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Saudi King's visit to Egypt bolsters Sisi

Saudi Arabian King Abdullah's visit to newly elected Egyptian President Sisi symbolises strong support for the new government
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) meeting with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (R) on 20 June (AFP)

Saudi Arabia King Abdullah arrived in Cairo Friday on a highly symbolic visit underlining the strong support of the kingdom to Egypt’s newly elected president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi.

On his first trip to Egypt since the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Abdullah landed in Cairo on his way back from Morocco on a brief and unusual meeting.

Sisi and his ministers including prime minster Ibrahim Mahlab were present for Abdullah’s arrival at the Caior aiport. Instead of meeting Abdullah upon his exit of the plane, Sisi boarded the aircraft to welcome the monarchical delegation and discuss the future of Egypt during an hour-long meeting.

Spokesperson of the Egyptian presidency Ihab Badawi stated that the two leaders discussed bilateral ties.

State news agency MENA said Sisi "thanked the king for the significant support recently given by Saudi Arabia to Egypt".

The pair discussed a "Friends of Egypt" conference proposed by Riyadh to garner economic support for Egypt, as well as the unrest in Syria, Iraq and Libya, MENA said.

Following the brief talks, the Saudi monarch's aircraft left for home.

Saudi Arabia has been resilient in supporting Egypt since the military take-over of 2013. Abdullah has been among the most vocal supporters of Sisi since July 2013.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE hailed the ouster of president Morsi by ex-army chief Sisi as Riyadh pledged $5 billion in aid to Egypt, with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates offering a combined $7 billion.

Reports in early June revealed that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are readying to provide Egypt with a further $20bn financial aid package to cash-strapped Egypt.

Sayyed Amin Shalabi of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs think tank called the king's visit highly symbolic.

It was the first by a head of state since Sisi's election victory, and shows Riyadh's "political support for Egypt, as well as its economic and financial backing," Shalabi said.

Saudi Arabia has long seen the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat and has declared it a "terrorist" organisation. Riyadh therefore showed strong support for Sisi’s arrival and crackdown on the Brotherhood.

Immediately after the announcement of Sisi as Egypt’s new president, Abdullah issued warm congratulations and called for a donor conference to help Egypt "overcome its economic difficulties".

The monarch was the only foreign leader Sisi mentioned by name in his first speech as president, when he thanked the king for organising the funding conference.

Analysts say that Saudi support for Egypt's new government is part of a wider strategy not only against Islamists, but also to establish Egypt as a bulwark. 

Fawaz Gerges, Middle East expert at the London School of Economics told Reuters that Abdullah’s visit indicates Riyadh has put Egypt at the heart of regional policy aimed to curb Iran’s hegemony over the region.

“Saudi Arabia is trying to basically build a wall of Sunni Arab states to deter Iranian influence in the Arab heartland,” he said referring to Iraq and Syria’s disintegration as two strategic Arab states.

“Egypt in the eyes of Saudi leadership could play a major role in helping to create a deterrent Arab force.”