Egypt's leader makes surprise visit to Saudi Arabia

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In this photo provided by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meets with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Siss in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, late Sunday, April 2, 2023. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

CAIRO – The leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia met in the Gulf kingdom, officials said Monday, in the first face-to-face discussions between the two men in months as the North African country battles a domestic economic crisis.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, held talks late Sunday that focused on ties between the two Middle Eastern heavyweights, according to Egyptian presidential spokesman Ahmed Fahmy.

Fahmy said in a statement that the two leaders “affirmed mutual concern for promoting common cooperation in all fields.” They also agreed to continue “coordination and consultation” on regional and international topics, he added.

The statement did not give further details. The surprise visit came as el-Sissi's government is struggling to overcome an economic crisis blamed on the war in Europe, but also on mismanagement of the economy. The two countries also seek to mend their frayed ties with other regional powers, including Iran and Turkey.

“I affirm the depth and strength of the biliteral relations between Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” el-Sissi tweeted after returning to Egypt early Monday.

Bin Salman, widely known in the West by the acronym MBS, received el-Sissi in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah on the Red Sea. Images aired by state-run media in the two countries showed the crown prince waiting for the Egyptian president on the tarmac.

Other officials from both countries attended the talks, including Abbas Kamel, head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Authority, and Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, Saudi national security adviser, according to the Saudi official news agency.

The trip was the first announced encounter between the two leaders since they met in Qatar during the opening of the World Cup in November. El-Sissi also received bin Salman in Cairo in June ahead of President Joe Biden's Mideast trip.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states have been the main suppliers of aid to the Egyptian government, which has been struggling to overcome a staggering economic crisis. In 2022, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates pledged a total of $22 billion in deposits and direct investments in Egypt, in a bid to stabilize its battered economy after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Saudi Arabia’s investment in Egypt surpassed $6 billion last year, making it the second biggest investor in the country, said Egyptian Trade and Industry Minister Ahmed Samir in December. Trade between the two countries reached $10.3 billion last year, up from $9.1 billion in 2021, according to figures released Monday by Egypt’s statistics bureau.

However, in recent months, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been increasingly reluctant to help cash-strapped Egypt. They urged el-Sissi’s government to make economic reforms to receive aid. Egypt has already begun to make changes as part of a $3 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund.

“We need to see reforms. We are taxing our people. We are expecting also others to do the same, to do their efforts. We want to help, but we want you also to do your part,” Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said at the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

The criticism of the Egyptian government's handling of the economy has strained ties between Cairo and Riyadh. An online spat between public figures in the two countries erupted after an opinion piece was published in an Egyptian state-owned newspaper in February, arguing that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states had no right to criticize the Egyptian government’s handling of its economy.

Speaking at the World Government Summit in Dubai in February, el-Sissi watered down the spat and praised Gulf monarchies for their past financial support.

“Reality may be different from what we see in the media or what we hear from politicians … even when it’s politicians who think they are in control,” he said.