Saudis Step into US Void to Help Egypt’s War on ISIS-Sinai

Just over a year after ascending the throne, Saudi King Salman Bin Abdelaziz, paid his first visit to Cairo on Thursday, April 7, thereby affirming that the richest Arab nation and the most populous one (90 million) were still brothers, although not always on the same page.
As the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi put it: “It is like a married couple who argue but decide to stay together for the sake of the children.”
Abdullah, Salman’s predecessor as king of Saudi Arabia, held Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi in high esteem as an Arab national hero. The current regime in Riyadh is less admiring, eyeing him warily as an unpredictable factor.
Specifically, the Egyptian president and Saudi rulers are seriously at odds on four pivotal issues:
1. First and foremost, Syrian President Bashar Assad. President El-Sisi persists in staying in secret touch with Assad and opposes his ouster, while the Saudi throne wants him to sever those ties and line up behind Riyadh’s demand for his removal.
2. Riyadh disapproves of the close ties the Egyptian president has formed with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, although the Saudis were responsible for forging those ties in the first place: In the summer of 2013, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, then head of Saudi intelligence, spearheaded King Abdullah’s ambition to distance Riyadh from the Obama administration and engage Moscow instead.
The bride money Riyadh offered Moscow for the match was a huge arms deal.
The Saudi royals leaned hard on the Egyptian army chief, who was then Gen. El-Sisi, to overhaul the armed forces and switch from US arms to Russian weaponry. Riyadh offered $1.4 billion to cover the purchase.
The arms deal fell through because Cairo wanted to buy weapons systems that Moscow was not prepared to sell.
But the episode led to El-Sisi and Putin forming close ties of friendship, which have grown stronger over time and mainly account for the Egyptian president’s support of Assad.
3. Riyadh resented Cairo’s refusal to contribute large-scale Egyptian forces to the Saudi-led war on Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. El-Sisi agreed to back the Saudi campaign so long as no Egyptian soldier set foot on Yemeni soil.
The Egyptian air force and navy took part in Saudi operations in the Yemen theater and then went straight back to home base. Egyptian commandos also took part in combat – but only in battles on Yemen’s offshore islands, such as an operation in the last week of March 2015, which ended in the Egyptian navy’s capture of the strategic Bab Al-Mandeb Straits.
Denied Egyptian troops, Riyadh hired Colombian and Sudanese mercenaries for ground operations against the Yemen rebels.
King Salman got his own back in early 2016: When El-Sisi asked for Saudi troops for an Egyptian-led invasion of eastern Libya to destroy ISIS and Al Qaeda forces, Salman not only withheld troops but also funding
4. Another big bone of contention between the king and the president is Salman’s policy of engagement with El-Sisi’s greatest enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, whom Cairo has banned as a terrorist organization and whose leaders were put on trial.
The king has tried hard to change the Egyptian president’s mind on this – in vain.
Notwithstanding these deep-rooted differences, Salman’s powerful son, Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad, was able to persuade his father to make the gesture of a visit to Cairo in an effort to bury the hatchet and open a new chapter in their bilateral relations. A realistic politician, Muhammed explained that if Saudi Arabia aspires to head a Sunni bloc against Iran-led Shiites, it can’t manage without Egypt and its large army.
Salman arrived in Cairo armed not only with good intentions but a check book, namely a pledge of $21.5 million for the needy Egyptian exchequer – $20 billion worth of Saudi oil to cover five years’ consumption and $1.5 billion under the euphemistic heading of “Sinai Peninsula development.”
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources disclose that the latter sum was allocated entirely for beefing up the Egyptian army’s campaign against the scourge of ISIS terrorism besetting Sinai and paralyzing its tourist industry.
The day before the Saudi king landed in Cairo, it was leaked in Washington that the Obama administration is pondering ending or reducing the US-led Multinational Force and Observers operation in Sinai. The peacekeepers have become sitting ducks for Islamist terrorists, it was said.
The White House has still not answered El-Sisi’s urgent plea for US military back-up to support Egypt’s foundering effort to curb ISIS in the peninsula.
But Saudi Arabia now appears willing to step into the breach left by the indifference Washington evinces to the rampant ISIS threat to Egypt, despite President Obama’s repeated declaration of war on terror.

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