Emirati-led regional security framework?

despite its seeming gravity, the summit came together at the last minute, according to an informed Egyptian government official, with the visits of Bin Zayed and Bennett being organized “at short notice” in an Emirati-led initiative.

✍️ Ehsan Salah, March, 2022

All eyes were on Sharm el-Sheikh this week as the Sinai city hosted a two-day summit between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. 

The three leaders sat for a highly publicized photo-op after a day of talks on Tuesday that were announced as centered on regional developments, energy and food security. The photo was presented as a show of unity between the three countries who have had a rocky relationship since the UAE officially normalized relations with Israel in 2020, supplanting Egypt’s historical role as the primary regional mediator and benefactor of relations with Tel Aviv. 

The summit marked the first public meeting between the leaders of Egypt, Israel and the Emirates. It was also the first time an Israeli prime minister had stayed overnight in Egypt in over two decades. 

It also came amid a moment of geopolitical recalibration in the region, as countries toe and sometimes openly flaunt new red lines being put forward by the West over relations with Russia. The invasion of Ukraine has also sent grain and energy prices soaring, threatening economies like Egypt’s that are particularly vulnerable to externalities. There is also a shared concern between Israel and several Gulf countries over the accelerated pace of talks between the US and Iran to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which the Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis had lobbied fiercely against – due to the need to reintegrate Tehran into the global economy to alleviate pressure on strained energy supplies. 

However, despite its seeming gravity, the summit came together at the last minute, according to an informed Egyptian government official, with the visits of Bin Zayed and Bennett being organized “at short notice” in an Emirati-led initiative.

And while Cairo-based and Gulf-based political and diplomatic sources agreed that the agenda of the meeting focused on economic and regional security cooperation that will bring together the three countries along with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Egypt remains quite skeptical of a broader regional security framework that will see its foreign policy aims further tied to its powerful neighbors.

At the root of the Emirati-led push for a new regional security arrangement is a concern over Iran, Gulf-based diplomatic sources agree, who say that Gulf countries and Israel already have a plan in place in advance of an imminent signing of a new deal. 

“We are talking about a new regional order that is being designed post-Abraham Accords. In this new order, Israel will be fully integrated in the security scheme, with the blessings of its old and new peace partners,” says a source who spoke on conditions of anonymity from a Gulf capital.

And while the focus is on Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Israel have also grown concerned over the administration of US President Joe Biden’s handling of regional affairs. 

Following reports earlier this month that the US was considering removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps from the US list of terrorist organizations, Bennett and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid issued a joint statement saying that they “refuse to believe that the United States would remove its designation as a terrorist organization.”

For Saudi Arabia, the frustration stems from the reluctance of the US president to deal directly with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Two weeks ago, according to one of the informed regional sources, MBS blocked a possible phone call between Biden and Saudi King Salman bin Abdelaziz. 

“He told the Americans that the king is hospitalized and that he will consider scheduling the call himself once he gets a request from Washington,” the source says. 

“It is not up to Washington to decide who runs the kingdom. MBS is there, and it is not up to Biden to decide who represents the king,” the Gulf-based source says. 

The Sharm el-Sheikh talks come shortly after the leaders of the three countries showed sympathy with Russia, which has faced widespread condemnation and sanctions from the West.

In the days after the invasion, the Saudis and the Emiratis signed onto an Arab League statement that did not condemn Russia and called instead for diplomacy, for escalation to be avoided and for the humanitarian situation to be considered. 

The UAE, a non-permanent member and the current president of the UN Security Council, also joined China and India in abstaining from a security council resolution demanding Russia cease its invasion of Ukraine, while the resolution was vetoed by Russia. At the time, senior Emirati diplomatic adviser Anwar Gargash justified the abstention by saying that the UAE “believes that taking sides would only lead to more violence.”

However, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined 138 other nations to vote in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution demanding Russia halt its invasion of Ukraine and withdraw all troops. According to a UN diplomatic source, they only voted in favor of the resolution that condemns the war on Ukraine after “firm talk” from the US.

“When the UAE abstained in the security council,” a Gulf-based political source says, “the US ambassador in New York told her counterpart: ‘Our soldiers are standing in Abu Dhabi monitoring the drones that could have taken down your capital. You don’t want these soldiers leaving the UAE.”

However, the concession does not amount to the Emirates and Saudis falling completely in line with US policy objectives. Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia, which has not agreed to increase oil production despite reported US lobbying, stated that it “will not incur responsibility regarding any shortage of oil supply as its oil facilities are attacked by Houthi terrorist militias.” The Emirati foreign minister made a similarly defiant move in flying to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart last week. 

Despite the increasing Gulf-Israeli alignment coming to a head in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt remains skeptical of the actionable items emerging from the summit and does not share the same anti-Iranian sentiment. 

“Nothing big will come of the summit. But we could not say no,” the Egyptian official says.

 “Yes, all issues will be on the table including possible Palestinian-Israeli talks and possible back-channel talks between Syria and Israel, but I am not sure that things can really happen any time soon on either front.” 

Egypt and the UAE have not exactly been seeing eye to eye on the pace of the normalization scheme, the source adds. “Honestly, the UAE has not been very transparent about what it does there.” 

Egyptian sources have been very vocal regarding their dismay with the UAE’s position on many fronts, most notably the support that Abu Dhabi has been lending to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, while Egypt and Ethiopia remain at loggerheads over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the potential downstream effects it may have on Egypt’s water politics. 

The same sources have shared similar disappointment with the refusal of Israel to use its good relations with Ethiopia to intervene on Egypt’s behalf on the same issue. 

The Gulf-based source agrees that there is significant tension with Egypt. “It is true that the relations between the UAE and Israel are much closer today than between the UAE and Egypt, but Egypt cannot be excluded from regional calculations.”

What’s more, Egypt has maintained an ambivalent stance toward Iran in recent years. 

“I think it is safe to say that when it came to Iran, we have always maintained quite an independent policy not just from that of the UAE but also from the Saudis. We were often asked to issue some radical statements against Iran but we would either issue some very carefully worded statements or not just issue anything at all,” a former high-level government official previously told Mada Masr.

Nonetheless, Egypt remains under outsized Gulf influence given Cairo’s financial dependence on support from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. 

In this week alone, as Egypt has faced increasing tumult from the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine – devaluing its currency, hiking interest rates and applying for a new loan from the International Monetary Fund – ADQ, an Abu Dhabi based wealth fund, agreed with Egypt to invest about $2 billion in the country by buying state-held stakes in some companies, including the country’s largest listed bank, Bloomberg reported earlier this week. 

Part of the agreement with ADQ involves it buying about 18 percent of Commercial International Bank. ADQ is buying stakes in four other companies listed on Egypt’s stock market, including Fawry for Banking and Payment Technology Services SAE, Abu Kir Fertilizers & Chemical Industries, Misr Fertilizers Production Company and Alexandria Container & Cargo Handling Company

Even before the outset of the war in Ukraine, Egypt was in talks to shore up its economic standing in the face of potential pressures. In late January, Sisi embarked on a visit to the UAE that was the first of several visits to a number of Gulf capitals to try to secure direct financial cooperation agreements. 

The Saudi leg came in early March, once the war in Ukraine had broken out and as its financial repercussions were becoming clear.

“No one in the Gulf can bear Egypt going through a severe economic crisis that leads to tensions like those caused by the food protests in Algeria or Morocco,” a government source told Mada Masr on the occasion of the visit. “Egypt’s political stability is not merely an internal affair that concerns the administration in Cairo. Rather, it is the concern of everyone, especially the Gulf, whose support for Cairo during the past eight years emerged out of this realization.”



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