The Saudi islands, Egypt and political ‘fahlawa’
Pundits commenting on Saudi-Egyptian relations in light of the recent issue over the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir must remember that land disputes between neighboring countries are common; indeed, neither Cairo nor Riyadh are the first, particularly in the Middle East, to have had such issues when it comes to defining their borders.
I say this given that a top Egyptian court has just ruled against the Abdel Fattah El-Sisi government’s bid to hand over the two Red Sea islands back to Saudi Arabia.
This is indeed embarrassing to the Saudi/UAE-backed president, who has tried to make the correct argument that the two islands are indeed Saudi.
However, the Supreme Administrative Court saw things differently and concluded that Tiran and Sanafir were Egyptian “beyond doubt.”
This will serve as yet another blow to President El-Sisi who is facing a nasty character assassination campaign waged by Muslim Brotherhood followers and some Gulf media which sympathizes with them. The campaign seeks to make it look as if El-Sisi “sold his land” in exchange for Saudi riches and bribes.
This is not true; the reality is — as is the case with land disputes in general — both countries possess documents and evidence which support their claims.
However, character assassination aside, there is no question that the Egyptian presidency, given that it is convinced that the Saudi claim is legitimate, could have prepared and handled public opinion in a much better way prior to the hand-over announcement last April.
Yet, this was not the only mishap of the Egyptian government when it came to crucial allies. Last October, Cairo — in a politically bizarre manner — voted in favor of two rival UN Security Council resolutions on Syria; one drafted by Russia (which was opposed by Riyadh) and the other by France.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry attempted to justify its contradicting position by claiming that its intention was to support “all” efforts to stop the tragedy in Syria. (This was cryptic as when Cairo recently said it was withdrawing a UNSC draft resolution condemning Israeli settlements in Palestine to give a chance for peace!)
Of course, nobody buys this sort of “Bazar merchant” diplomacy; particularly not Saudi Arabia which — contrary to what some local media tries to portray — still remains one of Egypt’s biggest allies.
Just last May, the Egyptian Parliament approved a $2.5 billion grant, which Riyadh pledged to support its neighbor’s ailing economy.
Islands and positions on key issues aside, the minimum one should expect from an ally is honesty and commitment to pledges.
As such, Egyptians need to understand that political “fahlawa” (wheeling and dealing) no longer works; given that Saudi Arabia, while always ready and happy to help, no longer accepts to be regarded as a mere cash machine.
Nevertheless, ties between the two neighbors went though ups and downs in the past and they always came out stronger; as such the issue of Tiran and Sanafir will pass sooner or later.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. He can be reached on Twitter @FaisalJAbbas