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World

Egypt, Gulf States strengthen their ties

During the Egyptian revolution, the Gulf States distanced themselves from Egypt. But ties are improving again now in accordance with an old rule: Good relationships are based on mutual benefits.

Cairo and the Arab Gulf states are currently taking steps towards each other, and for many it's a sign of a new beginning. Traditionally, Egyptian relations to the Gulf States have been positive; under Mubarak, too, friendships existed between the different heads of state - but these relationships have also often cooled.

Over the course of the past six years, and especially during the Arab Spring, two political axes emerged: Egypt - Saudi Arabia on the one side, and Syria - Qatar on the other. After the fall of Mubarak, these axes shifted, with Qatar welcoming the uprising on the Nile and in Damascus, while Saudi Arabia maintained its support for Mubarak until the end.

Indeed, Egypt's foreign policy towards the Gulf States has been and still is based on a calculation involving three factors: competing with Riyadh over political importance in the region, realising its own economic interests and strengthening its policy of alliances across the Middle East.

Mutual distrust?

What might the future of Egypt's relationship with the Gulf States look like? For one, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood already cooperates with its counterparts in other Arabic and Islamic states around the globe. They all seek to take over the political power in their respective countries - plans that trouble the Gulf State governments, especially in Saudi Arabia.

And there are the Wahabi, a group of ultra-conservative Islamists rooted in Saudi Arabia and counting the royal family among its members, who don't tolerate any other Islamic forms of belief besides their own.

Egypt's president-elect Mohamed Mursi attends Friday prayer at al-Azhar mosque in the old quarter of Cairo (Reuters)

Mursi chaired the Muslim Brotherhood's party ahead of his election

In the beginning, this led to mutual distrust between the Gulf States and the new political leaders in Egypt and to a dead-end in foreign relations.

Looking back, Abdul Khaleq Abdulla, professor for political science at the UAE University in Al-Ain, endorses the Gulf States' action at that time. "After the fall of Mubarak, the leaders of the Gulf States couldn't be sure what form of a political alternative would seize power in Cairo. And the fact that this alternative came in the form of an Islamic movement spread uncertainty. It was unclear what positions they would adopt. That's why, in the beginning, the relationships experienced some turbulence."

Muhammad Abdul Kader, a researcher at the Cairo Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies shares this view: "Some Gulf States are worried about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and that's why I believe relations will be a bit strained to start with, and that they will only strengthen over time."

Seeking a solid economic base

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood sees its main task as stabilizing the economy, since their political power will also be measured against the country's economic development. Given the bad state of the Egyptian economy, it's unlikely that the new government has any interest in upsetting its Gulf State neighbors.

Egypt needs the financial support of the Gulf States - and the Gulf States, in return, need Egypt's assurances that the revolution isn't going to reach them.

"President Mursi's statement that Egypt doesn't have any ambitions of spreading the revolution to other Arab countries was a relief for several Gulf States - particularly for the UAE and Saudi Arabia," said Muhammad Abdul Kader.

Egypt's Islamist President-elect Mohamed Mursi waves to his supporters while surrounded by his body guards (Reuters)

Gulf States leaders hope Egypt's revolution will not spread

The credo of Arab politicians has long been that only a politically and economically strong Egypt can also strengthen the Arab World. There have been various attempts to realize this vision. For 2012, Qatar has agreed to offer financial aid over $2 billion (1.6 billion euros) to Egypt. That move was preceded by Saudi Arabia's promise of $2.7 billion (2.2 billion euros).

Iran and its Egyptian brothers

It angered the Gulf States when Iran attempted to win over the Egyptian leadership in the name of common religious and political interests. But Egypt's response to Iran didn't go far, due in part to long-standing political tradition in Egypt, which directs its political course towards the Gulf States and towards South Arabia, in particular. And this tradition leaves no doubt that Egypt has always seen itself as an ally to the Golf States, not Iran.

According to Abdullah, "Egypt has a deeply rooted relationship with the Gulf States, especially with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the other Arabic Gulf States. It was like that before the beginning of the revolution, and that's how it is going to stay."

In fact, it's the strong relationship between Egypt and the Gulf States that many see as a good opportunity to help slow down Iran's political approach on Egypt.

"The Gulf States regard Iran as a difficult neighbour," Abdullah said, adding, "We live geographically close to it and have to tolerate its provocations. We do see Iran as a source of instability within the region."

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