By Antonino Occhiuto - Between February and April 2019, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, held a series of high level meetings with North African leaders such as Egypt’s and Tunisia’s Presidents and the undisputed leader of Libya’s East and South, General Khalifa Haftar. The significance of such meetings is represented by two major factors. First, for the first time since 2011, Saudi Arabia (KSA) is taking North African matters into its own hands after years of effectively relying on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Riyadh’s mail ally, with regards to the foreign policy strategy towards Tunisia, Egypt and, most notably, the Libyan crisis. Second, King Salman has stepped in personally, sending the unequivocal message that Saudi Arabia has decided to increase its engagement with North African countries.
Historically, Egypt-Saudi Arabia relations have been complex, as both countries aimed over the decades for leadership in the Sunni Arab world. The 2011 Arab uprisings, which cemented the decline of Arab Levant and North African countries and the rise of the Gulf states in the balance of power of the Middle East, is prompting both Saudi Arabia and Egypt to re-define their relationship. The late February 2019 meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh between Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and Saudi Arabia’s King, offers a reflection of the increasing synergy between Riyadh and Cairo. The meeting took place during the EU-Arab Summit, an initiative hosted by Egypt, which Saudi Arabia contributed significantly to organise. Riyadh endorsed Abu Dhabi’s efforts to contain the power of the Muslim Brotherhood which reached its peak in Egypt with the electoral win by Mohammed Morsi in 2012. Such efforts materialised as strong political and financial support for President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi after assuming power in 2013 by removing Morsi via military coup, following widespread calls for Morsi’s removal. Already in April 2016, as King Salman visited Cairo, Saudi Arabia had demonstrated its willingness to step-up in North Africa, by establishing a 16 billion (USD) investment fund dedicated to Egypt. The same meeting was also the occasion for Egypt to celebrate the 2017 end of its maritime border dispute with Saudi Arabia, officially placing two islands in the Straits of Tiran into Saudi sovereignty. This demonstrates the two countries’ willingness to build a unprecedented and long-lasting partnership on all levels. As far as regional geopolitics is concerned, Al-Sisi has publicly backed Riyadh’s efforts to contain Iran’s regional activities while Saudi Arabia supports Egypt in its fight against Islamist militias, with a particular focus on Libya. However, so far, words and commitments have struggled to pave the way for significant practical cooperation on the field. For instance, Cairo’s leadership had been (reluctantly) willing to commit Egypt’s military assets to support Saudi Arabia’s efforts in Yemen against Tehran-backed Houthi rebels but withdrew its forces from Yemen in 2016.
The late March visit to Saudi Arabia by General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Cyrenaica based Libyan National Army (LNA) is highly significant. This is because Haftar’s trip to Riyadh—the first time a Libyan leader travelled to Saudi Arabia since the time of King Idris—came shortly before the General announced his intention to launch an offensive against militias in Libya’s capital Tripoli. Until 2018, the UAE has been Haftar’s staunchest supporter in the Gulf. Abu Dhabi has extensively supported the LNA diplomatically, economically, and militarily. Egypt has also carried out direct military interventions against Haftar’s Islamist enemies. Abu Dhabi’s and Cairo’s involvement in Libya commenced immediately after the country’s civil war erupted in 2013/2014. Many commentators have regarded Haftar’s bilateral summit with King Salman as the result of Saudi Arabia’s willingness to increase its involvement in Libya by supporting Haftar and as a game changer emboldening the General’s aspirations. If, on the one hand, the fact that Haftar was received by both Saudi Arabia’s King and the Crown Prince signals that Riyadh is an increasingly active player in Libya and North Africa, on the other hand, Riyadh’s support for the LNA Tripoli push remains dubious. The meeting took place before the King’s travel to Tunisi for the Arab League Summit. Tunisian officials have, on several occasions, expressed concerns about a long battle for Tripoli which could potentially cause a refugee exodus and undermine Tunisia’s security. As such, King Salman, may have been reluctant to sanction a prolonged military offensive by Haftar.
Growing synergy on the Tunis-Riyadh axis is well represented by King Salman’s decision to launch three Saudi-funded projects during his visit to Tunisia in late March. King Salman and President Beji Caid Essebsi together laid the foundation stone of the King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud University Hospital that will soon be completed in Tunisia’s Kairouan. Relations between Saudi Arabia and post-2011 Tunisia have been shaped by Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s focus on curbing the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar movements in the country and beyond. The ascent, during Tunisia’s ongoing transition, of Qatar and Turkey-backed Ennahda—Tunisia’s main Islamist party—continues to worry Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As such, the fact that Nidaa Tounes, President Essebsi’s party, which ran on an anti-Islamist platform, thus gathering the support of KSA and UAE, formed a pragmatic coalition government with Ennahda, alienated its Gulf allies. It is certainly not a coincidence that King Salman’s visit and pledge of some $830 million (USD) in financial aid to the country came following the recent rupture between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda.
North Africa has been facing increasing turbulences since 2011. It is also a strategically located region in which the interests of both European and Gulf countries are increasingly intertwined. The Euro-Gulf Information Centre will continue to monitor initiatives and shifting interests which may lead to major changes in the region.
06 May 2019