Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak are ostensibly on the same side, joint leaders of the moderate Arab camp with whom Washington communicates regularly as partners in the quest for Middle East stability.
The two Arab rulers worked together at the March Arab summit in Riyadh to get the Saudi peace plan of 2002 endorsed.
This Arab League document was to be the motor which drove US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s plan for a moderate Arab bloc to line up against Iran. The Saudis were entrusted with weaning Syrian president Bashar Assad away from Tehran and bringing him into the mainstream Arab consensus.
But none of this happened because meanwhile Abdullah and Mubarak have fallen out to the point that since late April they are not talking.
Their quarrel, first revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, was provoked by the Egyptian president’s ire over the king’s Palestinian policies and, in particular, the reconciliation accord Abdullah forced down the throat of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Mecca last February – without a word to the Egyptian ruler.
Mubarak confided to his inner circle that the Saudis had acted to subvert Egypt’s special standing with the Palestinians and the Gaza Strip. He criticized as ill-advised Abdullah’s tactics for dealing with Hamas, by backing the Islamist group’s hard-line leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus and prime minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza.
Mubarak’s criticism has been borne out by the crash of Palestinian unity in a welter of factional war in the Gaza Strip, with Iran and al Qaeda in lead roles. But he never vented his feelings before the Saudi monarch or any of the senior princes visiting Cairo – until late April.
During a telephone conversation, the subject came up and Mubarak lost his temper. Raising his voice, he accused Abdullah of responsibility for the gathering storm in Gaza. The king hung up. Since then, they have not exchanged a word.
But Mubarak was not done. He waited for an opportunity to get back at the Saudi ruler for hanging up on him. His chance came in early May, when the Saudi monarch arrived at the Red Sea coastal town of Ras el-Sheikh Humayd to lay the corner stone for a grand double bridge to link Arabia to Africa through the island of Tiran and Egypt’s Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
(The project was first described by debkafile on May 5, 2007).
A few days after the ceremony, the Egyptian president delivered a most humiliating stroke. He instructed his underlings to send a message to Riyadh to this effect: The Saudis were at liberty to build a bridge up to Tiran Island. But Cairo had withdrawn from its participation in the second half of the project, the bridge link between Tiran and Sharm al-Sheikh.
The Saudis were left high and dry with a grand bridge project leading nowhere.