Wealthy Arab countries should support Cairo in this time of need, 20 years after receiving Gulf War assistance.
Perhaps no other region in the world counts on Egypt as a friend and ally as the Gulf States do.
It is a relationship that goes back decades but peaked in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, when Egypt provided 35,000 troops for the Gulf War of 1991.
It was in fact the third largest contingent after the US and the UK. A few months after Kuwait’s liberation, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar forgave $6bn in debt that Egypt owed them.
Gulf citizens also have a deep bond towards Egypt and Egyptians since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Scores of past and current cabinet ministers in the Gulf have been educated in Egyptian colleges and universities. Ghazi Al Gosaibi, the late Saudi minister of labour and former ambassador to Britain, studied in Egypt and in 1994 published the Apartment of Freedom, one of the finest pieces of literature chronicling the lives of Gulf students dabbling in the sexual and political freedoms of 1960’s Nasserist Cairo.
Despite some fears, it is very much in the interest of the six Arab Gulf States to have a strong democratic Egypt emerge once again as an anchor country in the Arab world.
Egypt, with its significant military power, is the only Arab power that can balance the military strength of Iran and Israel. Egypt’s army has almost 500,000 active soldiers, with another 500,00 reserves and 400,000 paramilitary troops. The force is considered to be the largest in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. The sooner Egypt regains its role at the forefront of the Arab world as a leading democratic power, the sooner it can play a role in securing Arab interests.
The Arab Gulf States are also home to a significant number of Egyptian immigrants who have contributed to the growth of these economies, especially in the medical and academic fields. According to the latest figures from the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs and quoted by Jordan’s Al Rai newspaper, around 70 per cent or 4.2m of Egypt’s six million worldwide emigrants live in the Arab Gulf States. About $1.5bn was transferred from Kuwait by Egyptians living there and another $1bn from Saudi Arabia in the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
Saudi investors own an astounding 1.6 million apartments and residential units in Cairo, Alexandria and Mediterranean resorts, making them the largest property owners after the Egyptians themselves.
Additionally, Kuwait’s investments in Egypt are estimated at between $10 and $15bn in sectors as varied as tourism, services, industry and agriculture. But this isn’t about the numbers, which help put things into context. Egypt’s relationship with the Gulf States, as well as with the rest of the Arab world, is as invaluable as it is intangible.
The relationship went through cycles that in some periods descended into a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia during Abdul Nasser’s backing for socialists who deposed the Yemeni monarchy in the 1960’s.
Yet even then, thousands of Gulf citizens lived in Egypt and studied in its universities in complete security. This resulted in an entire generation of Gulf civil society leaders, businessmen, academics, engineers, doctors and ironically, rulers of the Gulf, who are a product of the education system in post-monarchical Egypt.
Looking to the future
Qatar was perhaps the only Gulf state that was happy to see the end of the Mubarak regime. After all, Egyptian born anti-Mubarak religious scholar Sheikh Yousef Al Qaradawi, considered to be amongst the most influential Islamic scholars and highly regarded by the Qatari Emir himself, now serves as Dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Qatar.
Sheikh Al Qaradawi has been instrumental through his sermons – and Al Jazeera Arabic – in encouraging Egyptians to revolt against the Mubarak regime.
While Qatar itself became the first country in the world to react positively with a swiping statement that said: “The State of Qatar looks forward that Egypt would restore its leading role in the Arab and Muslim world”, hinting at the decline that Egypt witnessed in the decades under the successive NDP governments.
And yet this revolution did not come at a low price in terms of human life or financial losses. Initial reports estimate that the economic cost of the peaceful 18-day Egyptian uprising stood at $30bn.
During the peaceful uprising, Saudi’s King drew sharp criticisms for offering to cover any shortfall that Egyptian finances would face, should the US withhold aid.
Shortly thereafter, a diplomatic source told an Egyptian newspaper that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait were in talks to assist Egypt with as much as $5bn. The Arab Gulf States are comfortably able to afford such large sums.
Despite the global financial crisis, the Gulf States’ GDP is expected to remain high due to the soaring price of oil, which crossed the $100 mark this month for the first time since 2008. Due to high energy prices, it is estimated that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will each register a budget surplus of $20bn this year, while Qatar registered a $5bn surplus in just three months.
What is required today from the energy-rich Arab Gulf States is for them to take the initiative and collectively assist Egypt in its time of need, as they did two decades ago. The Gulf finance and development ministers must call for an urgent summit with their Egyptian counterparts in order to understand fully the situation and provide the necessary assistance.
Egypt must not be left to seek assistance from the World Bank, IMF or China, which might be tied to medium and long-term geopolitical conditions.
Twenty years ago, 35,000 Egyptians made the journey across the Red Sea to stand by their Gulf brethren. Today half a dozen Gulf finance ministers must pay back the favour.
This article was originally published in Al Jazeera on February 17, 2011.