A gulf of difference: How the UAE and Egypt’s close coordination fell apart and what’s next

Eritrea Tigray

(Source: Mada Masr, 19 December 2020) –

The Egypt-UAE honeymoon Trump’s presidency ushered in is over.

On Wednesday, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed traveled to Cairo to hold direct talks with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the shifting dynamics of the blockade of Qatar, which Saudi Arabia has been pushing hard to bring to a resolution after more than three years. 

However, the two state leaders were merely “reducing tension” caused by the Saudi proposal, according to a government source in Cairo. 

While Sisi and MBZ are reluctant to move forward with the Saudi plan, Egypt has also been trying to court the kingdom’s favor as the relationship between Cairo and Abu Dhabi has grown increasingly strained over the past 18 months, according to the source. “Wednesday’s visit should not be seen as a sign of an end to what are profound differences” between the two capitals, the source said. 

Four years ago, however, relations between Egypt and the UAE were much rosier. Bolstered by the anti-Islamist rhetoric of US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, MBZ and Sisi found in the reality TV star and real estate magnate’s candidacy a reason for a return to closer ties, after they had watched their relationship falter in the preceding years over Cairo’s hesitancy to carry out a UAE-proposed plan to overhaul the Egyptian economy predicated on a slow and gradual plan for devaluation and subsidies reform.

Following Sisi’s rise to power on the back of the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE provided substantial financial funds to stabilize Egypt after years of open-ended political transition had taken a toll on the Egyptian economy. However, growing impatient for reforms to come and unwilling to continue to step in to provide financial support, the UAE decided to recall in late 2015 Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the UAE minister of state that had been tasked with guiding Egypt through the economic reform measures, and to suspend a range of investment plans in Egypt. Still, according to a UAE political source, the Emirates would not turn their back on Egypt.

Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 coincided with shifting foreign policy alignments for Egypt. In April of that year, Egypt conceded sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudia Arabia, a move that was far from popular but was one that authorities in Egypt thought was essential to keep the support of the Saudis.

The Saudis, however, seemed not to fully appreciate the nature of the move and were not as cooperative as the authorities in Cairo had hoped.

“There was dismay, certainly. The Saudis had been too demanding. They would not settle for the islands. They also wanted Egypt to send troops to help with the war they were launching in Yemen. There was no agreement on this in Cairo,” says an informed Egyptian official.

With Saudi support tempered, the authorities in Egypt decided they had to move forward with the economic austerity measures that had been put off, taking steps that would culminate in a US$12 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The UAE found the move very encouraging.

When Trump was elected, Egypt and the UAE’s relationship was reinforced, with the two countries agreeing to coordinate a joint foreign policy agenda centered on curtailing the spread of political Islam and finding a “solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Sisi and MBZ were to be directly responsible for coordinating this effort through face-to-face meetings or regular phone calls, according to UAE and Egyptian political and government sources.

Over the past four years, this agenda has seen the two sides cooperate on several fronts, from the blockade of Qatar and Egypt’s pragmatic support of so-called “deal of the century” to propping up Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Haftar’s ill-fated military campaign to take the capital of Tripoli and re-establishing contact with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, according to two informed Egyptian government officials and a UAE political source who have spoken to Mada Masr several times over the last 18 months, the Egypt-UAE honeymoon Trump’s presidency ushered in is over. 

Officials present different narratives as to why relations between Cairo and Abu Dhabi have grown increasingly distant. But one theme is constant: Cairo was willing to be a partner to the UAE and, in return, expected to be included in the decision-making process on all issues of common concern. Instead, the UAE has repeatedly taken the lead on regional issues without seriously consulting Egypt, often unilaterally adopting aggressive policies while disregarding Cairo’s concerns.

From Israel-Palestine to Libya and Qatar, from Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, the two countries’ foreign policy interests have increasingly diverged, putting an increasing strain on what was once a solid relationship.

