ANALYSIS-Gulf Arab rulers tense over Egypt’s policy shifts
By Andrew Hammond Available at: http://af.reuters.com/article/egyptNews/idAFLDE73L0C920110427?sp=true
DUBAI, April 27 (Reuters) – At a recent conference in Abu Dhabi, a confidant of the emirate’s crown prince vented his frustration over the downfall of a major ally who Gulf Arab rulers once thought was as entrenched in power as they are.
“How could someone do this to him? He was the spiritual father of the Middle East. He was a wise man who always led the region,” the aide told Reuters. “We didn’t want to see him out this way. Yes, people want democracy but not in this manner. It’s humiliating!”
But yesterday’s strongman is today’s fallen dictator. Brought down in three weeks of protests in Egypt that took his allies by surprise, Hosni Mubarak now faces prosecution on accusations of abusing influence to enrich himself and ordering police to open fire on protesters who toppled him 75 days ago.
Gulf newspapers have carried days of angst-ridden commentary on the stunning denouement. “There is a very real danger that mob rule is destroying Egypt’s reputation, stability and economy,” Khalaf Al Habtoor, head of a leading merchant family in Dubai, wrote in an angry article in the Gulf News last week.
Mubarak was not only a friend of Gulf Arab rulers, he was a vital part of Arab political architecture during his three decades in power, setting the standard on Arab approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and offering Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries solid backing in their long cold war with Iran.
Now that he has gone, the Gulf has seen those shibboleths challenged and governments are scrambling to limit the damage.
“There’s no doubt the Saudis are very concerned about Egypt’s new foreign policy orientation. Egypt has already in a short amount of time shifted its foreign policy,” said Shadi Hamid, analyst at the Brookings Centre in Qatar.
Egypt’s ruling military council allowed two Iranian warships to pass through Egypt’s Suez Canal in February, despite loud objections from Israel and irritation in Washington — a sign that the new Egypt wanted to play by a different set of rules.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby said this month Cairo was ready to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran that were severed in the early days of the Islamic Republic, at a time when Egypt was forging ahead with peace with Israel.
Egypt intends to try seven officials including a former energy minister over controversial low-priced gas sales to Israel. And post-Mubarak Egypt has eased the movement of Palestinians from Hamas-ruled Gaza over its Gaza border.
All are signs of a shift away from a policy that was very much in harmony with the Western-aligned spirit that has for decades characterised foreign policy in most Gulf Arab capitals.
“Gulf policymakers are concerned about Iran making inroads into Egypt,” said Ted Karasik, a defence analyst based in Dubai.
“Saudi Arabia is seeking to regain its heavyweight position in the region and doing so in a very assertive manner. It does not want to see Egypt erase any Saudi gains.”
Although the U.S. administration took its time before expressing support for protester demands that Mubarak step down, Riyadh was shocked at what it saw as Washington’s abandoning of a trusted ally who stuck his neck out to back U.S. policies.
It is hosting exiled Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after an uprising ousted him in January, and has taken a muscular approach to perceived threats from unrest in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent troops to Bahrain last month to help suppress a pro-democracy protest movement that could have empowered its majority Shi’ites, who are seen by Sunni elites as susceptible to Iranian influence.
Riyadh also helped arrange $20 billion in aid from the large Gulf oil producers to help Bahrain and Oman quell protesters.
Iran, a non-Arab Shi’ite giant with over 70 million people, seemed to confirm the fears of Gulf rulers when it complained to the United Nations of a Saudi “invasion” of Bahrain, a small island state over which it once claimed sovereignty.
During a visit to the Gulf this week, Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf made conciliatory noises about Gulf security but defended what he called a “new page”.
“We have turned a new page that does not involve personalising issues. Iran is a country like any other,” the leader of Egypt’s “post-revolution” government said after meeting 87-year-old Saudi King Abdullah, who has handed out $130 billion in largesse to Saudis to encourage them not to make pro-democracy demands.
“We are extremely keen that interference in these countries should be a red line. The security of the Gulf states is part of Egypt’s own national security,” Sharaf added.
But he also defended democracy and prosecuting Mubarak.
“We have started on a one-way path to democracy,” he said. “We are trying to take the first step towards the rule of law and no one is above the law, whoever they are.”
Sharaf was also expected in the UAE and Qatar, a tiny Gulf state widely seen as having eclipsed Egyptian clout through its pan-Arab media outlet, Al Jazeera, and maintaining channels with Palestinian group Hamas, Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah and Iran — allies all opposed to the American tilt in the region.
Egypt’s need for financial aid could offer the Gulf countries a conduit to influence its policy direction.
Egypt is calling for up to $10 billion in loans as it forecasts that its budget deficit could widen to 9 percent in the current fiscal year. Sharaf said on Tuesday he was hoping for more annual aid from Kuwait or other Gulf states.
“We would rather get money from our friends than going to the International Monetary Fund,” he told reporters.
Sharaf also denied there was tension with the UAE over visas for Egyptian expatriates, millions of whom work in the Gulf. Bahrain has begun expelling Lebanese in apparent retribution for Hezbollah criticism over its crackdown on disaffected Shi’ites.
“Egypt doesn’t want to alienate the Gulf countries too much. They can benefit a lot from financial assistance during a difficult period,” Hamid said. (Additional reporting by Amena Bakr, Marwa Rashad and Eman Goma; editing by Mark Heinrich)