By Maayan Lubell and Aidan Lewis
CAIRO (Reuters) -Leaders of Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates met in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday for talks on the economic impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing influence of Iran in the region.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hosted the meeting with UAE de facto leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – their first three-way summit since the UAE normalised relations with Israel.
Egypt’s presidency said they discussed energy market stability and food security, two acute challenges for Cairo after Russia’s offensive in Ukraine sent wheat and crude oil prices soaring, as well as international and regional issues.
The three countries – allies and partners of the United States – are part of an emerging Arab-Israeli axis seeking to counter-balance Iranian power at a time of uncertainty over Washington’s security commitment in the region.
“We clearly see the strengthening of an axis that offers another narrative in the Middle East, that we can work together and cooperate on economic and defence matters,” Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said.
“Israel is committed to build a good partnership with anyone possible against the radical axis of Iran,” he told Kann radio.
A statement from Bennett’s office later said simply that the three countries discussed strengthening ties on all levels in their talks, which began on Monday and stretched into Tuesday.
Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel four decades ago, while the United Arab Emirates forged ties with Israel in 2020, driven partly by shared concerns over Iran.
In particular, the three countries are worried about a deal taking shape to restore a 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and major powers, which lifted sanctions on Tehran in return for curbs on its nuclear programme. Iran’s enemies fear it is seeking to build nuclear weapons, a charge it denies.
Bennett says the expected deal is weaker than the original arrangement and would lead to a more violent Middle East, and has urged the United States not to remove Iran’s Revolutionary Guards from a foreign terrorist organisation blacklist in exchange for “empty promises”.
Gulf states have criticised the nuclear talks for not addressing Iran’s missiles programme and proxy forces, including in Yemen where Houthi fighters have fired missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Disagreement with Washington on both those issues has increased tensions between the United States and the two oil- exporting Gulf powers, who fear a resurgent Iran if it is able to export oil again under a nuclear deal with Washington.
“We have some of the top U.S. allies not happy with the Biden approach,” Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdullah said. “For them to stand up together and for them to speak in one voice – that might resonate.”
Khaled Okasha, head of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, said Sisi’s meeting with Bennett would have focused on the impact of the Ukraine conflict, while all three countries had overlapping views on Iran.
“We are concerned with the Gulf being a secure aea that is not threatened in this consistent way from Iran,” he said.
A Cairo-based source said that a separate meeting between Sheikh Mohammed and Sisi had also been expected to cover the reintegration of Syria into the Arab world after Abu Dhabi last week hosted President Bashar al-Assad’s first visit to an Arab country since Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011.
Sisi and Sheikh Mohammed were also expected to cover Emirati investment or economic support for Egypt, the source said.
The war in Ukraine has pressured emerging market economies and prompted Cairo on Monday to devalue its currency by 14%.
Cairo is typically the world’s biggest wheat importer, sourcing most of those imports from Russia and Ukraine. While those costs are rising sharply, tourism receipts from Russian and Ukrainian visitors are expected to fall.
(Reporting by Maayan in Jerusalem, Aidan Lewis and Momen Atallah in Cairo, and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai; writing by Maher Chmaytelli and Dominic Evans; editing by Gareth Jones and Jonathan Oatis)