A key point of disagreement has been over how to suppress political Islam across the region and to promote more military-based, strongman rule, a feature of Sisi and MBZ’s 2016 pact, according to diplomatic and official sources. While both countries looked for ways to counter the generous support Qatar and Turkey were offering to Islamist movements in the region, the UAE and Egypt differed substantially in their approaches and appetite for intervention.

The pinnacle of Egypt’s anti-Islamist alliance with the UAE came in 2013, when the UAE played a central role in providing diplomatic support to the Armed Forces’ move to crush Egypt’s democratic experiment with political Islam. Sisi, the minister of defense at the time, moved to oust Morsi from office on the back of popular protests. Eliminating the rule of political Islam in Egypt, according to a highly informed UAE political source, had been “a top priority” at the time.

“We could not have allowed them to stretch their rule all over the Arab world, simply because it would have been a matter of time before they would hit us,” the source says, adding that Emirati security had spotted “attempts of Islamists in Egypt to communicate with the Islamists in our country with the intention of stirring up problems.”

The UAE’s “helping hand” to push back political Islamist forces was not just extended to the “like-minded forces” in Egypt but also in several Arab countries — even at the expense of the close ties with the UAE’s closest Gulf ally and traditional regional leader, Saudi Arabia.

Western and Arab diplomats speak of the resistance that the UAE showed to the Saudi lobbying in DC and Paris for a swift ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he was quelling calls for democracy and taking the initial steps that would lead the country into a civil war. They also point to the role of the UAE in aborting all Saudi attempts to establish a Sunni-Islamist alliance in Yemen to take over in the wake of the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the early months of the Arab Spring.

The Emirates, like the Saudis, were fully opposed to the Arab Spring, according to the UAE source, but the Emirates were equally opposed to the rise of political Islam anywhere in the Arab region, much more than the Saudis.

For Jalal Harchaoui, a researcher focused on North Africa at the Global Initiative, it was the Arab Spring that gave this new regional scope to the UAE’s “profoundly anti-Liberal agenda.”

“In January 2011, US President Obama’s decision not to rescue Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak shocked the Emiratis. That traumatic moment, which saw the UAE caught off guard and disappointed, led to the irrevocable conclusion that Washington was inherently incapable of leadership. Because of that perceived vacuum, Abu Dhabi now views itself as a regional leader of sorts. Regardless of how implausible that may sound, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and his team feel ‘responsible’ for entire swaths of Africa and the Middle East. This isn’t true from a conventional security perspective, but from an ideational perspective,” Harchaoui says. 

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the UAE took one of its most public steps in this leadership role. Alongside Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the Emirates initiated a boycott and blockade of Qatar in the summer of 2017, an unprecedented political move that split the Gulf Cooperation Council’s fragile unity.

There was nothing new in the lexicon of the GCC about a Qatari-Saudi bras de fer, which had started with the new millennium as Doha assumed a much bigger political role in the region than the traditionally leading Riyadh had an appetite for. Doha’s association with Tehran and its support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to which Riyadh was opposed, and to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt strained relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.

It was, however, new for the GCC to see the UAE standing against Qatar. “The UAE was taking a more aggressive line as it was suggesting some sort of direct confrontation with Qatar,” according to a well-informed diplomat from the anti-Qatar Arab quartet.

“The UAE had tried to support the opposition to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, but Erdogan survived the attack,” according to a former European ambassador in Abu Dhabi. “The UAE was willing to try again with Qatar but I think that it did not receive direct support from Egypt on this.”

Egypt, according to informed Egyptian officials, would have certainly welcomed regime change in Qatar, but it was not exactly willing to support an outright aggressive or possible military confrontation between two Arab countries. “Or at least not everybody in Cairo agreed to this line because it was not clear what it could lead to if initiated,” says one of the officials.

At that point, some within Cairo’s decision-making circles were growing anxious over Abu Dhabi’s increasing willingness to adopt aggressive interventionist policies.

However, cooperation between the two countries remained solid.

