DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – This small Gulf nation, known for its soaring skyscrapers and mercantile bent, is making itself into the most stalwart ally of the Arab world's biggest country.
The United Arab Emirates has pumped billions of dollars into Egypt and is lining up investors to try to stabilize its damaged economy, while building military cooperation. In their deepening relationship, an economically exhausted Egypt benefits from the UAE's finances, and the U.S.-allied Emirates gets a heavyweight with extensive manpower on its side in a region deeply unstable with threats of militant violence and Iranian expansion.
"We are among the vanguards calling for stability in Egypt, whose security represents a cornerstone of Arab world security," Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan told a full house during his speech at a governance conference held in Dubai last month. "We cannot keep our fingers crossed about achieving stability and development in Egypt."
That conference put the UAE-Egypt relationship front and center among the 80 nations attending. A slick, museum-worthy display outside the vast conference hall spotlighted the countries' close ties, declaring in a logo, "Among its many brotherly neighbors, Egypt holds a special place with the United Arab Emirates." Egypt's prime minister, Ibrahim Mahlab, had a prime speaking spot, which he used to praise the Emirates' "wise leadership" and the two nations' friendship.
The Emirates is also a key organizer of an economic development conference aimed at enticing investors to Egypt and reviving its economy, to be held next week in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The Egypt the Future investment conference's speakers list presents a who's who of the Emirati corporate elite.
Executives from Western blue-chip names like General Electric and Coca Cola will share the stage with UAE-based heads of telecom Etisalat Group, private equity firm Abraaj Capital, and the real estate developer behind the world's tallest skyscraper, Emaar Properties. Executives from the Gulf nation's aviation, banking and energy industries will be there too.
Emirati construction giant Arabtec Holding has ambitious plans for a $40 billion project to build 1 million middle-income homes across Egypt. It has said the project will create more than a million jobs in Egypt.
Arabtec helped raise Dubai's record-breaking Burj Khalifa skyscraper. Its biggest shareholder is Aabar Investments, which is controlled by the government of the oil-rich Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi.
Minister of State Sultan al-Jaber, an Emirati official with one of the few seats on the conference's steering committee, promised the event will be "a first step in the implementation of a larger strategy that will ensure Egypt's economic revival."
Egypt's economy has been gutted by turmoil since the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Foreign investment and tourism revenues dried up, depleting foreign currency reserves and driving up unemployment, and frequent rounds of violence in the country have frustrated attempts to rebuild.
The Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait pumped billions of dollars into Egypt following the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013.
Like Saudi Arabia and new Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the Emirates sees Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood as a threat and moved aggressively to stamp out sympathizers of the group in the wake of the Arab Spring. It followed Cairo's and Riyadh's lead in branding the group a terrorist organization in November.
A UAE government report shows that Egypt is by far the biggest single recipient of donor cash from the Emirates, with $4.6 billion distributed just in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. Egypt's aid share was 29 times more than that of the next largest recipient, Jordan.
In addition to providing direct cash aid, the OPEC member has been building schools, clinics, wheat silos and tens of thousands of homes as part of at least $10 billion earmarked for Egypt since Morsi's ouster. In October 2013 it opened a hospital named after the federation's founder, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, in the Manshiyat Nasser slum on the outskirts of Cairo. In contrast, before Morsi's fall, Egypt had been in talks for several years with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan, but the talks never reached a deal.
For Egypt, the benefit of an enthusiastic, deep-pocketed patron is obvious.
But the Emirates stands to gain, too. The seven-state federation sees Egypt as central to regional security given its location, the size of its population and its outsize historical and cultural role.
As the Arab world's second biggest economy — after Saudi Arabia — the Emirates has plenty to spend on its defense budget and boasts one of the region's best-equipped militaries. What it doesn't have is Egypt's manpower. The UAE is home to only about 9 million people, fewer than one in five of them citizens with the foreign workers and their families making up the rest — compared to Egypt's 90 million people.
"Egypt is the No. 1 strategic partner for the UAE outside the Gulf itself. It's partly because they share a very similar vision for the region, and a very similar threat perception," said Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East expert at British think tank Chatham House.
"Their defense and security establishments really see eye to eye," she added. "Muslim Brotherhood concerns have brought them closer together."
The growing ties were on display in a series of bilateral military exercises last year. Photos released following one set of drills showed el-Sissi, clad in fatigues, peering off the deck of a warship, with Emirati Prime Minister Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at his side.
The training may well have paid off when, according to American officials, the two nations teamed up in August to bomb Islamic militants in Libya.
Egyptian officials have said Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE were in talks late last year over creating a military pact to face militants. Now el-Sissi is looking to formalize the bonds. Last week, in the wake of the beheading in Libya of a group of Egyptian Christians by Islamic State militants, the soldier-turned-politician called for the creation of a joint Arab military force.
Two countries, he added, had separately offered to deploy military forces to help Egypt: Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
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