Cairo’s balancing act

Tuesday 28 Jun 2022

Tamim’s visit to Cairo turns the page on five years of diplomatic rifts

Cairo s balancing act
Tamim and Al-Sisi

 

This week President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani in Cairo. Tamim’s two-day visit, which started on Saturday, coincided with the ninth anniversary of 30 June demonstrations that prompted the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi, a close ally of Doha, and with Tamim’s own ascent to power.

Until recently, Doha was viewed as a major political opponent of Cairo and its closest Gulf allies, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. According to an Egyptian diplomatic source, Tamim’s visit turns a page on this recent history of animosity, media wars and diplomatic tensions between Cairo and Doha, and opens the doors to closer economic cooperation. Up to $15 billion of Qatari investments in Egypt are expected in the next three to five years.

In June 2017 Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Manama imposed a boycott on Doha which was only reversed during a Gulf Cooperation Council summit which convened, with Egyptian participation, in January 2021.

According to the diplomatic source, while the groundwork for the emir of Qatar’s visit to Cairo had been progressing steadily but slowly since the January 2021 summit in the Saudi city of Al-Ula, it would be wrong to assume that Egypt and Qatar are now aligned in terms of their regional priorities. The rapprochement, he said, has more to do with creating a balance in bilateral/regional relations at a time when Qatar realises any plans to support a wide regional political sphere of Islamist rule is a non-starter, and Egypt is facing an economic crunch and is keen to attract as many foreign investments as possible.

The visit came days after the influential Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman met with President Al-Sisi in Cairo. The two leaders discussed Saudi investments in Egypt and coordination between the two countries ahead of the scheduled visit of US President Joe Biden, his first to the region since being inaugurated in January 2021.

According to a Gulf-based diplomatic source, the sequence of meetings illustrates a desire to move beyond recent conflicts on the part of key Arab capitals.

“While Cairo is looking to move beyond the narrow confines of its alliances with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates those bonds still hold, whatever the dissimilarities in their political views,” said the Gulf-based source. He added that, overall, Egypt is seeking a greater degree of balance in its relations with GCC members, though within the established parameters that its closest allies remain Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile, on Monday President Al-Sisi arrived in Muscat for talks with Oman’s Sultan Haitham Ben Tarek. The talks, according to the Gulf-based source, focused on upscaling economic cooperation between the two countries.

“It is very significant that the minister chiefly assigned to accompany President Al-Sisi during his two-day visit to Muscat was the Omani minister of finance and not the minister of foreign affairs as would be customary,” he said.

Oman, he explained, “has a traditional policy of pursuing close relations with Egypt and a policy of steering clear from taking sides with or against any country in the region”.

Egyptian and Gulf-based sources note that Al-Sisi’s series of meetings were held against the backdrop of the emergence of a soft alliance between Israel and Arab Gulf states who share worries over Iran’s regional agenda.

According to the Egyptian diplomatic source, Cairo is sending clear indirect messages that while it supports its Gulf allies consolidating their own security it is not “at all keen” to court any animosity with Iran. The diplomatic source declined to say whether President Al-Sisi had passed “reassuring messages” to this effect to Tehran through the rulers of Qatar and Oman, saying simply that “the Iranians clearly know where we stand.”

On Monday, while in Ankara for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian said that Tehran and Egypt have “some joint interests in common”.

The flurry of diplomatic activity comes less than three weeks before Biden’s visit which will begin in Israel on 15 July, then take him to Saudi Arabia on 16 July for a meeting with GCC leaders and the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.

A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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