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Saudi Arabia and Egypt: Interests at the time of "revolution"   

Asharq Al-Awsat - 03 May, 2012
Author: Adel Al-Toraifi

Saudi – Egyptian relations are experiencing a testing phase, perhaps the first of its kind since the departure of the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after what some prefer to call the “25 January Revolution”.
The recent attack on the Saudi Embassy is not the first of its kind; there has been an atmosphere of tension and intimidation over the past year, but the vandalism that the embassy and its consulates were subjected to, the abuse directed towards the Saudi leadership, and the defamation campaigns and insults that accompanied the incident on some Egyptian media channels and on social networking websites were all grossly excessive. The Saudis had to choose between accepting the abuse launched by some – I do not say all – towards the Saudi leadership and people, or responding firmly to it, even though this would impact upon bilateral relations between the two countries.

If you consider the nature of this abuse, you would find that they used common stereotypes to justify what happened. Egypt sees Saudi Arabia according to the commonly held impression, and likewise Saudi Arabia reads – or interprets – the campaign against it in accordance with its common impression of its Egyptian neighbor. There is no need to restore such stereotypes, namely because they are images that contain little truth and much illusion. The same negative descriptions that can be said about the Egyptian character can also be said about the Saudi character. In other words, common negative illusions reflect a shared negative culture, rather than explaining the characteristics of each party.

In every relationship between two states, or peoples, or even between two individuals, there is something of a shared history or experience, which in turn includes positive and negative aspects, or shall we say good and bad memories. If relations between the two parties become strained, one party – or both – will come out with a list of their gripes and bad memories, some real and some imagined. However, both parties can also list the reasons and circumstances why they should in fact strengthen their links.

Consider the relations between France and England, who fought each other in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), which was followed by the imperial expansion of both states, and yet despite this the two countries share a history of intermarriage between their respective royal families and ordinary communities, as well as cultural and trade exchanges and so on.

In an interesting book published last year entitled “1000 Years of Annoying the French” (2011), Stephen Clarke writes that the squabbles and sarcastic comments between the two countries were not confined to the era of the past empires, but rather some of the comments and insults continued even at the height of Franco-British cooperation, when they attempted to create economic and political unity among the Europeans.

The former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing once described the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, as “une petite bourgeoise provinciale” [a middle-class provincial]. The former French President Francois Mitterrand also once ridiculed Thatcher’s “grocer shop” mentality, in reference to the stereotypical image of the Britons as a people, selling groceries in shops. If you think that these descriptions are offensive, Clarke points out that the British Embassy in Paris once placed in the lobby of its main reception a huge painting of the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo (1815). There are many contemporary examples of this love-hate relationship, which characterizes the history of relations between many European countries. Thatcher, for example, stated her concerns to Gorbachev regarding the federation of East and West Germany following unification in 1990, whilst the Americans have maintained volatile relations with many Latin American countries, even after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, and until recently some Americans protested against the French stance rejecting the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, demanding that “French fries” be renamed “freedom fries”!

Returning to the history of the Middle East, rarely would we find two Arab countries that do not have a set of “distorted stereotypes” about each other, and even within the same country you find regional and tribal prejudices, not to mention the nationalist and partisan feuds that can be found in one area alone. In the Gulf there is an almost continuous tension between the Persians and the Arabs, and in Iraq there is constant tension between the Turks and Kurds on one side, and the Sunnis and Shiites on the other. Even in a – relatively – homogenous country such as Egypt, there are regional and class distinctions, while a person is described in accordance with their origins and ethnicity, something that no country is free of.

In the recent crisis between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a small group came out and fuelled the tension in a rowdy manner by attacking the premises of a sovereign country, and issuing insulting descriptions of Saudi political leaders, who enjoy respect, love and popularity both within Saudi Arabia and abroad. However, at the same time voices emerged and wrote from inside Egypt condemning what had happened, and apologizing for any offense caused by these infringements upon the sovereignty of the Saudi Kingdom.

Faced with this scene there are two schools of thought: The first recalls the depth of historical relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and warns against compromising the fraternity and shared history between the two countries. The second seeks to fuel the dispute, demanding that the relations carry more than they can bear under slogans along the lines of: “maintaining dignity” and restoring a sense of nationalistic “chauvinism” when it comes to relations with the outside world.

The truth is that relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, or any other two countries for that matter, are governed by mutual respect, a shared history of language, religion and intermarriage, but above all there are mutual political interests. Since the establishment of the Saudi state and the independence of Egypt, relations have been governed by interests. Whenever Egypt recognized its interests with Saudi Arabia, relations developed and cooperation was consolidated, and when Egypt changed its political orientation, its interests differed and relations were strained. During the monarchy era in Egypt there were chapters of convergence and others of tension, and in the period following the 1952 revolution there were stages where relations were strained to breaking point, and stages of convergence where the two countries built upon their common interests.

The well-known political scientist Alexander Wendt formulated an important theory of international relations in the late 1990s, in his book “Social Theory of International Politics” (1999), in which he summarized the relations between states based on the shared cultural history between any two states. He defined three relationships: Enmity (represented by Thomas Hobbes’ realism approach), rivalry (represented by John Locke’s utilitarian approach) and friendship (represented by Immanuel Kant idealist approach). These three cultures affect the behavior of states towards each other, and then there is another level regarding the manner in which states seek to apply this culture in their surroundings: A state may impose its values – and interests as well – through coercion (military and economic power), through bartering, through giving priority to the gains of rapprochement, or through using the soft power of its culture. Consider two states, one of which aspires to be democratic and liberal; America, and the other aspires to be revolutionary and religious; Iran. Both countries use military force to spread their values and at the same time exercise soft power within their surroundings.

If we try to simplify Wendt’s theory, we can say that there are regimes that beat the drum of coercion to force other countries to accept their policies, others that seek to do so by prioritizing interests through cooperation, and there are regimes that adopt the revolutionary approach and accordingly attempt to export their revolution – or at least preach its message – to achieve their interests no matter what these values are. The importance of Wendt’s theory lies in the assertion that good relations between any two countries do not necessarily have to arise from a similar culture, any two revolutionary countries, for example, may seek to give priority to their vision – or revolution – over the other. In this context, consider the historic rivalry between two communist countries such as the Soviet Union and China, or two Baathist regimes such as “Saddam Hussein’s Iraq” and “Hafez al-Assad’s Syria”.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt can be interpreted through this approach. Throughout periods of history, one party has attempted to impose a political vision at the expense of the other. There was also a phase in which each party tried to prioritize the principle of mutual – or shared – interests and we are now experiencing a new phase where some want to re-formulate the relations according to a new revolutionary vision, as was the case at the time of the revolutionary or nationalist tide against the Gulf governments in the 1960s.

Today Egypt is going through a turbulent phase where different political forces are competing to re-formulate priorities, and re-interpret Egypt’s national interests after the fall of the former regime. There are those who want to emphasize Egypt’s interest in continuing its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, and there are those who say that Egypt’s interest lie in moving away from Saudi Arabia and allying – as some are calling for – with a theocratic regime like that of Iran.

Relations between the two countries will not return to how they were before unless the vision of those who want to consolidate Egypt’s interests with Saudi Arabia overcomes those who advocate change. Thus we should lend support to the voices of friendship in confrontation with the advocates of division. This will not be possible if any party resorts to fuelling the division and justifying this with distorted stereotypes of the other party.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have important common interests that go beyond any disputes. Each country must return to evoking the importance of continuing those interests. There is no doubt that mutual respect is important, but interests are even more so.
 
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