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As Iran stirs worries, Sisi sets vision for Arab security

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi offers a plan to achieve Arab security and counter threats to the Arab region, to avoid war with Iran.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends the Arab summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Hamad l Mohammed - RC192C74A920

CAIRO — As tensions rise between Iran and some Arab countries in the Middle East, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is proposing a four-point security plan. He spoke about the plan recently at an urgent Arab summit convened by Saudi Arabia in Mecca to discuss Iran's alleged role in recent attacks in the region.

During his May 31 speech, Sisi outlined the plan's four requirements to address threats facing Arab countries:

  • International condemnation of attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and naval attacks on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by Yemen's Houthis.
  • Support for the UAE and Saudi Arabia in facing any threat to their lands, facilities or territorial waters.
  • Addressing all sources of threats in the region, particularly involving the Palestinian cause.
  • Confronting all foreign interventions in Arab states’ affairs.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been tense since the kingdom cut its diplomatic ties with Tehran in January 2016. Meanwhile, the UAE is considered a leading member of the Saudi-led military coalition supporting government forces in Yemen in their battle against the Houthis, who are backed by Iran.

The UAE said May 12 that four multinational commercial ships were “sabotaged” in its territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman facing Iran. On June 6, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Norway sent a report to the UN Security Council on the initial findings of a probe into the attack. It said a state actor was behind the sabotage, without naming any country.

On May 14, Saudi Arabia announced that two oil pumping stations on the pipeline that transports Saudi oil from fields in the east to Yanbu port on the west coast were attacked by armed drones. Saudi Deputy Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman accused Iran via Twitter of being behind the attack, for which Yemen’s Houthis claimed responsibility. The Houthis also announced they had launched drone attacks June 8-9 on drone bunkers at Saudi Arabia's Jizan airport, though the Saudis had not confirmed the report as of the 10 deadline June 10. They did confirm a similar attack May 26.

Tarek Fahmy, a political science professor at the University of Cairo, spoke with Al-Monitor by phone about Sisi's four-pronged approach outlining security challenges and risks in the Arab world.

“Although the vision is holistic, it still needs Arab political willpower and implementation mechanisms," Fahmy said. "The Arab League should uphold it, as should the key states in the region, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE.”

Fahmy noted some potential obstacles to implementing the plan. For instance, Iraq, Syria and Qatar had their reservations regarding the closing statement of the summit, indicating a lack of consensus among Arab states on the security risks. In the statement, Saudi Arabia condemned Iranian practices in the region and Houthi attacks on Saudi territories. Iraq objected to the statement because Baghdad did not participate in writing the final draft and said that Iran is a neighbor of Arabs and its security should not be targeted. Syria also objected to the closing statement regarding Iranian intervention in Syrian affairs and asserted that Iran is present in the country at Baghdad's request. Qatar rejected the statement because some of the provisions conflict with Qatar's foreign policy.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement May 31 denying all allegations against it.

Sisi said during his speech that the security of the Arab Gulf constitutes a cornerstone for Egypt’s national security. He said any attack on Arab national security necessitates wise and deterrent confrontation of any enemy and that the Houthi attacks on the Saudi oil regions and the naval attacks in the UAE reflect blatant terrorism and a threat to Arab national security. Arab leaders have the responsibility to face this terrorism, he added.

Abdul Menhem Said, former director of the independent Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor by phone, “Sisi’s statement that Gulf security is part of Egyptian national security during the summit reflects a relatively new expression in his vision, and it's not common among Egyptian political leaders.”

Said noted that Sisi’s plan mainly aims to avoid any war with Iran. “I believe Egypt’s interest in Arab security stems from its intention to avoid foreign conflicts and focus on the domestic structure of the state. Thus, Egypt’s foreign moves with bordering countries, like Sudan, Libya and Palestine, are strictly limited to the necessary," he said.

“With countries that do not share borders with Egypt, the latter adopts a diplomatic and political approach to stop any wars in the region. This explains why Egypt outlined its vision in Mecca.”

Parliament Speaker Salah Hasaballah said in a May 31 press statement that the four elements of Sisi’s vision constitute a comprehensive mechanism to protect Arab and Gulf security.

Sisi seems to have expressed Egypt’s public opinion, with its various political, public and partisan affiliations and inclinations, in the strategy's second element, which underlines solidarity with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Abdullah Saeed, assistant secretary to the public works secretariat of the Nation’s Future Party, told Dostor newspaper June 4, “Sisi’s vision had several important messages, including that Arabs will not neglect their national security.” The plan lays out Arab leaders' historical responsibilities, "especially amid unprecedented threats to Arab national security.”

He added, “This requires activation of Arab anti-terrorism coordination mechanisms."

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