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Herbert London: The Schism Between Saudi Arabia And Egypt And The Disappearance Of U.S. Diplomacy

If ever there was a need for U.S. diplomatic intervention in Middle East, this is the moment. Instead of sitting on the sidelines as a disinterested observer, Kerry and Company should be on a plane to Cairo to discuss an emerging schism in Saudi – Egyptian relations. In February, the Saudi kingdom announced that it was prepared to send ground troops to Syria to fight alongside the international coalition. Cairo objected.

Egyptian Foreign Minister SamehShoukry said the Saudi decision to send ground troops into Syria does not fall within the scope of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, the 34 member coalition Saudi Arabia launched in December. Shoukry confirmed Egypt’s endorsement of a political, not a military, solution in Syria.

As one might expect, spokesman in both nations said the disagreement would not affect the strong ties between them. But the facts present a different version of the story.

Saudi Arabia under King Salman bin Abdul Aziz is extremely sensitive to any political position that challenges the Saudi vision of regional issues. This sensitivity was manifest when the kingdom rejected its $4 billion aid to the Lebanese army because Lebanon disagreed with Saudi Arabia’s stance on Hezbollah.

In addition to its military alliance with Saudi Arabia, Egypt is reliant on Saudi financial assistance including petroleum needs for five years and $8 billion in capital projects. Obviously Egypt has a stake in the maintenance of good relations. But in politics it is axiomatic to contend there aren’t permanent or perpetual friends or enemies.

There is, of course, more that unites Egypt and Saudi Arabia than separates them. The coordination in reviving a Sunni coalition to serve as a counterweight to Iranian ambitions is the primary concern linking the nations. Nonetheless, questions remain about the extent to which Saudi Arabia will use the aid card against Egypt in return for Cairo’s adoption of a position consonant with King Salmon’s agenda during his upcoming visit to Cairo. The visit will include a discussion of military operations in Yemen and Syria, and most significantly, Iranian interference in regional affairs. Salman will undoubtedly be seeking a malleable Egyptian response.

If the U.S. were not regarded with suspicion by both nations, it would be natural for State Department officials to broker a deal. In fact, if Obama truly appreciated the need for a regional balance of power, he would attempt to solidify a Sunni front as a way to control visions of an Iranian empire.

What the administration has overlooked is that the consequence of non-intervention, in some ways, is as bad as the consequences of intervention in Iraq. President Obama has remained true to his principle that non-engagement, even diplomatic engagement, will have salutary effects for foreign policy. However, the reality such as the contretemps between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, present a very different view of the world. President Obama’s belief in “the arc of history” in which global affairs become less violent more tolerant, and empathetic appears as wishful thinking. Perhaps in time (centuries?) this will happen, but at the moment many nations are looking for U.S. leadership.

Moreover, the Middle East is an area of persistent tribalism, even if the president sees that as the  atavistic stress of globalization. Cultures are in collision. Our allies need healing and our foes require defeat. Instead the U.S. observes Islamic extremism, sectarian conflict and a network of terrorism without a strategy for dealing with them. Even in an area of modest disagreement where the U.S. might play a diplomatic role, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will design their own accord with the U.S. nowhere to be found.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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