Could Egypt and the UAE be about to part ways with Salman's Saudi Arabia?
A prominent Egyptian broadcaster launched a stinging attack on Saudi Arabia this week, calling on Egypt to stop accepting funding from the Gulf heavyweight, raising fresh questions about potential changes in regional alliances brought about by the recent death of King Abdullah.
Ibrahim Isa accused Saudi Arabia, considered a key ally of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, of supporting “terrorists” fighting in Syria, while speaking on his weekly programme on satellite channel ONTV.
He urged President Sisi not to become a “prisoner” of Riyadh, saying strong relations must be based on “shared interests,” which he claimed Egypt and Saudi Arabia no longer have.
“Egypt has to be liberated from this relationship of gratitude,” he said, in reference to the fact that Saudi Arabia has provided billions of dollars in aid to prop up an ailing Egyptian economy.
The veteran broadcaster’s comments could represent a shift in relations between the troika of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, if recent leaks allegedly from the Egyptian presidential office are to be believed.
Isa was named in a tape, which purportedly came from Sisi’s office, in which senior Egyptian officials said a number of high-profile media figures were working for the army. The recording included Brigadier General Abbas Kamil, presidential office manager, instructing Egyptian media to support Sisi’s 2014 election bid.
“We want [the media] to encourage people” to vote for Sisi’s transition from army chief to president, said Kamil.
The pro-Muslim Brotherhood outlet that aired the alleged leak, Mekameleen, also broadcast a clip of Isa on the Tahrir television channel saying Sisi is seen as the “saviour” of Egypt – evidence, Mekameleen said, of the president’s “media arms”.
The unauthenticated tape alleging that Isa has worked as a mouthpiece for Sisi has led many to speculate that his criticism of Saudi Arabia may represent a shift in Egypt’s regional alliances in the wake of King Abdullah’s death.
In his ONTV show this week, Isa said that with the new Saudi king comes “a new administration” that he imagines “will have to have a new foreign policy”.
Isa claimed Saudi Arabia was “becoming one of the allies of the Muslim Brotherhood” – a move that would be a departure from current policy, given that Riyadh considers the group a terrorist organisation, a designation mirrored by both Egypt and the UAE.
Isa's opinion, however, appears to coincide with sources close to the Qatari government – a known supporter of the Brotherhood – who view King Salman’s leadership in Saudi Arabia as more open to reconciliation with the movement.
“Unlike Egypt and the UAE, Saudi’s [current] leadership understands you can’t just cut off the Brotherhood,” an unnamed Qatari source told Reuters. “An ideology can’t be removed by force. That’s why communication is essential.”
While Isa was scornful of Saudi Arabia, he reserved special praise for the UAE, another close ally of and lucrative donor to the Sisi government.
He described the UAE as an “important, respected and great country with a wonderful people.”
The UAE too has been linked with criticism of the new Saudi government under King Salman, again in an indirect way, this time through an Emirati news site considered close to the country’s rulers.
The Erem News Agency recently criticised King Salman’s appointment of Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince, which makes him second in line to the throne.
According to Erem, the decision to appoint bin Nayef was taken “against the advice of the Allegiance Council,” the body set up by the late King Abdullah to determine succession in the kingdom.
“The person who fills the role [of deputy crown prince] should be chosen based on a decision by the council,” the article says.
However, it goes on to note that “it is very unlikely that Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef was chosen with the agreement of the Council of Allegiance.”
Rumours of emerging discord between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been fuelled by the fact that neither the UAE’s Vice President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan nor Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum attended King Abdullah’s funeral in Saudi Arabia last month.
Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that Mohammed bin Zayed had ordered only the rulers of three emirates – Sharjah, Ajman and Ras al-Khaimah – to go to Abdullah’s memorial.
According to Al-Akhbar, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed was angered by “the developments that took place […] on the morning of King Abdullah’s burial.”
“The first batch of royal orders were contrary to bin Zayed’s wishes, who received a painful blow with the appointment of Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince, the expulsion of Khalid al-Tuwaijiri from the Royal Court, and the exclusion of Mut’ab bin Abdullah (the late king’s son) from the first three positions,” wrote Duaa Sweidan.
The Emirati crown prince is said to have had a long-term spat with Mohammed bin Nayef, due at least in part to comments bin Zayed made about the late father of Saudi Arabia’s new deputy crown prince.
In a meeting with US officials prior to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, bin Zayed suggested Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud had ape-like qualities.
“MBZ took a dim view of some of the senior Al-Saud – sardonically noting that Interior Minister Nayef’s bumbling manner suggested that ‘Darwin was right’,” read the diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks.
In the midst of speculation that Egypt and the UAE now have strained ties with Saudi Arabia, it is unclear whether financial support from the wealthy Gulf monarchies will continue to shore up Egypt's finances.
Kuwaiti and Emirati officials denied on Friday that they will deposit $10 billion in Egyptian accounts. It had been reported locally in Egypt this week that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait would make the deposits prior to a March investment conference in Sharm el-Sheikh that it is hoped will bolster Cairo’s struggling economy.