Egypt helps unify Yemen rivals behind Riyadh deal

The new deal to end the dispute between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and southern separatists supported by the United Arab Emirates was facilitated by Egyptian diplomacy.

al-monitor Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (R) meets with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud in the capital Cairo, on July 27, 2020. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP) (Photo by MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images).

Aug 5, 2020

CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held talks on July 27 with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on regional developments, including the situation in Yemen. According to a presidential statement, the foreign minister lauded Egypt’s strategic role in protecting Arab national security and defending Arab issues.

The Saudi minister also held talks with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, saying in a press conference that his talks in Cairo dwelt on major issues in the region and challenges of regional security.

Shoukry, for his part, said the discussions focused on countering attempts by regional countries to expand their presence and negative influence in the Arab region. He added, “Egypt and Saudi Arabia are responsible for the security and stability of the Arab region and preserving the Arab resources from being wasted by non-Arab states.”

Two days after the visit, Riyadh unveiled on July 29 a plan to accelerate the implementation of a power-sharing deal signed in Riyadh in November 2019 between the Yemeni government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). The deal aims to end a long-running rivalry between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the STC, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Both Yemeni rivals are nominal allies under a Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, who overran much of Yemen’s north in 2014.

The Riyadh agreement, however, was thrown into disarray in April when the STC declared self-rule in the southern city of Aden, which serves as the de facto seat of the internationally recognized government, triggering fighting between government forces and STC fighters across southern provinces.

The new Saudi plan mandates the formation of a new government in Yemen within 30 days of its signature and the appointment of a new governor and security director for Aden, replacing Ahmed Salem Rabie and Maj. Gen. Shalal Ali Shayei. In response to the Saudi plan, the STC abandoned its self-rule declaration.

In a statement on July 29, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the Saudi plan to end the standoff between the Yemeni rivals. The statement also lauded the UAE support to Saudi Arabia to reach a political solution in Yemen. The UAE is also a member of the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels.

Tarek Fahmy, a professor of political science at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor that Egypt has been closely following developments in Yemen. He said since the outbreak of the Yemeni conflict, Egypt has pursued a policy of not involving itself in any direct negotiations unless Egyptian interests are threatened.

According to Fahmy, all parties to the Yemeni conflict, whether the Gulf, the Yemeni government, southern separatists or Houthi rebels, see Egypt as a credible mediator. “Egypt has been holding direct and indirect contacts with all parties involved in the Yemeni crisis.”

On July 21, the STC vowed support to Egypt’s right to defend its security and interests against threats by groups supported by Turkey and Qatar — both countries back the Muslim Brotherhood group, which Cairo blacklisted in 2013.

Fahmy said Egypt has strategic interests in Yemen since any security deterioration would affect Egypt, namely the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait — which connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden — and the Suez Canal.

Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed visited Egypt on July 19 where he held talks with Sisi on the situation in Yemen. According to a presidential statement, the talks focused on boosting bilateral cooperation to enhance security in the Red Sea.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, lawmaker Ahmed Fouad Abaza, the deputy chairman of the Egyptian parliament’s Arab Affairs Committee, said Egypt has been seeking to restore stability to all Arab countries, including Yemen where Cairo is working to end the civil war there.

Fouad said the new deal between the Yemeni rivals would help enhance security in the Red Sea. “Egypt has been aware of the dangerous role played by Turkey in some Arab countries such as Libya and Yemen, and this deal comes within the framework of countering the Turkish role in the area.”

The Turkish military support to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) has drawn ire in Egypt, which threatened on June 20 to militarily intervene in Libya if the Turkish-backed GNA forces moved to capture the oil-rich city of Sirte from forces of eastern Libyan strongman Khalifa Hifter, who is backed by Cairo.

Media reports said that Ankara has been seeking to gain a foothold in southern Yemen under the cover of humanitarian aid. According to these reports, Turkey has been working to woo local residents opposed to the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen through assistance delivered by the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Organization.

Fahmy believes the new Yemen deal was part of the Egyptian-Saudi-Emirati effort to counter the rising Turkish role in southern Yemen.

In a tweet on July 29, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash hailed the Egyptian-Saudi cooperation to counter attempts by regional powers to expand their influence in the Arab region.

Fahmy said that Turkey has been seeking to expand its footprint in Libya, Niger, Chad and Yemen in order to deepen its presence and influence in the region. “Turkey sees that gaining a foothold in southern Yemen would be its biggest prize in the Gulf region, which has huge gas and oil reserves,” he said.

“Turkey has been attempting to have a presence there after it was forced out from the Sudanese island of Suakin in the Red Sea in the wake of the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan,” Fahmy added.

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