Ahmadinejad in Cairo

Morsi opposes Assad regime, while lining his pockets.

Last August, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran that the Syrian regime had “lost legitimacy.” "We must announce our full support for those who demand freedom and justice in Syria,” he said. His speech was so inflammatory that his Iranian hosts stormed out of the room.

It could therefore be assumed that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo this week will be extremely uncomfortable. Syria is high on the agenda and it seems Bashar Al Assad’s closest ally could be at loggerheads with Cairo. Egypt is, after all, a product of a revolution similar to Syria’s. Its government enjoys support from Sunni Gulf states, who are actively working to bring down Assad and weaken his support from Shi’a Iran. The recent $10m Egypt received from Qatar indicate Morsi’s government can not afford to have its loyalty questioned on this issue.

Yet there is more that concerns Morsi than revolution, and Qatar is not the only state that has been offering loans recently. In the same month that Morsi spoke at the NAM summit, he turned down a US request to inspect the cargo of Iranian ship. It was travelling to Syria through the Suez Canal and suspected to be carrying arms. In fact, while Morsi publicly calls for Assad to step down this week, he will be helping Syria circumvent EU and US sanctions. Funding for the Syrian regime comes from crude oil exported to Asian markets via Iran. It gets there by travelling through Egypt's Suez Canal.

Ismael Darwish of the Syrian Economic Task Force (SETF), which acts on behalf of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, says that before the Syrian uprising in March 2011, oil accounted for nearly half of all Syrian exports in value and around 25% of all Syrian government revenues. Now, daily production of Syrian crude oil is estimated by the regime to be around 140,000 barrels per day; all under government control, according to Darwish. In March last year, Reuters reported Syrian oil exports to China via Iran, gave Bashar Al Assad’s regime a “financial boost worth an estimated $80m.”

Iran tries to conceal the movement of its ships by disrupting ship tracking systems and sailing under various names and flags. They are trackable only by their unique IMO number. The Iranian ship, the TOUR 2, has flown under the flags of  Malta, Bolivia, Sierra Leone and Togo. Previously registered under three shell company owners in three different countries, the ships  beneficial owner is the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). It has made at least three circuits between Iran and Syria via Egypt, calling at Syrian ports last March and July. Most recently, the TOUR 2 departed from Iran to load crude oil in December 2012 and sailed through the Canal northwards on 30 December.

Another Iranian ship, the BAIKAL, which was until recently travelling under the Tanzanian flag, also departed from Syria in December 2012 and sailed through the canal on 30 December.

Egypt claims that it is under no obligation to stop Syrian oil tankers, but turns a blind eye to international commitments that may require it to do so. November 2011 Arab League sanctions, for example, require it to halt “ financial dealings and trade agreements with the Syrian government.” The Irano Hind Shipping Company, which owns the TOUR 2 has been sanctioned by the UN. Member states are required to freeze Irano Hind’s assets. Egypt still lets the TOUR 2 pass.

Despite Morsi’s grandstanding on foreign affairs, domestically, his country’s situation limits him.  Egypt’s foreign reserves have dwindled by more than half since January 2011, reaching $13.65bn. The state struggles to import food and petroleum products. Recent protests in Egypt can not be disassociated from anger people feel that their lives are worse under the Muslim Brotherhood. The Suez Canal is one of the greatest sources of revenue for Egypt. A loss of profit from the canal would be a great blow.

With a crippled economy and divided state, the Egyptian president’s hand in these Syria negotiations is weaker than he would have us believe. As well as offering to “dialogue” on Syria this week, Iran’s premier offered Egypt “a big credit line.” Meanwhile, the situation of Syrians, deemed essential earlier this year, has fallen by the wayside.
 

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes the victory sign ahead of a meeting in Cairo on 5 February 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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