Both Cairo and Abu Dhabi were on the same page with regards to Libya, Tunisia and Syria. They were both supporting the creation of a strong military base in the east of Libya to put a cap on the Islamist expansion, as well as liberal and secular political forces in Tunis, whom they were lobbying European countries to support. And they were re-establishing contact with the Assad regime.

And above everything, according to Cairo officials, there was good chemistry at the leadership level. 

However, this chemistry did not translate into the UAE being as financially supportive as Egypt would have liked. The UAE official acknowledges that Abu Dhabi’s top officials conveyed “a clear message to Cairo that there are limits to how far we could go with financial support.”

Cairo’s concerns emerged again in the closing months of 2018 when a planned assault on Tripoli by the mercurial Haftar was put on the table.

An Egyptian diplomatic official told Mada Masr at the time that while Haftar was holding direct consultations with Emirati officials, he evaded Egyptian officials.

Egypt was particularly upset with Haftar over what it perceived to be a “lack of commitment to political and security cooperation between Libya and Egypt,” the official said. The differences in strategy extended to the UAE’s position on the issue as well.

While Libya was a venue for an ideological contest against political Islam, Egypt has long been concerned that increased instability in its western neighbor, with which it shares a long and porous border, could pose a potential threat to its security.

Inevitably, according to several Egyptian officials, what Egypt said proved true: Haftar’s ability to take Tripoli was overestimated despite backing from the Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Russia, and inevitably caused the Government of National Accord to seek external support from Turkey. 

In order to preserve its security interests, Egypt knew it must make concessions in the west of Libya. 

Speaking shortly after the collapse of Haftar’s 14-month campaign to take Tripoli, an Egyptian official said, “had Haftar not lost this ‘military adventure,’ maybe we would not have had to go so far in talking to the Islamists.”

For the UAE, however, Egypt’s concerns over instability in Libya were not of the same importance, according to Harchaoui, who argues that Abu Dhabi “focuses on ideational risks rather than conventional security risks.”

“Because of the showcase quality of Libya, Abu Dhabi feels it cannot possibly accept a mode of governance in Tripoli whose pluralism grants a degree of influence to political Islam, whether very radical or very moderate. In Libya, any kind of pluralistic arrangement, if allowed to exist and prosper in Tripoli within a context of peace, would send an ideational message to other Sunni-majority countries in the vicinity and engender a domino effect across the upper half of Africa,” he says. “Such contagion could then spill over into the Arabian Peninsula where the prevailing mode of governance is vertical and strict. Anything looser than that would jeopardize the current system of power.”

To achieve this end, the Emirates provided significant backing to Haftar’s campaign. According to a 2020 report by the UN panel of experts tasked with monitoring the arms embargo in Libya, the UAE’s arm transfers to the country since January alone had “been extensive, blatant and with complete disregard to the sanctions measures.” In the period from the start of the assault on Tripoli in April 2019 to January 2020, the UN panel found that the Libyan National Army, which does not boast any drones in its air force, and affiliated forces “conducted some 850 precision airstrikes by drones and another 170 by fighter-bomber, among them some 60 precision airstrikes by foreign fighter aircraft.” The UAE has been implicated in these drone attacks on Tripoli that have resulted in extensive civilian casualties.

Finding a settlement to Israel’s occupation of Palestine was another major goal of Egypt and the Emirates’ shared foreign policy vision of 2016. According to several diplomatic sources, including a former US official, MBZ was briefed about the Trump vision for a “peace settlement” in the Middle East before Trump had actually arrived at the Oval Office. “And from a very realistic point of view, he agreed,” the former US official says.

In August, the UAE normalized relations with Israel and moved to lobby other Arab countries to follow suit as part of a major reconfiguration of Middle East relations. However, Sisi was only notified of the announcement that came out of the White House a few days ahead of time, according to Egyptian diplomats.

Egypt then watched uneasily as the UAE lobbied the US to get Saudi Arabia to tacitly approve of a deal for Bahrain to also normalize relations with Israel, according to several Egyptian officials. 

