When Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Egypt in late April over angry protests in front of the Saudi embassy, tensions were high between the two nations. But a few weeks later, it was business as usual. After all, the countries are and will always remain strong allies.
The temporary diplomatic spat started after Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed El Gizawi was arrested in April by Saudi security forces upon arriving in the country to perform omra (the lesser pilgrimage). His wife told news agencies that her husband had been detained after being sentenced in absentia to a year in prison and 20 lashes for insulting Saudi King Abdallah. Activists said he was held after filing a complaint against Saudi Arabia for its treatment of Egyptians in its prisons. The Saudi Embassy in Egypt rejected both claims, saying he was detained for allegedly smuggling more than 21,000 pills of the anxiety drug Xanax, banned in the kingdom.
The anger that sparked violent protests across Egypt stems from the common belief that Egyptian workers face harsh working conditions in Saudi Arabia, and that the kingdom abuses its control of the Muslim holy places in Medina and Mecca.
Analysts say the media in both countries has sensationalized the case. Khalil Al-Anani, a political analyst at Britain’s Durham University, argues that the issue was mishandled by both parties. “The media played a negative role in galvanizing the public on unfounded reasons. On the other hand, Saudis used the crisis to rein in the offensive discourse against the kingdom,” he says, adding that the politicization and lack of transparency exacerbated the situation.
Ali Ibrahim, deputy editor-in-chief of the Saudi-funded, London-based Asharq al-Awsat, says that social media and popular sentiment were also tools that aggravated the case. “In terms of the popular dimension, you can see from the Saudi side that there was anger and that Saudi public opinion supported the government’s decision to withdraw the ambassador,” he says. “It seems from comments on Twitter, Facebook and within the media that many Saudis felt it was an attack on them as well as on the government.”
Ibrahim also notes that while these types of “individual” cases have happened before between the two countries, this time it took on different dimensions due to the political problems and unrest happening in Egypt.
“The reason that the problem got out of hand this time is that the protestors attacked the embassy, threatened the staff and used offensive and insulting slogans,” he says, arguing that one of the main interests for any country is to protect the diplomatic missions on their soil. “In this case, the buildup and the actions of the protestors were so severe that the situation escalated, and the Saudis decided to withdraw their ambassador.”
Because of the countries’ strong ties, it didn’t take long to restore calm. After an Egyptian delegation traveled to Saudi Arabia to speak with Saudi King Abdallah in an attempt to ease the tensions, Saudi Ambassador Ahmed Kattan returned to Cairo shortly after, in early May.
“The repercussions of the recent events on the relations between the two countries pained every honorable Saudi and Egyptian,” the king was quoted as saying to Saudi official media.
Analysts agree that case wasn’t the first, and the strong ties between the countries will always work to overcome differences.
UAE-based columnist and media commentator Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi notes that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are bound by a complex relationship that stretches back two centuries.
“Today, each country depends on the other on a host of issues,” he says. “The Saudis count on Egypt’s political and military clout, and the Egyptians value Saudi’s financial support through aid as well as through the sheer number of Egyptians working in Saudi.”
Al-Anani also agrees that the two countries have an important strategic relationship, seen as a cornerstone in the region. “I don’t think the Gizawi issue will jeopardize relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The common interests are bigger than such a transient issue,” he says, before adding that with the regime change in Egypt and the uncertainty, the relationship has been shaken up.
Ibrahim sees it that way too. “I think that the crisis happened now because the situation in Egypt is so fluid,” the deputy editor-in-chief says, adding that other ‘friendly’ countries, not only the Saudis, are also being cautious, largely because the situation is Egypt is not clear.
The Relationship Post-Revolution
One thing that is clear is that since the start of the revolution, many believe that Saudi Arabia didn’t want to see Hosni Mubarak’s ousted.
“I think that there has been something building in the year since the revolution, and that Egyptians have the impression that Saudis are very cautious about the situation. There were increasing rumors, media campaigns and articles that suggested that the Saudis were not happy about the overthrow of the Mubarak regime,” says Ibrahim. He notes that the Saudis are aware of that sentiment and have repeatedly stated that they are looking forward to maintaining good relations with the new regime in Egypt.
Al-Anani also argues that there is a popular notion in Egypt that Saudi Arabia is seeking to contain the new rulers in Egypt through economic aid. “Some parties in Egypt politicize the aid and use it as a political means in their conflicts with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” he notes. “Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia will not be happy if an Islamist took power in Egypt.”
Al Qassemi adds to this point, saying that Saudi Arabia gets mixed reviews from Egyptians: “It scores in the less-politicized rural Egypt as the number-one destination for immigration for the purpose of work by young Egyptians. Many Cairenes [on the other hand] were unhappy with the support it offered Mubarak in his final days.”
Dr. Ayman Zohry, a demographer and expert on migration studies based in Cairo, estimates that two million Egyptians are living in Saudi Arabia. Of those, he notes, some are migrants working without legal visas and others working under the Kafeel law, whereby you need a Saudi sponsor to work in the country.
So when you have two million Egyptians living in Saudi Arabia, crimes and diplomatic issues should be expected especially because many workers work under pressure and there are often problems between the Egyptian worker and his sponsor, explains Zohry.
Mohamed Ismail Shafei is an Egyptian working in Saudi Arabia with Abbott Laboratories. A resident in Saudi for almost eight years, he does believe tensions exist because of the sponsorship law.
“There are some problems for Egyptian workers because their passports are with Saudi owners; some of them have spent more than seven years without seeing their family or even being permitted to bring them,” he says. “Some of them, of course, are humiliated. But that is not only Saudi Arabia’s fault: It is ours too, because we feel that we have no dignity.”
Ahmed Abdel Latif, another Egyptian expatriate working for a multinational company, argues that Egyptians do not face ill treatment. “I have been living in Saudi for six years, nothing has ever happened to me, and people have always been so respectful,” he says. “I think this whole issue has been fueled by the media and by the people. If you are respectful, […] people will respect you back.”
While public opinions do fuel a sometimes uneasy relationship between Egyptians and Saudis, the countries have too many interests at stake to let these incidents affect them. Ibrahim points to the way media and politicians from both countries stood up to defend the strong relations between the two nations, noting that most were calling for reason and trying to return calm.
“I think that the decision [to recall the Saudi ambassador] was a wake-up call and a reminder that there is a lot at stake between the two countries.”
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