A strongly worded statement issued last week by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) criticising Cairo’s allegations that Qatar supports terrorist organisations was bad news for Egypt.The Manama-based GCC, of which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar are members, later toned down its criticism and confirmed its support for Egypt’s battle against terrorists, and for the government led by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.
But the warning shots had been fired. Cairo, say many commentators, needs to prepare itself for a new chapter in its relations with major donors in the oil-rich region.
The GCC statement was the last thing Cairo wanted to hear during a week in which it was preoccupied with mobilising Arab and international support for its 16 February air strikes in Libya. The action followed the brutal killing of 21 Coptic Christians slaughtered by the Libyan branch of the Islamic State (IS) group.
Cairo’s attempts to push for a UN Security Council resolution that would allow for a multinational front to fight terrorism in Libya and to have the arms embargo against the displaced Libyan government lifted went nowhere.
What room Cairo felt it had left to manoeuvre was dependent on the support of its Arab Gulf allies — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, the three nations that provided essential cash and oil imports to Egypt following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi.
The first hiccup in relations between Egypt and its Gulf allies appeared during a meeting of ambassadors to the Cairo-based Arab League. The toothless pan-Arab organisation was close to adopting a statement supporting Egypt’s air strikes against Libya when the Qatari ambassador expressed his reservations.
The strike, he said, had killed civilians and threatened UN efforts to form a national unity government. Egypt’s ambassador to the Arab League responded by accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism.
Within hours, the GCC issued a statement refuting Egypt’s charges against Qatar. “Such allegations are unfounded and ignore the sincere effort carried out by Qatar, in cooperation with its brotherly nations in the GCC and Arab countries, to fight terrorism and extremism on all levels,” the statement said.
It added that such allegations “do not contribute to strengthening Arab solidarity at a time Arab nations are facing major challenges to their security, stability and sovereignty.”
The short statement caught Cairo on the back foot. Informed diplomatic sources say Al-Sisi was personally involved in efforts to contain the dispute. The statements made by Tarek Adel, Egypt’s ambassador to the Arab League were later said to be “personal and do not reflect the official position.”
The same sources add that senior UAE officials tried to tone down the GCC statement. On 20 February Bahrain’s official news agency quoted GCC Secretary-General Abdel-Latif Al-Zayani saying that Gulf States “firmly support Egypt under the leadership of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.” He added, “The GCC supports all military measures Egypt has taken against terrorist groups in Libya.”
Speculation over the possibility of a cooling in relations between Egypt and the Gulf States spread after the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz. Saudi Arabia is the most influential country in the GCC, and the late king had intervened personally to mend ties between Egypt and Qatar.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain had earlier recalled their ambassadors from Doha, partly because of Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood and strong opposition to Egypt’s post-Morsi regime.
Abdullah’s successor, King Salman, reshuffled senior positions in the Saudi ruling family, removing some of Al-Sisi’s backers in Riyadh. Reports appeared claiming that many of Salman’s inner circle, including Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, enjoyed close personal relations with Tamim bin Hamad, the emir of Qatar. Commentators were quick to point out that while the Qatari emir attended Abdullah’s funeral, Al-Sisi arrived a day later to offer condolences to King Salman.
Jamal Khashoggi, an analyst known to be close to the Saudi royal family, wrote in the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat that while no radical changes were expected in relations between Cairo and Riyadh, the support the world’s largest oil exporter provided to Egypt was likely to be “wiser.”
He added that while Egypt has a legitimate right to protect its security and fight terrorism, Gulf countries want to prevent Cairo from being dragged into a war in Libya that it cannot afford, which is why their support for a Security Council resolution asking for joint military action in Libya was at best lukewarm.
Cracks in Egypt’s crucial relationship with Saudi Arabia appeared to widen when the Muslim Brotherhood-owned television channel Mekamleen broadcast what it claimed were secret recordings between Al-Sisi and one of his top aides, Major General Abbas Kamel.
The “secret recordings”, aired for the first time earlier this month, appear to show Al-Sisi, who was minister of defence at the time of the conversation, and Kamel, speaking in demeaning terms about Gulf nations and the financial support they were providing Cairo following Morsi’s removal.
Egyptian officials said the recordings were a fabrication. In the 40-minute televised address Al-Sisi made to the nation on 22 February, a lengthy passage was devoted to praising Egypt’s strong ties with the GCC nations, and he twice thanked the leaders of Saudi, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Though Al-Sisi did not refer directly to the alleged recordings he spoke about “fourth-generation wars” and how “technology and advanced tactics” are used to produce false statements with the aim of destroying strategic relations between Egypt and its allies.
Amid all the turmoil, nobody is holding out hope that relations will improve soon between Egypt and Qatar. After the bitter exchange between the ambassadors of Egypt and Qatar at the Arab League last week, there were claims by the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera satellite channel that Egypt’s air strikes in Libya succeeded only in killing civilians, including children. Local presenters of popular talk shows then took it upon themselves to spearhead a campaign against the Qatari ruling family.
Ahmed Moussa, who presents a talk show on the private television channel Sada Al-Balad, asked his audience to tweet using the hashtag “Tamim, the son of, excuse me, Mozza.” Mozza is the mother of the emir of Qatar and has been repeatedly attacked in the Egyptian media for her alleged ties to opponents of former president Hosni Mubarak, ousted in a popular revolution on 11 February 2011.
While there is no love lost between Egyptian officials and Doha, one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most consistent supporters, Cairo is clearly unwilling to sacrifice ties with its allies in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is particularly the case as Egypt prepares to host an important economic conference in Sharm El-Sheikh in mid-March.