By Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor
On Saturday, the Turkish President, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, is scheduled to begin a four-day visit to Saudi Arabia to hold talks with King Salman, who recently acceded to the throne following the passing of King Abdullah. There has been a flurry of media speculation that Saudi foreign policy could see a shift, especially in respect to the Muslim Brotherhood, branded terrorist by the Kingdom as well as the UAE.
The newly enthroned monarch, however, vowed to adhere to existing policies and pledged to maintain the stance of the late King towards Egypt and its people. During a phone call with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi on 9 February, the King reiterated the close bond between his country and Egypt, while assuring the Egyptian leader that the Saudi position on the most populated Arab nation was “unchangeable” based on strategic ties and “a shared future”. Interestingly, President Al-Sisi will be in Riyadh at the same time as Erdogan. He’s flying in a day later, on Sunday, to foster Egyptian-Saudi relations.
It’s difficult to understand why Erdogan, a virulent critic of the Egyptian government and powerful pro-Muslim Brotherhood advocate/host, can expect a warm welcome in Riyadh, particularly when his Egyptian nemesis is in town. This authoritarian loud-mouth has permitted Brotherhood television networks to spew anti-Egyptian propaganda from his country’s soil, and has launched offensive verbal attacks against the Egyptian President notwithstanding that Al-Sisi enjoys some of the highest approval ratings anywhere. Adding fuel to the embers of doubt, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud bin Faisal, recently told a Saudi journalist during an interview that Riyadh has “no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood; our problem is with a small group affiliated to the organisation”.
On Monday, a Jordanian paper, Al-Sabeel, reported that Saudi Arabia will host the International Union for Muslim Scholars, during the Islamic Conference. The Union is known for its close ties with the Brotherhood and is headed by Yousef Al-Qaradawi, who has been calling for jihad against the Egyptian authorities and is currently evading an Interpol arrest warrant. Moreover, Brotherhood leaders are already crowing over the apparent shifting sands in their favour.
In all honesty, I am deeply concerned about the above developments, which could leave both Egypt and the UAE, which view the Muslim Brotherhood as the ideological mother of numerous terrorist organisations, out in the cold. There is a loyalty issue here. Saudi Arabia has always been a brotherly country and it’s inconceivable that it would treat the enemies of its friends as its friends. I can only hope that my fears are unfounded, else the rifts in the Arab World, threatened by Iranian proxies, “Islamic State” barbarians and Al-Qaeda franchises will widen at a moment in time when it is imperative for Sunni states to join forces.
While I understand the necessity for countries to engage in dialogue with others holding opposing views, Erdogan’s behaviour is beyond the pale, not only in relation to Cairo, but also his seeming cuddling of “Islamic State” fighters, who until recently have been using Turkey to transit into Syria, to shop for supplies, including military attire – and have been treated in Turkish hospitals ‘on compassionate grounds’. Ankara has also refused to permit its Incirlik Air Base to be used by the US-led coalition engaged in striking “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria, and closed its air space to coalition fighter jets. According to an article by former CIA counter-terrorism analyst, Aki Peritz, headed “The Islamic State has sleeper cells throughout Turkey. Does Erdogan care?” Kurds defending the Syrian city of Kobani within sight of the Turkish border “claimed IS was targeting them from grain silos on the Turkish side… One former IS fighter even said the Turkish military facilitated his travel in order to strike Ankara’s other ‘enemy’ the Kurds”.
In the event, Peritz is correct; Erdogan should be treated as a pariah rather than an honoured guest until he redeems himself by throwing his nation behind the coalition against “Islamic State”, announces in public that he no longer supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and condemns any outside interference threatening the security and stability of Egypt. The greatest test will be whether or not he’ll be willing to shake President Al-Sisi’s hand if they come face to face in Riyadh. However, if the Egyptian President feels he’s being ambushed to make concessions to the Muslim Brotherhood, there could be a chill in the atmosphere.
While, in principle, I welcome steps to strengthen Arab relations with Turkey and its people in order for Ankara to fulfil its important role as one of the most powerful Muslim countries, mending bridges with a loose cannon like Erdogan who cannot be trusted is not a process that should occur overnight and it’s one that must be accompanied by strict conditions.
As to why Saudi Arabia has seemingly succumbed to the Turkish President’s attempts to woo it over remains a mystery. But I would strongly urge the Kingdom’s authorities to ensure that he clarifies his positions prior to or during his stay and to require him to reverse his harmful stance towards Cairo, which is battling groups that have pledged allegiance to “Islamic State” on the Sinai Peninsula and the terror organisation’s branch headquartered in the Libyan town of Derna that’s attempting to infiltrate Egypt’s long and porous border with its western neighbour.
I can only trust that Riyadh isn’t giving in to pressure from the US White House that recently sealed a deal with Erdogan to arm, train and equip Syrian opposition militants. Could this visit be some kind of Washington-inspired quid pro quo? Moreover, the US has been virtually championing the Brotherhood since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi while hurling obstacles at Egypt’s transition to stability.
It’s worth mentioning here that a delegation of Brotherhood leaders was hosted by the State Department at the end of January and on Tuesday, in the wake of his visit to Saudi to meet with King Salman, the Emir of Qatar was received by President Obama who hailed Qatar “for being a strong partner in our coalition to degrade and ultimate defeat ISIL”. Qatar’s fledgling rapprochement with Egypt suffered a setback when Doha recalled its ambassador subsequent to a row over Cairo’s retaliatory airstrikes on “Islamic State” in Libya, which was responsible for the decapitation of 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians.
I can’t be sure, but something doesn’t smell right and I can only wonder whether the puppet master lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington. I can’t know what’s going on behind closed doors but, nevertheless, I will take this opportunity to warn GCC leaderships to reject any scheme designed to undermine Cairo because in the event Egypt is thrown under the “Islamic State”/Muslim Brotherhood bus – and especially when the US is pursuing rapprochement with Iran – we will ultimately all share the same fate.
Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor is Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, an Emirati conglomerate best known of its construction activities, while globally recognised through its involvement in the hotel, automotive, real estate, education, insurance and publishing sectors