Egypt did not send its foreign minister to attend the White House signing of normalization deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, in what was dubbed the Abraham Accords.

It also, according to an informed source, took its time to release Salah Diab, an Egyptian businessman with close family associations to the powerful UAE Ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, despite an urgent appeal from top UAE officials.

For many official and political sources, the Diab account is perhaps one of the most telling stories of the state of “unease” and “tension” between Cairo and Abu Dhabi.

Diab was eventually released after having spent two weeks in custody, upon a prosecutor’s order, during which he was cleared from alleged charges of corruption. Diab had been arrested previously on corruption charges, but that time he was promptly released in less than 48 hours upon a phone call from Otaiba. 

Also, this year, Egyptian authorities forced Diab to give up on a part of his share in a mega-development project and to significantly downsize the operation of the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm and to start working out a deal to hand over the paper to one of the state-owned media companies.

One of the main sources of concern for Cairo is its conviction that the UAE is trying to present itself as a leading force in promoting normalization with Israel — a move that could severely curtail Egypt’s historical role as the principal mediator in the Israel-Palestine so-called peace process, according to an Egyptian official. 

Egypt’s waning influence in the Israel-Palestine conflict is a serious cause for concern given its lack of other strategic points of interest with the incoming US administration of President-elect Joe Biden, according to the Egyptian official.

While there are opposing opinions among Egyptian officials as to whether Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will come together to overcome perceived obstacles posed by Biden’s win in November, the Emiratis’ continued pursuit of normalization in the region reflects Abu Dhabi’s ambition to establish its position as the principal power player in the region. 

“[MBZ] has invested so much in this to let go of it. He would have preferred to continue working with Trump, but he will try to work on this with Biden as a win-win-win treat that would make the new US administration look as keen on promoting the integration of Israel as the previous one, make the UAE a strategic partner for the US on the basis that its work to promote normalization is an investment in Washington rather than just an investment in the Trump administration and will give Benjamin Netanyahu a chance to make more political gains that could save him politically,” the official says.

According to two informed European diplomats, the UAE’s decision to open a consulate in the Sahari district of Laayoune, the largest city of the disputed territory of Western Sahara, at the beginning of November was part of a “stimulating scheme” that Abu Dhabi was offering Rabat to move forward with the diplomatic normalization announced last Thursday. 

Effectively, the UAE’s was the 16th consulate in Laayoune. Its inauguration is compatible with the long-standing UAE foreign policy acknowledging Western Sahara as under Moroccan sovereignty. Jordan followed shortly after. 

The deal, however, is that the UAE will encourage other countries, especially within the GCC who also share the acknowledgment of Western Sahara as a Moroccan territory to operate a consulate in Laayoune.

“It was quite significant for Morocco to get more recognition on its sovereignty over Western Sahara,” according to an informed government official, after the eruption of hostilities in Western Sahara in November shattered a three-decade-long cease-fire and threatened a full-blown military conflict between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front.

Morocco is not the last country that the UAE is pushing toward normalization either. According to a Cairo-based researcher familiar with UAE foreign policy decision-makers, Abu Dhabi is also working on Mauritania.

“Tunis is off for now obviously because the Tunisian president is clearly not attuned to this normalization theme — at least not yet,” he says.

The UAE, he says, has already “pledged mega investments, essentially in gas, oil and mining industries, in Morocco and Mauritania — we are talking of two packages of a few billion dollars each.”

According to the same official, despite the traditional anti-normalization posture of Algeria, MBZ has made some inroads within the top military brass in the North Africa country.

Outside of the normalization file, the UAE could try to push other points of cooperation with the incoming Biden administration. Dropping its hostile posturing toward Qatar, its support for Haftar in Libya and opposing calls for democracy in Tunisia might be on the list of compromises that Abu Dhabi would have to make in the coming months to have a fresh start on relations with the Biden administration, argues a Washington DC-based diplomat. And the one thing that Abu Dhabi could get the most credit for from the new Biden Administration, sources agree, is to work with Riyadh on securing a prompt end to the war in Yemen, even if this end were to open the door for the repartition of the long-troubled country’s north and south.

