Why are the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries so tense over the possibility that ousted President Hosni Mubarak would be brought to trial?
Gamal Essam El-Din , Saturday 30 Apr 2011
During a five-day tour to three Gulf countries, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf vowed that ousted president Hosni Mubarak will face trial over corruption and murder charges. At the end of his two-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Sharaf underlined that no Gulf state was exerting pressure in any way on the Egyptian government to exempt Mubarak from prosecution. “We do not accept any pressure from any state, and this is a purely internal Egyptian issue,” said Sharaf, emphasising that “No one in Egypt is above the law.”
Yet in spite of Sharaf's statements, many strongly believe that most Arab Gulf countries — especially Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait — are exerting pressure behind the scenes to keep Mubarak from facing any kind of trial. Some members of the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt have said that “some Arab rich countries offered to give Egypt a lot of economic assistance, in billions of dollars, in exchange of granting Mubarak immunity from trial.”
In standing up to attacks on Tahrir Square protesters, who accused the army of backtracking on prosecuting Mubarak, Ismail Itman, a SCAF member, disclosed that “it is not a secret that we refused bowing to strong pressure from several Arab rich countries so as not to prosecute Mubarak.”
Many Egyptian political observers and members of the 25 January Revolution Coalition agree that Saudi Arabi comes top of Arab Gulf countries anxious to see Mubarak escape prosecution on accusations of illegal profiteering and murder. Gamal Zahran, a professor of political science at Suez Canal University and a former independent MP, argues that Mubarak was not only a puppet of Saudi interests and foreign policies, but also a personal friend of Saudi kings.
Mubarak also played a key role in defending Saudi Arabia when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and in ridding the Arabian Peninsula of Marxists who were controlling the south of Yemen during the 1980s. “This is not to mention that Mubarak provided solid backing to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in their long cold war against Iran,” said Zahran, adding that “right now, and while the relations between Gulf countries and Iran have worsened, all rulers there wonder, what if Mubarak was still in power.”
These countries became especially tense when Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi announced that Egypt is seeking to mend relations with Iran. They were also worried when SCAF allowed two Iranian warships to cross the Suez Canal in February.
Amin Youssri, a former ambassador, also believes that Riyadh was shocked at what it saw as Washington's abandoning of a trusted ally like Mubarak, who stuck his neck out to back US policies. “It is hosting exiled Tunisian leader Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali after an uprising that deposed him from power, and stood up to the US's criticism of Bahrain and sent troops there to suppress a pro-democracy protest movement that could have toppled the Sunni ruling family from power,” said Youssri.
Youssri also argues that, "there's no doubt the Saudis are very concerned about Egypt's new foreign policy orientation. Egypt has already, in a short span of time, shifted its foreign policy.”
Youssri indicates that when a Saudi-sponsored satellite channel aired a Mubarak statement on 10 April, it was clear to all that the oil-rich kingdom was doing its best to pressure the military council in Egypt to pardon Mubarak. “The airing of this statement is evidence of Saudi pressure on Egypt not to prosecute Mubarak," argued Youssri. Egyptian official statements denying the existence of such pressure is merely a face-saving tactic, aimed at avoiding hightened tensions in relations with these countries.
On the other hand, Zahran believes that Mubarak and many of his henchmen, including state officials and business tycoons such as Hussein Salem, a former intelligence officer, forged close relations with the Saudia royal family. Inspectors at Cairo Airport Customs Office stopped last week 100 parcels belonging to Salem, which were headed to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The parcels belonged to an export company and included papers associated with a Saudi prince. The parcels contained several photos of Salem while shaking hands with Saudi and UAE royals.
Salem was ousted president Hosni Mubarak's closest friend and owns a significant number of tourist villages and hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh, and is the major shareholder in the East Mediterranean Gas Company (EMG) which monopolises exporting gas to Israel. A number of US publications have claimed that Mubarak and Salem had close relations with Saudi Arabian intelligence officers, such as the late Kamal Adham.
Zahran believes that Saudi Arabia fears that the trial of Mubarak could expose his secret business deals with the royal family and spotlight the deals of his henchmen — particularly Salem — with the Saudi intelligence community, thus causing a lot of embarrassment to the kingdom's rulers.
The fact that the tour of Sharaf had not included the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also triggered speculation that the “UAE was by no means happy over the downfall of Mubarak or new Egyptian foreign policies showing friendly attitudes towards the ayatollahs of Iran," says Zahran. Just few days before his downfall, UAE's foreign minister, Abdallah Bin Sultan, was the only Arab and foreign senior official to pay Mubarak a personal visit. “It was clear support from UAE to Mubarak,” argues Zahran.
In the same way as with Saudi Arabia, Zahran believes that Mubarak developed very close relations with the Bin Sultan family which has been in power in the UAE since the early 1970s. “Mubarak had a very strong personal relationship with the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan, the founder of the UAE,” said Zahran, who went on to express his belief that “Mubarak and his family made a vast personal fortune through the largesse of the Bin Sultan family.” “We all remember when Mubarak used to travel with Bin Sultan to Geneva for some hours and then come back to Cairo at the same day for no discernible reason,” said Zahran, contending that “it is almost sure that on these travels Bin Sultan was giving Mubarak a lot of money.”
The parcels that were stopped by Cairo Airport officials last week included photos of Mubarak's friend Salem shaking hands with Zayed Bin Sultan. Mubarak himself gave orders that many new housing communities and farmlands in Egypt carry the name of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan.
At a recent conference in the UAE's capital Abu Dhabi, according to a source who was present at the conference, a confidante of the emirate's crown prince vented his frustration over the downfall of Mubarak."How could anyone do this to him? He was the spiritual father of the Middle East. He was a wise man who always led the region," the aide said. "We didn't want to see him out this way. Yes, people want democracy, but not in this manner. It's humiliating!"
Khalaf Al-Habtoor, head of a leading merchant family in Dubai, also wrote an angry article in the Gulf News newspaper last week saying, “There is a very real danger that mob rule is destroying Egypt's reputation, stability and economy while Mubarak was the symbol of stability, economic prosperity and peace.”
During his visit to the Gulf this week, Sharaf emphasised that “Egypt has strong relations with the UAE.” Sharaf, however, pleaded that "We have turned a new page that does not involve personalising relations with Arab countries." Sharaf added: “The security of the Gulf States is part of Egypt's own national security.” But he also defended democracy and prosecuting Mubarak. "We have started on a one-way path to democracy," he said. "We are trying to take the first step towards the rule of law, and no one is above the law, whoever they are."
Mubarak also developed strong personal relations with the ruling Sabah family in Kuwait. The family remains very grateful for Mubarak's strpmg stance against Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Mubarak also enjoys a lot of support in the Kuwaiti press, especially the daily newspaper of Al-Siyassa, whose editor, Ahmed El-Garallah, used to defend Mubarak strongly even against his domestic critics in Egypt.
Saudia Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are three of the largest Arab investors in Egypt. Families like Kuwait's Al-Kharafi, Saudi Arabia's Al-Shobokshi, Talal, Saleh Kamel, and UAE's Al-Futtain, made huge investments in Egypt. “These investments will ensure taht relations between Egypt and Gulf countries stay on a good footing, but not enough to keep Mubarak immune from prosecution,” said Zahran.
Youssri also believes that the fact that Egypt got the approval of these three states to endorse the election of Mustafa El-Fiki as the new secretary general of the Arab League is proof that “these states recognised the new status quo, that they should not lose the support and influence of Cairo in these turbulent times, and let Mubarak go to hell.”