Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Saudi Arabia replacing Egypt as regional leader

By Safaa Abdoun [Daily News], February 26, 2009

Saudi Arabia has replaced Egypt as the regional leader, according to a recent US National Intelligence Council report.

The report, “Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan: Policies on Regional Issues and Support for US Goals in the Middle East,” was issued based on a conference that brought together Middle Eastern scholars and specialists in June to discuss changes in regional dynamics and the views of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan regarding their alliances with the US.

“All agreed that Egypt is not the regional leader it once was and that this mantle has fallen to Saudi Arabia,” the report said.

“Saudi Arabia is uncomfortable taking over this role but sees no choice because of the perceived threat from Iran.”

The National Intelligence Council sponsors conferences and workshops with nongovernmental experts to gain knowledge and insight and to sharpen debate on critical issues; however, the views expressed in their reports do not reflect official US government positions.

Although the conference was held last summer, the report was only recently released after US President Barack Obama was elected and senior intelligence officials in his administration took office.

Participants said the decline in Egypt’s leadership could be attributed to several reasons.

“Mubarak is getting older and no longer has the energy to provide the leadership he once did. And no one in the government, including his son or Omar Suleiman, the chief of the Egyptian External Intelligence Service, has replaced him in regional relations,” the report said.

Egypt does not enjoy the comparative advantage it once did, the report also said, as other states in the regional have massive revenues from oil and other regional economies have improved faster.

Finally, the report finds that Egypt no longer has an attractive political or economic model to offer the rest of the region.

On the other hand, participants noted that Saudi Arabia’s reluctant leadership has not been very effective, nor have Riyadh’s massive cash reserves done much to increase its influence.

Riyadh avoided involvement in the conflict in Iraq until 2006, failed in its efforts to create a Fatah-Hamas unity government, and was not able to help Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government prevail against Hezbollah during the negotiations over the Doha Accord.

Political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah from Al Ahram Center for Regional and Strategic Studies strongly objects to this report and describes is as “inaccurate.”

“Lately, there has been a competition over the position of regional leader.

Although Saudi has been injecting major cash sums to solve problems, this did not make it the leader … it failed to play an active role in the Palestinian internal conflict and in the Lebanese crisis,” Abdel Fattah said.

“Nowadays there is the financial crisis which has hit the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, real hard so we are left to see the role of Saudi without as much cash reserves,” he explained.

On the other hand, he says that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s roles have been set back lately while Turkey and Iran have become active players in regional issues.

The report also examines US-Egypt relations as well as the regional views of the US.

The US-Egypt alliance is described as “still strong” but Egyptian officials began to raise questions about the value of the relationship. According to the report, “Cairo complains that the US has shown lack of concern for Egyptian interests through its invasion of Iraq, its failure to advance the peace process until recently, and continued insistence on democratic reform in Egypt.”

Officials strongly believe that the US has ignored Egypt’s advice and concerns over all three issues, in addition they also hope that US pressure to reform will cease with the Obama administration.

Participants also noted that the potential for leadership change in Egypt over the next few years, but none thought that Mubarak’s potential successor would greatly alter the course of Egyptian foreign policy or Cairo’s relationship with the US.

“Both of Mubarak’s possible successors — Omar Suleiman and his son Gamal — are likely to continue Mubarak’s foreign policy, but Gamal might seek to liberalize Egyptian domestic politics over time,” says the report.