Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discusses economy in Egypt, meets Coptic pope

A handout picture released by the press office of Abbasiya Cathedral on March 3, 2018, shows Pope Tawadros II (R), pope of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L), at the Cathedral of Abbasiya in Cairo. – AFP

CAIRO: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continued a visit to Egypt yesterday focused on economic cooperation, with Riyadh agreeing a $10 billion investment with Cairo for a futuristic mega city project. Prince Mohammed accompanied Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to review construction projects near the Suez Canal before boarding a boat with the president to tour the waterway. A Saudi government source said the two countries had agreed to set up a joint $10 billion fund to develop areas of Egypt linked to the NEOM project.

The $500 billion NEOM mega city, unveiled by Prince Mohammed last year, is planned to be a biotech and digital hub spread over 26,500 sq km in an area facing Jordan and Egypt. The Saudi government source said the joint fund, which involves leased land for the Egyptian share, would be used to develop lands in the south of the Sinai Peninsula as part of NEOM.

Prince Mohammed, who landed in Cairo on Sunday, is to fly to Britain tomorrow and later this month to the United States, in his first forays abroad as crown prince. His visit to Egypt deals with “economic and investment cooperation,” Egyptian presidency spokesman Bassam Radi told state television. Prince Mohammed and Sisi agreed in talks to bolster economic ties and launch joint projects, “particularly in the tourism sector on the Red Sea”, Radi said.

Later yesterday Prince Mohammed met Egypt’s top cleric Ahmed Al-Tayeb of the Al-Azhar institution, whose historic mosque in Cairo is being renovated with Saudi funding. He also met Coptic Pope Tawadros II at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral in what state media said was an unprecedented visit by an official from the conservative Muslim kingdom. Prince Mohammed and Pope Tawadros walked together through St Mark’s Cathedral late yesterday, footage on Saudi TV channel Al-Arabiya showed. Egypt’s state news agency MENA said it was the first visit of its kind, without elaborating.

The kingdom is trying to shed its reputation as a global exporter of an ultraconservative brand of Islam which critics say has inspired Islamist militants worldwide. Promoting a more moderate form of Islam is one of the more ambitious promises made by Prince Mohammed under plans to transform Saudi and reduce its reliance on oil.

Saudi Arabia views Egypt as a cornerstone of regional stability, after former army chief Sisi overthrew his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Riyadh viewed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood with suspicion and at one point briefly recalled its ambassador from Cairo during his turbulent year in power. It has since showered Cairo with aid to prop up the country’s economy, in a relationship that has led to some controversy in Egypt.

Prince Mohammed’s visit also comes as Sisi prepares to run in an election he is virtually guaranteed to win. Alongside posters urging people to vote for Sisi, large banners were put up in central Cairo yesterday with images of the Egyptian president, Prince Mohammed and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. “Welcome to your second country,” said one; another read “Saudi and Egypt are one hand, one nation.” Egypt has sided with Saudi Arabia on a number of foreign policy issues, including a diplomatic and trade boycott of tiny gas-rich Qatar, and the support of forces battling Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen. – Agencies

This article was published on 05/03/2018