Morsi visit aimed at easing Saudi ties

Thu, Jul 12, 2012, 01:00

ON HIS first visit abroad since his inauguration, Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, yesterday travelled to Saudi Arabia for meetings with King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman. Mr Morsi’s choice of destination is highly significant.

Talks are expected to focus on repairing ties which had been close during the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak but became distant after his fall 16 months ago. Mr Morsi’s diplomatic skills will be severely tested during this two-day visit.

Riyadh backed Mr Mubarak against the millions of Egyptians who poured into the country’s squares and streets to demand his removal. However, the estrangement had to end because Egypt, the largest and most populous Arab nation, and Saudi Arabia, the richest and one of the least populous, have major national interests in rebuilding ties at all levels.

Thousands of Saudis, including members of the ruling family, businessmen and students, live in Egypt, while 1.7 million Egyptians live and work in Saudi Arabia.

An estimated 1.5 million Egyptians make annual pilgrimages to the kingdom and 500,000 Saudi tourists visit Egypt every year. Trade is estimated to be worth $4.75 billion and Saudi Arabia has investments in Egypt worth $27 billion and employing 88,000 Egyptians.

Saudi ambassador to Cairo Ahmad bin Abdel Aziz al-Qattan said the kingdom’s investments in Egypt could be expected to increase.

This should be music to Mr Morsi’s ears as he is in urgent need of funds to develop Egypt and find jobs for millions of people.

In recent months, Riyadh has indicated its readiness for rapprochement by partly financing Egypt’s fuel requirements.

Both countries are allies of the US and Europe and, until the Arab Spring erupted in early 2011, attempted to stabilise the volatile, strategic Middle East.

At the top of the agenda is Shia Iran, which Sunni Saudi Arabia views as its main competitor for the allegiance of Muslims. The Saudis are seeking reassurances from Mr Morsi, who has pledged to improve relations between Cairo and Tehran.

The Saudis fear this could bring about a shift in the balance of power in the worldwide Muslim community and in the region.

Mr Morsi, a former stalwart of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, must overcome a rift that has plagued relations with Saudi Arabia in recent years.

For decades, Riyadh had extended political and financial backing to the Brotherhood, seen as a counterweight to secular Arab nationalists.

But the Saudis eventually shifted their support to ultra-orthodox Sunni Salafis, who have adopted the Wahhabi version of Islam practised in the kingdom.

In Egypt and elsewhere, Salafis have emerged as powers on the political scene and are now the Brotherhood’s major competitors.

The Saudis signalled their determination to achieve rapprochement with the Brotherhood – although it has been the main political beneficiary of Mr Mubarak’s fall – by publishing a photo in the London-based Saudi-owned daily Asharq al-Awsat of the 1936 meeting between Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and King Abdel Aziz al-Saud, founder of the kingdom and father of the present king and crown prince.