Egypt and Qatar: A potential friendship faces obstacles

At the Al-Ula summit in Saudi Arabia last January, a declaration was issued to end the Gulf crisis. In that crisis, Egypt was involved, but now Cairo has the ambition to start new relations between Doha and Cairo. Since that date, friendly messages have been frequently exchanged between the two countries, bearing hopes on both sides that the normalisation of relations will speed up, points of disagreement will be overcome, and perhaps ties will return to their former state as they were years ago. On more than one level, political and economic friendliness and diplomatic flirtation creep towards the complete return of diplomatic and commercial relations and political and security coordination.

By looking at the development in relations between the two countries in recent weeks, it can be said that the first Qatari message was “smart and deep,” coinciding with the signing of the Al-Ula agreement and the dispatch of the Qatari Finance Minister, Ali Al-Emadi, on the same day, to visit Cairo and inaugurate a hotel owned by a Qatari company. The first message carried an economic character. It contains an investment portfolio of more than $1.3 billion, which opens the Egyptian government’s appetite to bring Gulf and foreign capital to the Egyptian market, trying to overcome the corona pandemic’s repercussions. Later, Cairo responded with a first message regarding the reopening of Egyptian airspace to Qatari aviation, and days later, the Egyptian Ministry of Transport decided, in the same month, to resume shipping and maritime activities between the two countries.

On February 23, two official delegations from Qatar and Egypt held talks in Kuwait on mechanisms for implementing the Al-Ula statement on reconciliation. The meeting dealt with the necessary means and measures to be taken to enhance the joint work process and bilateral relations between the two countries and to achieve the aspirations of their people in terms of security, stability, and development, according to a statement issued by them. During this meeting, the two parties agreed to restore relations at the level of doing business, paving the way for an exchange of ambassadors.

On March 9, Doha sent a Qatari delegation, the first of its kind, to the Egyptian capital, headed by the Director of the Legal Affairs Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the aim of “accelerating the resumption of relations.” Amid the ongoing arrangements to bring about a shift in Qatari-Egyptian relations, the rapprochement between Doha and Cairo moved to a higher ministerial level, culminating in a meeting with the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, with his Qatari counterpart, Muhammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, in Cairo. The meeting came on the sidelines of the ministerial meetings of the Arab League, at which time the Qatari minister affirmed his country’s endeavor to restore relations with Egypt to “its natural warmth, good and solid.” In a remarkable move, the Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Thani made a phone call with the Egyptian Minister of Interior Mahmoud Tawfiq, during which he discussed relations between the two countries and ways to develop them, especially in the security field. Those steps were strengthened by a relatively relaxed media coverage of the Al Jazeera network in dealing with Egypt, in exchange for the decline in the frequency of the attack on Qatar by the Egyptian media. It also coincided with Mahmoud Hussein’s release, the Al Jazeera channel’s journalist, who was arrested more than four years ago.

On March 14, Shoukry sent an obvious message, praising Qatar before the Foreign Relations Committee of the Egyptian House of Representatives, saying that “there is a positive message from the brothers in Qatar that they wish and are determined to restore the momentum of the relationship in all political and economic aspects.” Despite the silence around Cairo and Doha’s arrangements to move from cautious cordiality to flirtation (perhaps full normalisation), certain files are being negotiated, and a roadmap is being drawn up regarding their treatment within a political, economic, security, and strategic vision being elaborated. Egypt stipulates as a priority in the course of settling relations between the two countries, “non-interference in its internal affairs,” a condition that mainly relates to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian issue, hosting opponents of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime, and supporting the Brotherhood.

The business portal can be considered a window for dissolving existing disputes and resolving outstanding issues, in light of the Egyptian need for loans, deposits, grants, and investments from Qatar, especially after the decline in Emirati and Saudi support for Al-Sisi’s regime.

Qatar has huge investments in Egypt, and about 220 Qatari companies are operating in the country. Qatar National Bank acquires a large share of the Egyptian private banking sector. Qatar also is a favourite destination for Egyptian workers. It already hosts about 350,000 Egyptian expatriates, according to data issued by the Labour Recruitment Division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce. Cairo is seeking to benefit from the restarting of air traffic between the two countries, the influx of Qatari tourists to its resorts, and any share of the precious investment cake that Qatar provides with the imminence of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

As for strategy, Qatar has become a significant player in regional issues that were in the past exclusive to Egyptian diplomacy. These are sensitive files that fall within the first scope of Egyptian national security, such as Libya, Palestine and Sudan. The letters of affection do not deny that apprehension may exist. Still, it is a matter of time, pending the completion of other arrangements and perhaps freezing or overcoming outstanding issues at the current stage. These steps coincide with with Al-Sisi’s loss of his ally, former US President Donald Trump, the loss of his partner in Libya, Khalifa Haftar, the hidden tension with Riyadh, and Al-Sisi’s acquiescence under the weight of the Renaissance Dam crisis with Ethiopia.