However, Egypt is trying to carve out a small space of common ground and relevancy for the US.

Last week, Egyptian and European diplomatic sources told Mada Masr that Egypt is looking to jumpstart stalled negotiations on a two-state solution by bringing together the foreign ministers of France, Jordan and Germany with their counterparts in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. 

Egyptian Presidential Spokesperson Bassam Rady announced a portion of the plan at the close of last week when he told the press that French and Egyptian officials would be holding consultations with PA officials this week. 

While plans for the meeting have been in the works for months, a number of Western diplomatic sources working in Cairo told Mada Masr that Egypt is intensifying its efforts to revive Israel-Palestine negotiations based on willingness shown by the PA to reengage, but also as a way for Cairo to reassert itself as the principal regional mediator in the so-called peace process.

According to the sources, the meeting is to be held sometime before December 25, and is to follow an official visit to Cairo from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is to hold talks with Sisi on restarting Israel-Palestine negotiations. The Egyptian diplomatic source told Mada Masr that the exact date of Netanyahu’s visit is yet to be decided. Though the Israeli prime minister has paid three visits to Cairo over the past five years, none has been officially announced.  

The foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan, Germany and France will likely hold initial talks on their own, both sources said, followed by separate meetings with their Palestinian and Israeli counterparts.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his preliminary support for beginning indirect talks with Israel at a meeting with Sisi in Cairo two weeks ago, according to the Egyptian source.

Egypt’s concern about the inroads the Abraham Accords have made for the UAE are not limited to the US election cycle, however. Egypt is particularly worried that the UAE-Isreali rapprochement will lead the two countries to cooperate in areas of competing interest, including in Sudan, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.

Following the US-mediated agreement between Sudan and Israel to begin normalizing relations, an informed Egyptian source told Mada Masr that “there is a certain unease among some circles of power in Cairo over the development,” as a rapprochement with Sudan would allow Israel to establish relief organizations across Sudan, giving it significant influence in the country. There is also a concern that Israel would pursue water-intensive projects in Sudan as it has in Ethiopia, the source added. 

According to government officials in Cairo, the UAE and Israel have established planned security cooperation in Ethiopia and Somalia, which Egypt fears will bring greater Israeli intelligence to the area. The same sources add that a UAE-Israeli plan to dig a water canal from the most southern point of the Red Sea in Eilat to Haifa port. Access to the canal would be gained through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Strait of Tiran. If the plan were to come to fruition, it would be a significant blow to the Suez Canal, especially given the significant investment it put into digging the New Suez Canal.

Egypt also has found the UAE to be inattentive to one of its chief security concerns in the region, as Abu Dhabi was unwilling to apply the pressure Cairo wanted on Ethiopia in order to facilitate a political and legal settlement on the construction, filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Several informed Egyptian officials say that they were “dismayed” by the UAE when it declined to use its financial influence, given its huge investment in Ethiopia, to prompt Addis Ababa to be more cooperative in reaching a deal on the GERD, as Egypt was becoming increasingly concerned about its annual share of Nile water.

The UAE committed $3 billion in investment and support to Ethiopia, including a $1 billion deposit with the National Bank of Ethiopia to help improve access to hard currency. It also pledged to build a $2 billion luxury property development in 2018 around the site of the old La Gare railway station in central Addis Ababa.

The outbreak of armed conflict in the Ethiopian state of Tigray last month between the Ethiopian military and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the dominant force in Ethiopian politics between 1991 to 2018 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ascended to power, has only drawn out UAE-Egypt differences even further, with each supporting opposing parties. 

The open-source investigative platform Bellingcat confirmed the presence of Chinese-produced drones at the UAE’s military base in Assab, Eritrea, and according to three Egyptian officials and a European diplomat briefed on affairs in the Horn of Africa, the UAE has used the base to launch drones into Tigray, while also providing cross-border support for the Ethiopian military.

