CAIRO — It's clear that Egyptian-Saudi relations have moved past mere tension, and the growing animosity could affect the balance of power in the Middle East.
A Dec. 16 high-level Saudi delegation's visit to the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia angered Cairo officials and worsened the Egyptian-Saudi status, which has been strained for months.
The visiting delegation — which was led by Ahmed al-Katib, a special adviser to the Saudi monarch — agreed to form a joint committee with Ethiopia to examine the possibility of generating renewable energy. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn called on Saudi Arabia to support the dam financially and invest in his country.
Former Egyptian Water and Irrigation Minister Mohamed Nasreddin Allam said Dec. 17 the visit was a political plot between Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. He said Riyadh was irresponsible to imply it would cooperate with Ethiopia, as Cairo believes the Renaissance Dam poses a threat to Egypt’s water supply.
Allam sees the visit as part of Riyadh’s pressure on Cairo regarding two particular subjects: Egypt's stance on the civil war in Syria and controversy over ownership of two Red Sea islands.
An Egyptian court is blocking the government's agreement earlier this year to cede ownership of the strategically located islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis want the government to do more to get the deal back on track. Riyadh also wants Cairo to back down on its stance toward Syria. Saudi Arabia supports rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Cairo has backed Russia's efforts to support Assad by bombing the rebels.
After Cairo backed Russia's position on a resolution on Syria at the UN Security Council in October, state-owned Saudi Aramco halted shipments of petroleum products to Egypt. Aramco had a $23 billion agreement to export 700,000 tons per month to Egypt.
The recent Saudi moves toward cooperating with Ethiopia to generate power through the dam differ from the kingdom's previous position. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had said in April that Saudi Arabia would not invest in the dam.
Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Ati told Al-Monitor that negotiations on the dam among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are ongoing, but need to speed up.
Allam, however, told Al-Monitor that no talks on the dam are currently underway between Egypt and Ethiopia. He said talks have been halted since September, when Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia agreed to entrust French consulting firms to examine the impact of the dam and its potential damage to Egypt and Sudan.
Allam added that the consulting firms have not embarked on their work as required, and that there are pending routine complications. He noted that the Ethiopian government has not completed the first construction phase of the Renaissance Dam on time. He also said, “It is clear that Ethiopia is facing a problem when it comes to the provision of funds for the completion of the dam.”
Hatem Bachat, the chairman of the Egyptian parliament's African Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor the Egyptian media has overblown the significance of the Saudi delegation’s visit to the dam, and he refused to characterize it as political plot. He said the visit probably signaled no bad intention toward Egyptians, though its timing was bad, given the tense situation.
However, Samir Ghattas, a member of Egypt's parliament and head of the Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “It was not a simple, ordinary visit.” He called the trip “part of the proceedings of a political divorce that has recently begun between Cairo and Riyadh.”
Ghattas added that the visit was dangerous because it was related to the very sensitive subject of Egypt's water security. He said all of the Gulf countries (with the exception of the United Arab Emirates) are disturbed by Egypt's actions after the deadly Dec. 11 explosion inside St. Peter and St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, as evidenced by the Gulf Cooperation Council's Dec. 15 statement denouncing Egypt for implying Qatar was involved in the blast.
Al-Monitor interviewed a number of citizens to get the pulse of the Egyptian street. Those interviewed said they do not believe that Saudi Arabia would harm the Egyptian people. Mohamed Abdel-Rahman said, “I do not believe that the people of the holy land [Saudi Arabia] would support a project that would cause the Egyptian people to be thirsty.”
Citizen Alaa Khalaf said, “Even though the Saudi leaders approve of the [potential] injustice caused to the Egyptian people, the [Saudi] people will not.”
Masoum Marzouk, a former deputy foreign minister, told Al-Monitor the Saudi visit to the Renaissance Dam will not affect the dam's construction, which should be complete next year. Yet the visit did not really serve the interest of the Saudis as much as it annoyed Egypt, he said.
He added, “Saudi pressure will not alter the Egyptian position toward Syria … because the head of state cannot send a single soldier abroad without the consent of the people and parliament.”