Saudi king ends landmark Egypt visit with firm support to Sisi

The visit comes as Cairo remains engaged in conflicts in the Middle East and competes with Iran for regional supremacy

Afp April 11, 2016
Saudi King Salman (left) shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during talks in Cairo, on April 7, 2016 PHOTO: AFP

CAIRO: Saudi King Salman on Monday wraps up a landmark five-day visit to Egypt marked by lavish praise and multi-billion-dollar investment deals, in a clear sign of support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's iron-fisted regime.

The 80-year-old monarch's visit comes as Riyadh aims to keep Cairo under its aegis as it remains engaged in several conflicts in the Middle East and competes with Shia Iran for regional supremacy.

The visit also highlights Saudi Arabia's firm support for Egypt's fight against the militant Islamic State group, which has spearheaded a brutal insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula since the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

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"The other mission that we should work on together is the fight against extremism and the fight against terrorism," King Salman said on Sunday in an address to the Egyptian parliament.

On Monday, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cairo University.

Over the past five days, King Salman and Sisi signed a slew of multi-billion-dollar investment deals that included a plan to build a bridge over the Red Sea connecting Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Egypt also agreed to demarcate its maritime borders with Saudi Arabia by officially placing two islands in the Straits of Tiran in Saudi territory.

The agreement provoked an immediate backlash in Egypt, with thousands of Twitter users accusing Sisi of selling the islands. The islands had historically been Saudi and were "leased" to Egypt in 1950.

Analysts said Salman's visit puts to rest months of reports in Saudi and Egyptian media of strained ties between the two countries over Cairo's unwillingness to participate fully in Saudi-led operations against Iran-backed Shia Huthi rebels in Yemen.

Egypt had announced it would back Saudi Arabia with ground troops if needed, but appears to have balked at the prospect of becoming mired in the conflict.

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"The two countries realise that common interests outweigh their practical differences," said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Following Salman's visit, Egypt would now be expected to offer more vocal support for Saudi Arabia when it comes to Iran and Yemen, he said.

"The Egyptians are basically going to convince the Saudis that they are in the same trench when it comes to the Saudis' existential fight with Iran, and SaudiArabia too seems to be very committed to Egyptian national security and the Sisi adminstration," said Gerges.

While the kingdom is part of the US-led coalition bombing IS in Iraq and Syria, it is also leading an Arab coalition, of which Egypt is a member, that has been bombing Huthi rebels in Yemen.

Since then army chief Sisi ousted Morsi in 2013, Saudi Arabia has supported the former army chief.

Riyadh viewed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement with deep suspicion.

Saudi support for Cairo has helped Sisi tighten his grip on Egypt after he crushed not just the Brotherhood and secular dissidents.

Hundreds of supporters of Morsi have been killed and tens of thousands jailed in the blistering police crackdown.

Hundreds more including Morsi himself have been sentenced to death or lengthy jail terms after often speedy trials that have been condemned by the United Nations and global rights groups.

Prior to Salman's visit, Riyadh had already pumped billions of dollars in aid and investments into Egypt. It has helped prop up Egypt's economy, whose tourism industry has been devastated by years of political turmoil and militant attacks.

"Although Saudi Arabia's support is important to confront Egypt's economic crisis, what Egypt needs is more political stability and security to attract tourism and foreign direct investments," said Ibrahim El-Ghitany, researcher at Cairo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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Egypt's economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism, was dealt a body blow when IS downed a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula on October 31.

All 224 people on board, mostly Russian tourists, were killed in the attack which IS said was carried out by stowing a bomb on the aircraft.

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