Egypt gave a warm welcome to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday, with military fanfare and a trip to the Suez Canal meant to underline a growing strategic partnership.
It is the first trip abroad for the 32-year-old Salman since he became heir to the Saudi throne, and comes after a tumultuous year in which he consolidated power by sidelining rivals, vowed to modernize the country and stepped up its rivalry with Iran.
Posters featuring Salman alongside President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi lined major roads in central Cairo, where Salman later met with Egypt’s Coptic Pope Tawadros II in the first such visit by a Saudi official to the spiritual center of the country’s Orthodox Christian community. He also met Egypt’s top Islamic official, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, and saw a performance at the Cairo Opera. Salman will travel to Britain and the United States later this week.
The prince and el-Sissi travelled through one of the new tunnels being built under the canal, before boarding a boat from a red-carpeted dock as an army band played marching music. He later cut the ribbon at a ceremony to inaugurate a nearby army-built resort.
Egypt seeks investment from oil-rich Saudi Arabia to help develop the area, where Cairo wants to establish an international transport, logistics and production hub. On the first day of the three-day visit, the two signed agreements on common investment funds and environmental protection, the Saudi news agency SPA reported.
The leaders are also expected to discuss the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, as well as their joint boycott of tiny Gulf nation Qatar, which they accuse of fomenting extremism across the region.
Salman’s trip comes just a week after he triggered his most recent shake-up, replacing the kingdom’s military chief of staff and other defense officials in what appeared to be an attempt to rethink tactics in the stalemated war in Yemen.
A Saudi-led coalition has been battling Iran-allied Shiite rebels known as Houthis since March 2015. The war had killed more than 10,000 people and devastated the Arab world’s poorest country, while the Houthis remain firmly in control of the capital and much of the north.
Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, and Saudi Arabia, one of the wealthiest, tightened their longstanding alliance after Pres. el-Sissi led the military overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013, with Riyadh providing tens of billions of dollars in aid. As el-Sissi has consolidated power and global oil prices have fallen, however, the emphasis has shifted to investment.
The two countries have plans to build a causeway across the Red Sea and to jointly develop areas on both sides.
Pres. el-Sissi faced a backlash, however, over the transfer of two strategic Red Sea islands to the Saudis, denounced by critics as a quid pro quo for the massive aid package. The move sparked some of the largest protests against el-Sissi’s rule, which were swiftly dispersed.
The government insists the islands were always part of Saudi Arabia, and that Egypt only assumed temporary custodianship of them in the 1950s at a time of soaring Arab-Israeli tensions.
On the eve of the crown prince’s visit, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court dismissed all previous rulings on the islands, including those that struck down the deal. The agreement has been ratified by Egypt’s parliament, which is packed with el-Sissi supporters.
Egyptians have a generally favorable view of Saudi Arabia, where many have worked in the booming oil economy during Egypt’s decades of stagnation since the 1970s. Remittances from Egyptians there play an important part in the local economy, while conservative religious customs have also taken root in Egypt, in part due to expats’ exposure to them in Saudi Arabia.