region, which Cairo is responding to realistically despite political Islam remaining, as we know, the number one enemy of the Egyptian regime.”
The war in Yemen is also being affected by the changing geopolitical landscape.
The UAE has gradually stepped up its military campaign in Yemen, with its involvement surpassing even that of Saudi Arabia, the proclaimed leader of a coalition which has been trying to wrest back control of the country from the Iran-allied Houthis, who reject the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
While Egypt is a part of this coalition, it has refused to send troops to fight in Yemen, a decision that has angered Saudi Arabia. It chose to only provide logistical support in addition to its efforts to protect the strategic Bab al-Mandeb strait. According to the second Egyptian source, Egypt was not enthusiastic about the war in Yemen at any point and did not think it was the best way to support the legitimate Yemeni government. Egypt initially suggested various ideas to create a political landscape that would marginalize the Houthis instead of entering into a direct military conflict, he adds.
Cairo is aware that Saudi Arabia will always seek to maintain its historical control over internal political dynamics in Yemen and is also aware that Saudi Arabia feels it has lost significant areas of influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to its main rival, Iran. To challenge Iran, it has closed generous arms deals with the US and increased cooperation with Israel.
After the developments in the Khashoggi case, the Saudis and Emiratis appear to be slightly altering their approach to Yemen and not looking to marginalize political Islam there — which is represented primarily by the Islah Party (the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood) — to the same degree as before.
According to the first Egyptian source, the decision of bin Zayed to receive Islah Party representatives, and even tweet a photo of the meeting through his official account, would not have happened were it not for US pressure on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In a similar vein, Britain proposed a political maneuver that would not marginalize the Islah Party, and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi agreed to it.
The same source explains that he does not believe there is any intention on bin Salman or bin Zayed’s part to offer significant concessions to Islamist groups, simply because it goes against their direct interests. He does expect that the leeway given to groups espousing forms of political Islam will increase, as discussions on how to proceed in Yemen, Libya and perhaps even Syria continue, “but no one expects that [the Islamist movement] will have the final word, as Erdogan wanted,” he adds.
According to the source, bin Salman, and to a lesser degree bin Zayed, are both brokering new regional arrangements as well as internal ones, with ongoing discussions taking place within the Saudi royal family and within the ruling families in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The source acknowledges what western diplomats in Cairo have been increasingly discussing: that there is antagonism from certain factions within the royal courts of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi towards bin Salman and bin Zayed’s choices, including their immediate and unconditional support for the political situation in Egypt. This has been the case even when the support directly serves their interests, such as when Egypt handed over the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia, and when it reluctantly agreed to allow the UAE to play a larger role in the formulation of a security strategy for the Red Sea.
The question for Cairo, according to the source, is not whether bin Salman and bin Zayed, both strong backers of Sisi, will remain in power. Neither is it whether Egypt will continue to receive support from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The question is to what extent can Cairo depend on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in formulating a new regional framework, one in which Egypt continue to give up its position of leadership in exchange for economic stability?
“Of course, we still need economic support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, particularly because the effects of the economic reforms seem harsh on a significant portion of the population,” the source says, referring to a series of austerity measures, including lifting of fuel subsidies, tax hikes, and the liberalization of the Egyptian pound that has sent inflation soaring.
Alongside the diminishing power of the quartet and increased tolerance for political Islam in Libya, Yemen and perhaps Syria, the source says that another problem faced by Cairo is Turkey’s increasing regional power. It is generally surmised that Saudi’s tacit endorsement has been key to this development, in exchange for Erdogan not directly implicating the crown prince in the Khashoggi case.
Additional concerns for Cairo stem from developments in the US, where the Democrats recently regained control of the House of Representatives. “Of course the Democrats have traditional demands as far as issues of freedom and democracy are concerned,” the source says.
According to a source close to Egyptian foreign policy makers, extensive discussions are taking place among Egypt’s ruling circles to form working groups that would then undertake a series of visits and meetings with influential figures in Washington. The ultimate aim is to ensure that the Democrats’ control of the lower chamber does not result in increased pressure on Egypt when it comes to issues of human rights and democratic freedoms.
“Egypt is moving swiftly on two fronts: the first is to minimize the effect of the Democrats’ rise in congress on Egypt’s internal policies, and the second is to ensure that any regional political agreement proposed by Saudi Arabia to move past the Khashoggi crisis would not include pressuring Cairo over its internal affairs,” says the source. “We have been through tough times, but we’re certain we can move forward in spite of everything.”