Egypt says it has secured fuel imports to make up for a shortfall caused by Saudi Arabia’s abrupt decision to halt previously agreed shipments, avoiding a potentially politically costly fuel shortage and propelling the issue of oil onto the center stage of an escalating Saudi-Egypt spat.
Saudi Arabia agreed in April to provide Egypt with 700,000 tons of fuel monthly for five years on easy repayment terms, but Egyptian officials said this week that Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, informed Cairo it would not ship any fuel this month.
Oil Ministry spokesman Hamdi Abdel-Aziz was quoted by Egyptian newspapers Wednesday as saying that several fuel shipments from other suppliers have arrived in Egypt following “urgent” tenders.
There has been no official word from Saudi Arabia on the abrupt halt of shipments, a decision that appears linked to a public spat between the two allies over Syria.
Egypt’s vote in favor of separate Russian and French draft resolutions on Syria at the U.N. Security Council over the weekend has apparently angered the Saudis, who oppose Russia’s military intervention in Syria and support some of the anti-government militant groups there.
Recently, Egypt has been moving closer to Russia, harshly condemned by the Saudis and other Arabs for its heavy-handed military intervention in Syria.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is moving closer to Turkey, which Egypt accuses of backing Islamic militants seeking to topple the Cairo government.
Continuing tension between Egypt and Saudi Arabia would signal a realignment of Mideast power centers and rob the mostly Sunni Arab world of a valuable axis in the face of expanding influence by non-Arab Iran and Turkey.
Egyptian columnist Abdullah el-Sennawy criticized Egypt’s decision to vote for both resolutions at the Security Council, describing it in an article in the Al-Shorouq daily as diplomatically “inappropriate.”
But “there is nothing to justify any Saudi haughtiness, either with loose diplomatic talk or the suspension of oil shipments as economic punishment,” he added.
The Security Council spat was the first public quarrel between Riyadh and Cairo since the Egyptian military’s 2013 ouster of an Islamist president and the subsequent flow of billions of dollars in Saudi aid that kept Egypt’s ailing economy afloat.
But relations have cooled since King Salman sought closer ties with Turkey and Qatar, two countries whose relations with Egypt are fraught with animosity.
Beside Syria, other issues divide Cairo and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia had expected Egypt to send ground troops as part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, something Cairo has failed to do.
The Saudis have also been angered by meetings between Egyptian officials and representatives of Yemen’s Iran-backed Shiite rebels. Egypt has also maintained channels of communication with Tehran and enjoys close relations with Iraq’s Shiite-led, Iranian-backed government, another Saudi adversary.
In addition, popular opposition in Egypt to an April decision by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to relinquish control of two key Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia has injected a sour note into relations.
Later Wednesday, Saudi ambassador to Egypt, Ahmed Qatan, left Cairo for Riyadh but was expected to return to the Egyptian capital over the weekend, according to airport officials.
It was not immediately clear whether his departure was linked to the Saudi-Egypt spat. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt in Rare Public Spat
Close allies and Arab powerhouses Egypt and Saudi Arabia are having their first public spat since Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took office two years ago, a quarrel over Syria that points to a wider, but mostly muted, divergence in the handling by Cairo and Riyadh of regional issues.
The two countries have gone to great lengths to shield their differences from the public eye, often emphasizing their closes ties and cooperation. But Egypt’s vote in favor of separate Russian and French draft resolutions on Syria at the U.N. Security Council over the weekend has apparently angered the Saudis.
Egypt’s U.N. Ambassador Amr Aboulatta, the Arab representative on the council, defended his support for both drafts, saying his country backed all efforts to stop the suffering of the Syrians.
Russia vetoed the French resolution demanding an immediate halt of the bombing by Russia and the Syrian government of rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo.
The Russian draft called for the separation of “moderate” rebel factions from Islamic extremists, but made no mention of a halt to the bombing. It was rejected because it failed to get the minimum nine “yes” votes needed for approval by the 15-member council.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s differences over Syria is rooted in Riyadh’s conviction that Syrian President Bashar Assad must be removed for that country’s civil war to end, while Cairo advocates a political process that denies Islamic militants any role in Syria’s future. Riyadh is also opposed to Russia’s military intervention in Syria in support of Assad. Under el-Sissi, Cairo, wishing to see Syria’s institutions and army emerge unscathed from the conflict, has not publicly spoken against the Assad government or the Russian intervention.
In a rare public rebuke to Egypt, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, the Saudi U.N. ambassador, denounced Cairo’s support for the Russian draft. “It was painful to see that the Senegal and Malaysia positions were closer to the Arab consensus on Syria (when) compared to that of an Arab representative.”
Like Egypt, Malaysia and Senegal are non-permanent Security Council members.
A senior Washington-based Saudi lobbyist, Salman Al-Ansari, went farther than the ambassador, disparagingly playing on popular Arabic phrases extolling Egypt’s high standing in the region and beyond.
“Excuse me, Arab Republic of Egypt, but your vote in favor of the Russian draft in the Security Council made me doubt your motherhood of the Arabs and the world,” he wrote on Twitter.
Their comments made the front page of two Cairo dailies on Monday. “The first official Saudi criticism of Cairo,” declared the headline of the independent Al-Shorouq’s story on the quarrel.
“There is a crisis in relations, but it has long been suppressed,” said prominent Egyptian analyst Abdullah el-Sennawy. “But I don’t think either side wants to escalate this flare-up over the security Council vote. They realize they both need each other.”
Saudi Arabia strongly supported the Egyptian military’s ouster in 2013 of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected but divisive president. It has poured billions of dollars into Egypt to keep its flailing economy afloat. Beside Syria, relations have been jolted by several bumps since King Abdullah died and was replaced in January 2015 by his half-brother Salman.
Riyadh also seemingly expected that Egypt, which routinely talks about its unwavering commitment to the security of its Gulf Arab allies, would commit ground troops as part of a Saudi-led military coalition that intervened last year in Yemen’s civil war against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels. But Egypt’s commitment has so far been mostly restricted to a limited naval deployment near the southern Red Sea entrance and military advisers in Saudi Arabia.
Egypt has also resisted being drawn to the sectarian rhetoric that defines the rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Moreover, Cairo also maintains channels of communication with Tehran, notwithstanding its occasional and thinly veiled criticism of Iran’s growing influence in the region.
It also enjoys close relations with Iraq’s Shiite-led government, another Saudi adversary.
Popular opposition in Egypt to a decision by el-Sissi in April to relinquish control of two key Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia has injected a sour note into relations. The move prompted the largest anti-government protests since el-Sissi took office in 2014 and the constitutionality of his decision on the islands is being contested in a high-profile court case.