After crown prince’s visit, Egypt and Saudi Arabia ties ever stronger

Visiting the Coptic Orthodox Church, Crown Prince Mohammed highlighted the need for coexistence and respect for other faiths.
Sunday 11/03/2018
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) greets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz on his arrival in Cairo, on March 4.(AP)
Warm welcome. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) greets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz on his arrival in Cairo, on March 4. (AP)

CAIRO - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has wrapped up a visit to Cairo, his first to Egypt since becoming heir apparent in his oil-rich kingdom. The crown prince’s itinerary in Cairo was largely symbolic and indicated the change Saudi Arabia wishes to project to the world, analysts said.

“The Saudi crown prince was keen during his visit to Cairo on projecting an image that is both new and revolutionary,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “He showed the traits of an open-minded politician who is ready to effect radical change in his country and the region.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received Crown Prince Mohammed at Cairo International Airport on March 4, breaking well-established diplomatic protocol. Sisi’s personal welcome demonstrated the extent to which Cairo has pinned hopes of greater cooperation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on Crown Prince Mohammed.

The Saudi crown prince used the visit to burnish his image as a reformist. He visited a Coptic Orthodox Church in eastern Cairo and met with Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. In their talks, the crown prince highlighted the need for coexistence and the fact that Islam calls for respecting other faiths.

The visit, experts said, was brief but highly symbolic of the kind of leadership Crown Prince Mohammed demonstrates.

“As a politician, he shows that Saudi Arabia is open to all religions,” said Saudi writer Khalid Majrashi.

Crown Prince Mohammed’s visit to Cairo was the first leg in a foreign tour that subsequently took him to London and is scheduled to take him to the United States from March 19-22.

The Egyptian leadership has been struggling to reform religious discourse, fight terrorism and empower its Christian minority. Crown Prince Mohammed’s visit to the Coptic Orthodox Church, Fahmi said, showed that the Egyptian and Saudi leaderships were united in their desire to fight religious bigotry and eliminate discrimination against followers of other religions.

However, it was clear the crown prince’s visit to Cairo was less about the present and more about the future.

He visited the Cairo Opera House and attended a performance by young actors. In this, the Saudi heir apparent was showing a Saudi interest in culture and the arts in a country that is known as the home of Arab arts.

Months before travelling to Cairo, Crown Prince Mohammed set in motion cultural changes in Saudi Arabia, including moves to open cinemas, an opera house and theatres. Saudi women have also been given the right to drive, as of June, and attend sports competitions, in what many said was a huge break with tradition.

Saudi Arabia has also begun an aggressive campaign against religious extremism by establishing an international anti-terrorism centre.

Given developments in the region, Egyptian political analysts said the talks between Sisi and Crown Prince Mohammed were timely.

US President Donald Trump recently sent emissaries to the Gulf to discuss the crisis caused by Qatar’s alleged funding of extremist groups. Trump has talked about a peace plan between the Palestinians and the Israelis, even as details of it remain largely unclear. Iran’s influence in the region is expanding, specifically in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.

An Arab summit scheduled for this month in Riyadh was pushed to April by the Arab League, which said it did not want the summit to conflict with Egypt’s presidential election March 26-28.

“These are all issues that needed coordination between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, by far the largest two Arab countries,” said Saad al-Zunt, the head of local think-tank Strategic Studies Centre.

Behind Egypt’s warm welcome of Crown Prince Mohammed lies a desire by Cairo to advance economic cooperation with a country that has been an unwavering political and economic ally.

Saudi Arabia has given Egypt billions of dollars in financial aid since 2013 and continues to offer political support. The oil-rich kingdom is the largest Arab investor in Egypt, with $45 billion in government and private investments.

While in Egypt, Crown Prince Mohammed was present for the signing of several agreements, including one to initiate a

$10 billion fund for the development of parts of Sinai so that they can integrate into NEOM, a Saudi megacity planned for along the Red Sea coast.

The hope in Cairo is that the fund will perk up the tourism sector, especially in Sinai, and bring Egypt much-needed tourism investments.

Ministers accompanying the Saudi crown prince also had talks on irrigation and agricultural cooperation with their Egyptian counterparts.

“Egypt stands to benefit a lot by becoming part of the NEOM project,” said Rashad Abdo, an economics professor at Cairo University. “It will open the door for huge investments in the Suez Canal and Sinai regions.”