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President Mohamed Morsy’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week was a success. The fact that the visit even took place is major for the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that suffered under deposed President Hosni Mubarak and had been regarded with suspicion by the latter’s allies in Riyadh.
By inviting the president to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh showed that it is willing to deal practically with whoever is in power in Cairo, as long as its interests are maintained. Morsy’s high-level meetings in Jeddah were attended by a coterie of Saudi officials, including King Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman and the new interior minister, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz.
According to the Brotherhood’s official newspaper, four issues were on the discussion table in Saudi Arabia: Egyptian labor in the kingdom, the Syrian uprising, Gulf security, and the economy. Following is a scorecard of the mission.
Firstly, according to Saudi reports, about 1.6 million Egyptians live and work in the kingdom, making it the largest concentration of Egyptian expats in the world and, therefore, a significant voting block. Morsy promised the Egyptian expats there a host of economic concessions and appointed a presidential adviser for expatriate affairs.
Secondly, earlier this year, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal — who was present at the meetings with Morsy — had called arming the Syrian opposition an “excellent idea.”
Although numerous reports emerged that Saudi Arabia (along with Qatar) has indeed already started arming the Syrian rebels, it is likely that this aid would increase significantly should the opposition’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council provide assurances to the kingdom. Egypt’s new president, who during his inaugural address called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, is the best person to relay these assurances.
It is also telling that, in addition to Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, Egyptian intelligence chief Mourad Mowafy accompanied Morsy on his visit to the kingdom. Mowafy succeeded Omar Suleiman, former intelligence chief and the Brotherhood’s No. 1 enemy, after he was appointed as Mubarak’s vice president during the uprising.
Like his predecessor, Mowafy handles the “Hamas file” in place of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. Following Morsy’s victory, Mowafy met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoy, Isaac Molho, in Cairo.
By taking the powerful chief of intelligence with him to Jeddah, Morsy was able to present a unified Egyptian front to the Saudi government. Mowafy’s intelligence counterpart, Prince Muqren bin Abdul Aziz, head of the Saudi General Intelligence, was also present.
Mowafy’s presence also speaks to another issue that was tackled in the meeting, namely Gulf security, which specifically centers on discussing Egypt’s relationship with Iran. Despite Iranian hopes, its relationship with Egypt did not get off to a positive start following threats by Morsy’s office to sue an official Iranian news agency for allegedly fabricating an interview with the Egyptian president.
A further setback occurred when Morsy’s spokesperson announced that the president would not be visiting Tehran in August to attend a summit, as some media outlets had earlier reported. Also, in an indirect public message to Iran, Morsy told a group of Egyptians in Saudi that Egypt is willing to back the “Sunni project” of Saudi Arabia.
Finally, on the economic front, Saudi’s much-needed aid started to make its way to Egypt immediately after the first visit by senior Brotherhood officials to the kingdom back in May. Additionally, presidential spokesperson Yasser Ali said the Saudis agreed to increase both Saudi investments that are estimated to reach US$27 billion, and the number of work visas issued to Egyptians workers.
Absent at least from the official discussion topics was Palestine and the fate of more than 1,000 Egyptian prisoners in the kingdom, including detained lawyer Ahmed al-Gizawy, whose trial was recently postponed to September.
Following his meetings with the Saudi king, Morsy used poetic language to describe the kingdom and its leaders. Referring to the king, Morsy said that he “saw in him wisdom, perception, knowledge and love for the people of Egypt,” and vowed to strive for the “stability of the [Arab] Gulf, on top of which is Saudi Arabia.”
Photos also showed a smiling Crown Prince Salman closely holding Morsy as they walked in one of the royal palaces. Ironically, in an earlier address to a gathering of Egyptian residents in Saudi, Morsy warned of dictatorships and “one-man rule,” and stressed the importance of democracy.
The relationship between the Saudi government and the Brotherhood in Egypt is being rewritten, and a large part of this rapprochement rests on the shoulders of Egypt’s new president. Although this rapprochement will face many hurdles, including the role of Egypt’s Salafis and the consequent influence of Saudi’s Wahhabi clerics on the country, it looks like we are witnessing a previously unimaginable good start for Egypt’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Sultan al-Qassemi is a commentator on Arab affairs based in the United Arab Emirates.