Configuring security – Egypt – Al-Ahram Weekly

Later this spring, the UAE is set to host a new series of meetings on regional security cooperation under the Mechanism for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East (MESAC) initiative.

MESAC meetings are sponsored by the Institute for Islamic Strategic Affairs, a UK-based, Gulf-funded non-profit organization whose stated mandate is to “provide practical solutions for peace and stability in the Islamic world and in the world”, the Berghof Foundation, a non-profit organization “which supports efforts to prevent political and social violence” and “peace research”, and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The first round of meetings was launched a few months after the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in April last year.

*A version of this article appeared in the April 7, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The meetings, part of a broader momentum that the UAE, under the leadership of Mohamed bin Zayed, is pursuing, aim to establish a new regional architecture based on the assumption that Palestinian leaders must act realistically. to allow negotiations to resume,” an informed diplomatic source said.

“This new regional architecture will eventually normalize relations with Israel. Significantly, Bin Zayed agrees with Israeli leaders that Iran and radical Islamist groups pose the main threat to the region.

Participants in the first three rounds of MESAC talks, according to the same source, included representatives from most Arab countries, alongside Israel, Turkey and Iranian opposition figures.

“These were mostly former officials with close ties to current officials in their respective capitals, academics and think tanks,” the source said. He added that the initiative promotes an idealistic view of the region in a post-conflict scenario.

It is a program likely to meet resistance in more than one Arab capital, and informed diplomatic sources say Bin Zayed has so far got his audience to listen, but not necessarily agree.

On March 22, Bin Zayed was in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to meet with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sissi and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. On March 25, he was in Al-Aqaba, Jordan, where he met with the Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah, Al-Sissi, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and Saudi Minister of State Turki bin Mohamed bin Fahd Bin Abdel-Aziz.

After close coordination between Bin Zayed and Bennett, a ministerial meeting was held in Israel on March 28 which brought together the foreign ministers of Israel and the United States with their counterparts from four Arab states, the United Arab Emirates , Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt.

“The fact that Egypt did not immediately announce its participation in the meeting – it took a few days to announce the presence of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri – explains Cairo’s parameters on the call for cooperation in matters regional security,” a government official said.

According to a political source based in the Gulf, Egypt’s invitation was extended at the same time as other foreign ministers were invited to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Egypt hesitated, and it is understood that it did not want to come across as fully subscribing to a new security architecture that includes Israel and is anti-Iranian.”

He added that Egypt only announced its participation “after setting a date for the visit of the Qatari foreign minister to Cairo”.

The Egyptian government source, while refusing to confirm or deny this account, said: “I think what the foreign minister made clear during the joint press conference with his Qatari counterpart is that Egypt does not join any alliance against anyone”.

On March 26, Shoukri met with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdel-Rahman Al-Thani, and the two spoke positively about relations between their countries. Following the meeting, Qatar announced a $5 billion investment program in Egypt. In the same week, Saudi Arabia made a new deposit of $5 billion to the Central Bank of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates pledged $2 billion in investments in Egypt.

The same Gulf-based source argued that “Qatar is watching closely the UAE’s efforts to integrate Israel and isolate Iran.”

“Qatar does not necessarily oppose Israel’s integration – the countries have enjoyed good relations for decades, after all. What it opposes is Iran’s isolation, which Doha has found a credible ally.

He added that Egypt “remains cautious about promoting Israel’s integration in the absence of any development on the Palestinian front, and while cautious on Iran, it does not is not interested in participating in a plan to isolate Tehran”.

All of this means, he concluded, that Egypt’s foreign policy interests are not entirely compatible with those of any of its past, present or potential future allies.

Egyptian officials say Egypt still shares strong goals with the United Arab Emirates, although the two countries may disagree over the handling of regional power dynamics and conflicts.

“Things are more nuanced,” says one. “We have commonalities with the United Arab Emirates, especially when it comes to radical political Islam, and commonalities with Qatar, especially the refusal of a firm alliance against Iran. And let us remember that an agreement between Iran and Western countries on Iran’s nuclear program seems imminent.

What the Egyptian government official and the Gulf-based political source agree is that it is difficult to really synchronize the agendas of Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and more difficult to ignore the differences between Qatar and its traditional regional rivals. Moreover, they agree that the other players, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, also have their own visions for the future of the security and cooperation mechanism in the region.

“The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have problems with the American administration, which is not the case with Iraq or Jordan,” the Gulf-based source said. He added that the UAE’s timing for a new security architecture comes at a time of skepticism in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh about the United States’ commitment to their countries’ security.

“We have already seen Houthi drones backed by Iran hitting targets in the United Arab Emirates,” he said, “and there are real concerns that Tehran will seek to intervene via Shia communities in Iraq and other Gulf countries”.

Another regional diplomatic source raised the possibility of “maritime conflicts around potential gas fields in the region”.

During his meeting with Arab foreign ministers in Israel, and in a subsequent meeting with Bin Zayed in Morocco, Blinken tried to appease his Gulf interlocutors, according to diplomatic sources based in Cairo and Washington. They argue that the immediate goal of the UAE and Israel, shared with Saudi Arabia, is to convince the Biden administration to maintain sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Egypt’s goal in joining the meetings, according to Egyptian officials, was not to be left out of any new political or security dynamics, even though “we cannot get involved in any large-scale regional military or intelligence cooperation”. scale, and we certainly don’t see eye to eye”, on the parameters of the conflict resolution mechanism in the region.

According to foreign diplomatic sources based in Cairo, the UAE’s push has a number of long-term goals. According to one of them, “it aims to rework not only the security architecture of the region, but its political composition”.

Diplomatic sources believe that “a conflict-free Middle East is the only path that would allow a new regional order”.

Despite the realization that such ambitions will raise eyebrows, knowledgeable diplomatic sources expect the UAE to continue to show its strength in regional and even international security.

Earlier this week, the United Arab Emirates hosted a meeting of interior ministers from 11 states, including Israel, Arab, Asian, European and African countries.

*A version of this article appeared in the April 7, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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