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Egypt's president on first visit to Saudi Arabia

Sunday - 8/10/2014, 8:20pm  ET

AYA BATRAWY

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) -- Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi met late Sunday in Saudi Arabia with one of his strongest international supporters, King Abdullah, to talk about key security issues impacting the region.

Saudi Arabia's monarch has given Egypt at least $12 billion in aid to buoy its economy after the military, led by el-Sissi, ousted the country's President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers from power amid massive protests.

King Abdullah quickly cemented himself as the new Egyptian leadership's staunchest supporter and led a foreign diplomacy blitz with Western nations to soften their stances toward last year's ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected president.

Sunday's visit is el-Sissi's first to the kingdom since his subsequent election win in May. The two leaders share a perceived common threat from the Muslim Brotherhood, and both Egypt and Saudi Arabia outlawed the more than 80-year-old movement by branding it a terrorist organization.

Egyptian and Saudi diplomats were quoted in local media as saying the two leaders are expected to talk about five key issues: the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza; the conflict in Libya; Syria's civil war; the Islamic militant advance in Iraq; and terrorism. The official Saudi Press Agency said they talked specifically about Egypt's mediation efforts for an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire.

After the meeting, el-Sissi, his foreign minister and chief of staff were hosted to a dinner by King Abdullah's successor, Crown Prince Salman. The Egyptian president will perform an Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca before departing Monday.

The two leaders met briefly in June when King Abdullah stopped in Cairo to congratulate el-Sissi on his election. In that meeting, the 90 year-old monarch stayed on onboard his private jet.

It marked a key moment for both sides. It was the king's first visit to Egypt since the fall of Saudi Arabia's longtime ally President Hosni Mubarak in the 2011 popular uprising. It was also a chance for el-Sissi to express his gratitude to the king. Saudi state television carried video of Egypt's newly-elected president at the time greeting the monarch with traditional kisses on the cheeks before kissing him on his forehead in a sign of deep respect.

It was only two years ago that Morsi made his first official foreign trip to Saudi Arabia where he met King Abdullah. Under Morsi, however, Egypt moved closer to Qatar and accepted $8 billion in aid from the tiny Gulf nation, $7 billion of which was debt and $1 billion of which was in grants.

Qatar's support for Islamist groups such as the Brotherhood and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is sharply at odds with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, which withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in an unprecedented protest earlier this year.

Egyptian economist at EFH Hermes Mohamed Abu Basha said unlike Qatar, most of Saudi Arabia's financial support for Egypt is in grants. Out of $12 billion in aid this past year, $9.5 billion was grant money to purchase fuel supplies. Similarly, two-thirds of the aid that has come from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates was grant money used to support the budget.

Abu Basha said the Gulf's support over the past year has been "critical" for Egypt and amounts to close to $17 billion, which is approximately the country's total in foreign reserves.

Egypt's central bank said reserves stood at almost $16.74 billion at end of July, compared to about $36 billion before the 2011 uprising when tourism and foreign investment started to plummet.

"Egypt will be, for at least two to three years, in need of external support," Abu Basha said. "Without it you would have acute energy shortages and a currency crisis."

Despite signs of economic recovery from Cairo, King Abdullah has called for an international development and investment conference to shore up financial assistance for Egypt.

El-Sissi was quoted in an interview shortly before his election saying Saudi Arabia has given Egypt much more in financial assistance than the $12 billion figure announced, though he stopped short of elaborating.

He described King Abdullah as "the biggest of Arabs, the man of Arabs and the ruler of Arabs for what he has provided Egypt."

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Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.


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