Saudi continues regional reshuffle in hosting Egypt’s Sisi, opening to Assad
Saudi Arabia is pushing multiple regional diplomatic tracks by hosting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and revamping relations with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad ahead of the Arab League summit in May. hosted by the kingdom.
On Monday, Sisi met the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, during a visit to the Red Sea city of Jeddah. According to the official Saudi Press Agency, the two leaders discussed the historical relations between the two countries and ways to boost bilateral cooperation in various fields as well as the latest regional developments.
Sisi arrived in Jeddah on Sunday night, where he was welcomed by the crown prince, the de facto ruler of the kingdom.
“Expressing my gratitude and appreciation for the warm welcome and hospitality, I affirm the depth and strength of the bilateral relationship between Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Sisi tweeted after the meeting.
Sisi’s visit to the oil-rich Gulf kingdom comes as Egypt’s economic crisis unfolds. Since Sisi came to power in 2014, Saudi Arabia has provided considerable financial support to Egypt. During a visit to Riyadh in December, Egypt’s Minister of Trade and Industry, Ahmed Samir, said that Saudi Arabia is the second largest investor in Egypt, investing $6.12 billion in 6,017 projects in various fields.
On the sidelines of the Saudi Prince’s visit to Cairo last summer, Saudi investment groups and Egyptian private and public agencies made a number of investment deals worth $7.7 billion in a wide range of sectors, including renewable energy, petroleum, food and fintech.
The kingdom also deposited $5 billion in the Central Bank of Egypt last year.
But Saudi financial support for Egypt is less certain since the kingdom’s Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan announced in January that his country will no longer provide unconditional aid to its allies. “We used to give direct grants and deposits with no strings attached and we are changing that,” Jadaan said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Jaadan’s remarks prompted Sisi to reaffirm the importance of Cairo’s relationship with Riyadh. In February, Egypt’s Mada Masr reported that the editor-in-chief of the state-owned Al-Gomhurriya had deleted an article criticizing the Gulf kingdom on “direct instructions from high executive levels that are extremely worrying from the point of view of Arabia.”
Shortly after the incident, Sisi announced the report, saying “people should be writing to strengthen our relationship with our brothers.”
Many analysts believe that another reason for strained relations is Egypt’s obstruction of the transfer of the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia ceded control of the islands to Egypt in 1950 before demilitarizing them under the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Despite the fact that in 2017 Egypt approved an agreement to cede sovereignty of the islands to Saudi Arabia, the agreement was never finalized. According to a recent report by the Washington DC Arab Center, “It is alleged that Sisi is blocking the transfer of sovereignty on the islands in order to pressure Saudi Arabia and gain economic and financial benefits that could lead to an economic crisis to relieve Egypt.”
The trip also coincides with major regional realignments following the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and the ongoing Arab thaw of Assad.
Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed last month to normalize relations after a six-year rupture. China facilitated the agreement, which was followed by calls between Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers as well as an invitation to Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi to visit the kingdom.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry hosted his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad in Cairo over the weekend, the first such visit in more than 10 years.
In a statement on Facebook, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the two officials had a closed meeting before their delegations entered for a broader discussion on relations between Egypt and Syria. Both sides also agreed to improve communication between the two countries.
Mekdad’s trip is the latest sign that the rapprochement between Damascus and Arab countries is growing and Egypt wants to return Syria to the Arab League.
In 2012, the Arab League expelled Syria due to the government’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protests and several Arab and Gulf countries cut diplomatic ties with Syria. As Assad has regained control of much of Syria’s territory in recent years, several countries have re-established ties with the government.
In February, the United Arab Emirates and Oman hosted Assad after the massive earthquake that shook northern Syria in February.
Reuters revealed on Sunday that Saudi Arabia is planning to invite Assad to the Arab League summit due in Riyadh in May, a major regional development in the Arab-Syrian file. Sources familiar with the plans told Reuters that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan will travel to Damascus in the coming weeks to officially invite Assad to the summit.
Last month, Saudi state television aired a report citing a Saudi Foreign Ministry official as saying the kingdom was in talks with Damascus to reopen its embassy in the war-torn country.