Daily Maverick

En garde! Saudi Arabia and Egypt cross scimitars

Despite the mutually beneficial relationship the two countries have, there is much tension between them. This is because Egypt is changing and Saudi Arabia isn’t. In fact, it’s being the usual bully on the block in terms of human rights, labour relations and elitist arrogance.

Daily Maverick – 2 May 2012 – 

Despite the mutually beneficial relationship the two countries have, there is much tension between them. This is because Egypt is changing and Saudi Arabia isn’t. In fact, it’s being the usual bully on the block in terms of human rights, labour relations and elitist arrogance.

The late Saudi Arabian King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud once remarked, “Arabs are in need of Egypt and Egypt is in need of Arabs.” Abdul-Aziz was the founder of the Saudi state as we know it today and he’s well remembered for his efforts – airports, roads and even a gate of the holy mosque in Makah bear his name in obliging deference.

He is also the father of the current Saudi monarch, Abdullah. And while Abdul-Aziz’s name continues to be emblazoned across the Saudi kingdom, his policy towards Egypt, so neatly encapsulated in that one sentence, may prove less enduring.

Last weekend Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Egypt “for consultations”, after vociferous protests outside the embassy complex left diplomats in trepidation. In similar protests at the Israeli embassy in Cairo last year, protesters muscled their way into the Israeli embassy, ransacked an office and trapped six Israeli staff inside for several hours. The Saudis, therefore, had good reason to be afraid. Egypt’s ruling military council rushed to smooth ruffled Saudi feathers, assuring the Saudis of their commitment to the security of the embassy and the protection of its staff.

But a virulent anti-Saudi sentiment has taken root in Egypt. In the streets, graffiti artists have expressed their disdain for the Saudi monarch in one word, “Toz” – loosely translated in English as “Screw you.” And chorusing the street art is an audacious social media campaign, expressing disdain for the Saudis.

In the last week, Egyptians have aired a litany of complaints against Saudis. Prominent among the complaints are: Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia are mistreated by their employers, Egyptian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia are mistreated by Saudi officials and Saudis in Egypt behave condescendingly towards Egyptians.

The Egyptians need not feel singled out – the plight of Asian labourers in the kingdom and the experience of non-Arab pilgrims at the hands of Saudis illustrates the Saudi penchant to look down on anything that is not Saudi.

This outpouring of anger was set off by the arrest of Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed El-Gizawi at King Abdul-Aziz International Airport in Jeddah on April 17. Saudi authorities claim Gizawi had been found with more than 20,000 pills of the anti-anxiety drug, Xanax, hidden in his luggage. Gizawi however, is also said to be facing charges for insulting the King – he had filed a lawsuit in a South Cairo court against the Saudi monarch on behalf of Egyptian citizens held without charge in Saudi prisons.

He was convicted in absentia to a year in prison and 20 lashes, but wasn’t informed of his conviction before making his trip to Mecca. Gizawi’s relatives and supporters claim the drug charges are a sham. They believe Gizawi is facing the wrath of the Saudi system for challenging the power of the Saudi royal family.

On Tuesday the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported Gizawi’s case had been referred to a committee that will decide whether to call for the death penalty, amputation or stoning before passing the case on to a religious court. And while Gizawi’s fate is left to the vagaries of the Saudi judicial system, the Saudi ambassador has returned to Cairo to face an Egyptian public bristling with anti-Saudi sentiment.

A curious report in Saudi-owned media on Tuesday claimed that Egypt had actually thwarted an Iranian attempt on the Saudi ambassador’s life. A Saudi official claims these same Iranians had infiltrated the ranks of protesters outside the embassy in Cairo and concerns for the ambassador’s safety from his own staff had motivated the move to recall their ambassador.

In turn, an unnamed Egyptian official quoted by the Egyptian state news agency rubbished the report.

Although the calls for Egypt to cull relations with Saudi Arabia are growing in both volume and frequency, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have a long-established relationship of mutual benefit, just as King Abdul-Aziz said it should be.

Saudi Arabia hosts nearly  a million Egyptian labourers, who are hard pressed to find employment at home. In reciprocation, Egypt is a playground for the 300,000 Saudi tourists who visit Egypt every year to indulge in the illicit pleasures of Egypt’s liberties. And though trade between the two countries stands at $4.2-billion, Egyptian authorities will be forced to channel the anti-Saudi sentiment somehow.

After all, it was just last week that Egypt bowed to public pressure and scrapped its controversial gas deal with Israel. Egyptians have revelled in the opportunity to actually have a say in the thrust of their country’s foreign policy. It is also the first time the Saudis are being treated to an honest account of themselves by fellow Arabs.

For Saudi Arabia, the tumult of the Arab Spring stressed a need for a brand of Arab unity in which Saudi Arabia reigns supreme. The Saudis have spent the last year pressing the Gulf Co-Operation Council to withstand the power of the Arab League and with it the subversive powers of a new political elite in North Africa.

The Saudis’ generous offer of $4-billion to Egypt to shore up a flailing Egyptian economy in the uncertainty of the post-Mubarak days has been part of a calculated strategy to buy influence in the new Egypt and ensure Saudi prominence in Egyptian business and politics.

Saudi Arabia has historically exercised considerable influence over its neighbours through its vast oil wealth, commercial hegemony and the ideological influence of Salafism, the literalist and puritanical version of Islam. As Egypt readies itself for the first presidential election in a new era, the nagging influence of Saudi Arabia has been hard to shake off. Egyptians are frustrated by the hegemonic role of Saudi Arabia in the country’s affairs, but Saudi Arabia is also trying hard to assert itself in a rapidly evolving region. It finds itself in conflict with the ethos of the new Egypt, where the focus is on what the people say. DM

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