Meanwhile, Egypt has actively been lobbying Sudan to provide support to the TPLF, according to the Egyptian officials, in an apparent bid to further weaken Abiy as negotiations with his government over the dam have reached an impasse, even as it has faced pressure to refrain from doing so from Eritrea, a long time ally.

Egypt has equally grown concerned over the extent that the UAE has pushed for Eritrea to support Abiy, according to the same sources. While the extent of Eritrean involvement is unknown, the TPLF has claimed to have seen Eritrean soldiers fighting in Tigray and a foreign diplomat told Reuters there were “thousands” of Eritrean soldiers believed to be engaged in Tigray. 

For Egypt, the longstanding impasse with Ethiopia is indicative of a larger problem — its relative lack of influence in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, an area it considers its backyard both for potential resource management along the Nile and commercial trade in the water passageway leading into the Suez Canal. And according to informed officials, Egypt has often found itself wondering about the UAE’s plans in an expanded presence across the Red Sea up to the point of the strait of Bab el-Mandeb. 

The Emirates has become a major power broker and the principal architect of the security framework in the fiercely competitive Red Sea, with the base in Eritrea alongside bases in Berbera, Somaliland; Bosaso, Somalia; and several coastal ports in Yemen, where it had fought alongside the Saudi-led coalition since 2015.

And where it doesn’t have a base, Abu Dhabi has shown a willingness to facilitate a seat at the table of the Red Sea security arrangement for other countries. 

In Sudan, the UAE shifted its diplomatic efforts from kickstarting a fragile normalization process with Israel to mediating between Khartoum and Moscow to establish a Russian naval base in Port Sudan, according to an Egyptian official. 

“All of East Africa has become dotted with military bases from countries that are not in the region,” says one Egyptian official, expressing Egypt’s dismay at the UAE’s involvement in the Russian base.

That hasn’t stopped Egypt from trying to secure a military footprint. In recent high-level meetings with officials from Eritrea and Juba, Egypt has continued to try to secure a presence of some kind in the Horn, according to Egyptian officials. However, no arrangements are imminent, and South Sudan declined Egypt’s requests to build a base on South Sudanese land.

Complicating matters for Egypt’s desire for a larger sway in the Red Sea, however, is the loss of Tiran and Sanafir islands, which it ceded sovereignty over to Saudi Arabia in 2016. The two islands lying at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba had been a crucial coordination point for Red Sea security and seen Egypt play a leading role in managing security arrangements in the Strait of Tiran with Israel per the terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords.

But Egypt and Saudi Arabia may be finding some common ground. At the close of November, Sisi ratified the charter of the Red Sea Council, which was signed by the foreign ministers of Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen in January 2020.

According to an informed official, Egypt moved to ratify its membership in the council in order to give it a forum to make statements on Red Sea security away from Israel and the UAE, neither of whom, along with Ethiopia, are currently members.

For Harchaoui, the litany of disagreements may not mean the UAE and Egypt will have a firm break, however. 

“On the foreign policy level, the UAE isn’t really disappointed: it isn’t that naïve, it knows that Egypt is a soft and dysfunctional giant,” he says. “Despite an ever growing demography, deteriorating economic inequality and other structural weaknesses, Egypt remains the most influential Arab nation in terms of popular, grass-root perception. The country is no longer what it used to be 40 or 50 years ago, but it still has retained a bellwether character. The only serious expectation the UAE has regarding the incumbent Egyptian government is to be strictly authoritarian when it comes to domestic politics.”

At the very heart of Cairo’s executive quarters, however, there are growing concerns that this excessive dose of authoritarianism that is designed to quell all forms of political opposition, Islamist or not, could lead to an “explosion” — later rather than sooner — especially since it is being coupled with high economic risk as a result of expanding foreign debt when neither Saudi Arabia nor the Emirates are showing the same generosity as they were in 2013 and 2014.  


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