The meeting lasted all of half an hour, and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah did not even leave his plane, parked on the tarmac at Cairo’s international airport.
But the brief encounter Friday night between the Saudi monarch and Egypt’s newly inaugurated President Abdel Fattah Sisi was weighted with symbolic significance in a region where the political sands are shifting daily. Spurred by the crisis in Iraq and beset by doubt over U.S. methods and motives in the region, key Middle East players are moving to shore up alliances and expand their own spheres of influence — or at least try to stave off erosion.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are a case in point. The last three years have been bruising for Egypt, which has traditionally regarded itself as the political center of gravity in the Arab world. Nonstop turmoil since the 2011 revolution that ended the nearly 30-year autocratic but secular rule of Hosni Mubarak has sapped the economy, frightened away tourists, set off a wave of violence and ushered in a harsh crackdown on all forms of dissent.
The two nations had been in a tight embrace since last summer, when the kingdom lent its support to the Egyptian military’s removal of the deeply unpopular Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Saudi Arabia has since provided a crucial cash lifeline to Egypt, first during an 11-month interim government that supplanted Morsi’s, and now under the new administration of Sisi, the career military man who gave up his posts as field marshal and defense minister to run for president.
But even with a strong alliance in place, Sisi’s supporters could barely contain their glee over the visit by the nonagenarian Abdullah, whose age and enfeebled condition make travel difficult. The fact that the meeting was a quick stopover on the monarch’s trip home from Morocco, where he was said to have been receiving medical treatment, did not deter Sisi’s backers from trumpeting it as proof of restored prestige, that once again, Egypt mattered.
The meeting was front-page news in Egyptian papers Saturday, with pro-government news outlets proclaiming that even deep-pocketed Riyadh, the Saudi capital, wants Cairo in its corner at a tumultuous time. A common theme involved contrasting steadfast Saudi support with what the more conspiratorial-minded in the Sisi camp regard as American perfidy.
“Saudi will never abandon Egypt,” military analyst Mohamed Ghabari told the pro-military daily Watan. The meeting, he said, “represents the rise of a new Arab alliance that will stand in the way of U.S. plans to weaken Egypt.”
Despite a show of deference by Sisi, who was photographed kissing Abdullah’s forehead in a demonstration of respect, Egypt’s official readout on the visit sought to call attention to its own importance as a strategic partner. The presidential office said Sisi told King Abdullah that “Egypt will reassert its presence on both the Arabic and Islamic stage,” with the Saudis in the vanguard.
Although Sisi has not made any public statements about Sunni militants’ audacious challenge to Iraq’s central government, one impetus for the impromptu meeting appeared to be presenting a common front on Iraq. Sisi’s office said in a statement that Egypt and Saudi Arabia shared a “true and moderate” vision of Islam.
After months of criticism of Egypt from human rights groups and Western governments over repressive policies, Sisi’s backers have portrayed the onslaught in Iraq by an Al Qaeda offshoot as vindicating his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement it has branded a terrorist group. Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, too, sees peril in the rise of militant movements, even Sunni ones like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has seized an arc of territory stretching from eastern Syria through northern and western Iraq to the outskirts of Baghdad, the capital.
Although the kingdom has tacitly aided some Sunni rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, the spillover of fighting into Iraq has set off alarm bells in Riyadh, and ISIS doctrine brims with scorn for the Persian Gulf monarchies, which it considers decadent and illegitimate.
Saudi Arabia’s closeness with Egypt is an expensive friendship, costing Riyadh billions of dollars just in the last year. But the Saudis gain some dividends, not least an ally with the Arab world’s most powerful military.
The kingdom, whose principal foreign-policy aim is to stem the influence of Shiite Iran, has been openly agitated by the emerging potential for a pivotal Iranian role in stemming the ISIS tide, perhaps militarily. Saudi Arabia and Iran already had been on opposite sides of the proxy civil war in Syria, with Iran as the chief patron of the Shiite-linked government.
Over the last week, Riyadh has had indirect but sharp words for Tehran, warning against “foreign interference” in Iraq. The Saudis have squarely placed the blame for the rout of Iraqi forces on Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri Maliki, pointing to the systematic alienation of his country’s Sunni minority as creating fertile ground for the ISIS advance.
Although there was no indication that relations with Washington were mentioned in the airport meeting, Saudi Arabia and Egypt share misgivings about the regional policies of the United States, a longtime close ally of both. The Saudis are deeply unhappy over a perceived American tilt toward its longtime antagonist Tehran, and pro-Sisi forces in Egypt harbor resentment over the U.S. suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid after the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
With its own practice of keeping a tight lid on dissent, Saudi Arabia appears demonstrably comfortable with the installation of another authoritarian-minded Egyptian leader drawn from the ranks of the military. Speaking with Sisi by telephone after his inauguration two weeks ago, Abdullah — whose visit Friday was his first to Egypt since Mubarak’s fall — said it was time to move beyond the “chaos” of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
In the meantime, Saudi beneficence continues, though the kingdom might welcome at least a slight easing of the financial burden and a broadening of Egypt’s base of support. At the airport meeting, the leaders discussed the Saudi call for a donors conference to aid Egypt, according to Sisi’s office. No date has been announced.