As Saudi Arabia announced last Friday both the death of its 10-year ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, and the coronation of his brother, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Egypt’s presidency announced its “confidence” in the new monarch, hoping he would maintain his brother’s legacy of staunch political and financial support for the country struggling to economically and politically recover two popular uprisings.
King Abdullah had been the strongest financial and political backer of the incumbent Egyptian government that deposed former president Mohamed Morsy. He had also outspokenly opposed the ouster of Morsy’s predecessor and the kingdom’s longtime regional ally, Hosni Mubarak.
Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia showered Cairo with petroleum and monetary aid worth of US$8 billion. But some wonder whether the flow would keep running under the new monarch who publicly stressed in his coronation speech that he would stick to his late brother’s policies.
Copying the state’s reaction, media have been largely optimistic for ties with Saudi Arabia with Salman’s ascension to the throne. Besides the recurrent rhetoric of brotherly, inseparable relations between both nations, several media outlets found proof of a promising future for the bilateral ties in the history of Salman’s political activity. A number of press reports pointed to the fundraising campaigns Salman had championed to support Egypt’s military during the 1973 war with Israel and the 1956 British-French-Israeli assault on the Suez Canal cities.
Experts have also ruled out a change in Saudi Arabia’s stance on Egypt.
Mostafa Kamel al-Sayed, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC), told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the kingdom’s backing of Egypt following the 30 June 2013 uprising emanates from its hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood and fear of Iran’s expanding regional influence that requires the existence of Arab allies.
The question on the future of Cairo-Riyadh’s bonds is more pressing when it comes to the international economic summit Cairo hosts in March, the call for which was originally made by the late King Abdullah last year. Egypt hopes it will attract more investors and economic cooperation through the summit to be held in Sharm al-Sheikh resort.
But with Abdullah’s departure, it is worth wondering whether the summit has fallen below other priorities on the kingdom’s agenda as other regional and international challenges mount.
One challenge is the plummeting world petroleum prices which reached recently US$49 per barrel, and how that would impact the economy of the kingdom, the world’s top oil producer.
The kingdom has, however, assured that the world price decline would not affect its aid to Egypt. Secretary General of the Saudi cabinet, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, told London-based, Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat in December that the falling prices would not affect his country’s “commitments to its sister, Egypt.”
But other regional concerns are also worth considering, most notably on the security level. The threat by Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria is exacerbating, with Saudi Arabia at the forefront of an alliance of world countries combating the group, alarmed by its manifested goal of establishing an Islamic caliph rule.
The turmoil in Yemen and the resignation of the country’s president and central government by the Shia Houthi rebels, widely believed to be backed by Iran, the kingdom’s arch regional foe, is also another conundrum.
Atef Abdel-Latif, a tourism expert and a member of the Marsa Alam and South Sinai investors associations, says there is no way the summit can be postponed.
“Saudi Arabia will possibly face problems on its borders by the Iran-backed Houthis,” Abdel Latif said in a statement on Thursday, 29 January. He also pointed to what he described as “the scheme to reduce petroleum prices to undermine the economy of the Gulf region and Russia, which resulted into a drop in Saudi and Gulf companies revenues.” He explained that the decline in oil prices, therefore, would prompt Arab investors to rethink their strategies in the short run.
According to Abdel-Latif, the Sharm al-Sheikh summit would represent a “golden opportunity” to attract Arab investors and ramp up the Egyptian economy, urging the presidency to eliminate investment hurdles through the unified investment law pending approval by the government.
Abdel-Latif said the government, regrettably, fails to market the summit as avidly as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He added that the summit has already been propagated at the World Economic Forum and the same can be done through Egypt’s participation in the international tourism fairs in Madrid on 28 January and Berlin on 1 March.