Saudi king sets aside frustrations with Egypt for state visit

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (C-L) walks with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a welcoming ceremony upon al-Sisi's arrival to attend the Summit of South American-Arab Countries, in Riyadh November 10, 2015

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (C-L) walks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a welcoming ceremony upon al-Sisi’s arrival to attend the Summit of South American-Arab Countries, in Riyadh November 10, 2015

Despite years of mutual frustration and disappointment over diverging priorities, Saudi Arabia and Egypt remain fundamental to each other’s security, a message King Salman’s visit to Cairo this week is intended to reinforce.

The rare foreign trip by the Saudi ruler will counter media commentary in both countries of discord between the richest Arab state and the most populous, to show Riyadh still backs Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

However, with Iraq, Syria and Yemen immersed in civil war, and Saudi Arabia preoccupied by its own region-wide tussle with Iran, Riyadh is determined to stop the Egyptian state from failing. It will maintain some aid despite its own tighter budgets from falling global oil prices, analysts say.

That position contrasts with Riyadh’s approach to Lebanon, from which Gulf states have pulled aid in response to the growing role there of Iran’s ally Hezbollah, evidence of Saudi Arabia’s with-us-or-against-us regional doctrine.

“The Saudis are very keen not to allow Egypt to collapse, but at the same time the Saudis cannot pay forever. I think King Salman will try to explain these issues,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with close ties to the kingdom’s Interior Ministry.

In recent months, groups of Egyptian ministers have flown to Riyadh almost weekly for meetings with their Saudi counterparts, a diplomat said, and officials are planning to unveil Saudi investments of $4 billion this week.

Saudi Arabia is also expected to sign a $20 billion deal to finance Egypt’s petroleum needs for the next five years and a $1.5 billion deal to develop its Sinai region, two Egyptian government sources told Reuters.

Egyptian intelligence sources said Sisi wanted the visit to soothe the recent strains in the relationship, attract more Saudi investment, reassure Riyadh over Cairo’s support for its stance towards Iran and discuss possible arms deals.

Agreements to cooperate more closely on a range of issues, from the armed forces to the economy, will be announced, say people in Riyadh, but are seen as unlikely to make the relationship significantly deeper.

“It is like a married couple who argue but decide to stay together for the sake of the children,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist.


Once a central axis of Middle East politics, the relationship between Cairo and Riyadh has become increasingly peripheral since the 2011 Arab uprisings in a region now beset by civil wars and widespread unrest elsewhere.

In Syria, where Saudi Arabia is a leading backer of rebels, it has worked most closely with Qatar and Turkey, political rivals of Egypt. In Yemen, Cairo has contributed naval forces to a Saudi-led military intervention, but Riyadh’s main ally has been the United Arab Emirates.

However, as Saudi Arabia has turned to confront what it sees as a threat of Iranian expansionism across the region, Egypt has grown ever more introverted, focusing on its internal issues.

“The fact is that because of its revolution and its domestic economic situation, Egypt is not what it was, and more and more the Saudis are taking this prominent role,” said a diplomat. “The Saudis have some differences with them, but it’s between consenting adults.”

Still, Egypt’s naval participation in the Yemen campaign is seen in Riyadh as important and despite Cairo’s unwillingness to join Gulf states in declaring Hezbollah a terrorist group, its regional position has broadly aligned with that of the kingdom.

Lavish Aid

“This is an historic visit,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at a news conference on Tuesday.

Since 2013, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have given Cairo around $35 billion in aid in the form of oil shipments, cash grants and deposits into the central bank.

Meanwhile, Riyadh and Cairo have spoken of the need to increase Gulf investments into Egypt, a goal that has faltered as prominent businessmen in Saudi Arabia and its neighbours have complained openly about red tape and corruption.

For some in Riyadh’s elite, the fault lies with Egypt’s president, a man regarded when since 2013, and upon his election in 2014, as Saudi Arabia’s newest best friend.

“Sisi enjoyed the position of a hero at that time. He was the guy to fix Egypt and save it from chaos. Now in the same majlises (salons) in Riyadh, he’s lost that appeal,” said Khashoggi.


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