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Saudi continues regional reshuffle in hosting Egypt's Sisi, opening to Assad

The meeting between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman comes as Egypt faces a deepening economic crisis and the region witnesses major realignments.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the "APEC Leaders' Informal Dialogue with Guests" event during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok on November 18, 2022. (Photo by ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia is advancing multiple regional diplomatic tracks in hosting Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and mulling restoration of relations with Syria's Bashar al-Assad ahead of the Arab League summit in May that the kingdom is hosting. 

On Monday, Sisi met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a visit to the 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 kingdom’s de facto ruler.

“As I express my gratitude and appreciation for the warm reception and hospitality, I affirm the depth and strength of the bilateral relations between Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Sisi tweeted following the meeting. 

Sisi’s visit to the oil-rich Gulf kingdom comes as Egypt's economic crisis spirals. Since Sisi took power in 2014, Saudi Arabia has provided Egypt with considerable financial support. During a visit to Riyadh in December, Egyptian Trade and Industry Minister 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 inked several 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 into the Central Bank of Egypt last year.

But Saudi financial support to Egypt is less certain since the kingdom’s Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan announced in January that his country will no longer provide unconditional assistance to its allies. “We used to give direct grants and deposits without strings attached and we are changing that,” Jadaan said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Jaadan’s remarks prompted Sisi to reiterate the importance of Cairo’s relations 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 upon “direct instructions from high executive levels over dismay from the Saudi side.”

Shortly after the incident, Sisi denounced the report, saying that “people should be writing to strengthen our relations with our brethren.”

Many analysts believe Egypt’s stalling in transferring the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to the kingdom is another reason behind the strained relations.

Saudi Arabia had given control of the islands to Egypt in 1950 before they were demilitarized under the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Despite Egypt's 2017 approval of an agreement to cede sovereignty of the islands to Saudi Arabia, the deal was never finalized. According to a recent report on the Arab Center Washington DC, “Sisi is purportedly hindering the transfer of sovereignty over the islands to exert pressure on Saudi Arabia and achieve economic and financial benefits that could alleviate Egypt’s severe economic crisis.”

The trip also coincides with major regional realignments following the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and the ongoing Arab thaw Assad.

Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed last month to normalize relations following a six-year rupture. The deal was facilitated by China, and was followed with calls between Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers as well as an invite 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, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said the two officials held a closed-door meeting before being joined by their delegations for wider discussions on Egypt-Syria relations. The two sides also agreed to enhance communication between the two countries.

Mekdad’s trip is the latest sign of growing rapprochement between Damascus and Arab countries as Egypt pushes for Syria’s return to the Arab League.

In 2012, the Arab League expelled Syria over the government’s brutal crackdown against peaceful protests and several Arab and Gulf countries cut diplomatic ties with Syria. As Assad regained control of much of Syria's territory in the past years, some countries have rekindled their ties with the government. 

In February, the United Arab Emirates and Oman hosted Assad following the massive earthquake that shook northern Syria in February. 

Reuters revealed on Sunday that Saudi Arabia is planning to invite Assad for 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 quoting a Saudi Foreign Ministry official as saying that the kingdom was in talks with Damascus to reopen its embassy in the war-torn country.

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