Mursi Visits Saudi Arabia in First Trip Abroad

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Nathaniel Kern, Matthew M. Reed

Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi completed his first trip abroad as head of state this month. He visited Saudi Arabia on July 11-12, where he held high-level meetings with King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman. Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, also performed Umrah — the minor pilgrimage — in the holy city of Mecca. By all accounts, the Saudis welcomed Mursi with their customary graciousness and hospitality. Mursi reciprocated by emphasizing the strong and enduring ties between Egypt and the Kingdom. He also met with expatriates.

Before last year’s revolution, Saudi Arabia maintained close relations with President Hosni Mubarak. Under his rule, the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to operate so long as it did not seriously challenge the regime’s hold on power. Saudi officials and other Gulf leaders have long been suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood. Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, who served as Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister for 36 years until his death last month, publicly complained that the Brotherhood was a source of instability and treachery, for instance.

Essential Aid

Two years of unrest in the Middle East confirm that Riyadh maintains some degree of strategic flexibility when dealing with its neighbors. While Saudi leaders would have preferred to keep doing business with Mubarak, they quickly changed their approach when street protests sealed his fate. Thus far Riyadh has deposited $1 billion into Egypt’s Central Bank. The Islamic Development Bank, based in Saudi Arabia, has also promised another $1 billion in assistance. $4 billion was pledged last year but has yet to be provided in full.

Saudi development aid includes a wide range of smaller projects that will improve conditions for average Egyptians — not just the state treasury. “It includes $60 million to supply drinking water to the Cairo district of Nasr City, $80 million to renew and replace irrigation pumps and $90 million to build seed storage silos,” Reuters reported on June 8. Smaller projects like these require negotiation and agreement before they take off. Mursi is said to have discussed more projects during his two-day trip. Lines of credit have also been extended to Egypt so that the country can import oil and gas products.

President Mursi needs friends with deep pockets if he wants to correct Egypt’s economic trajectory. But Saudi-Egyptian relations are not driven by charity and necessity. Cairo and Riyadh are also naturally drawn together by expatriates and trade, as well as religion and a common Arab identity.

Economic Ties and More

Saudi Arabia is Egypt’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $4.75 billion last year. The head of the Saudi-Egyptian Business Council, Dr. Abdullah Dahlan, last month estimated the value of Saudi investments in Egypt at $27 billion, with close to 90,000 Egyptian jobs tied directly to those investments. Some 700,000 Saudis maintain residences in Egypt, many as retirees.

Estimates vary but about 1.5 million Egyptians live in Saudi Arabia today. Egyptians in Kuwait are said to number 500,000, with another 300,000 in the UAE. Many have their families with them and have professional or managerial jobs. Egypt’s total remittances exceed revenues from gas exports and the Suez Canal combined. A significant amount of these funds come from Egyptian expatriates in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Mursi, like many other Egyptians, has a son who has worked in Saudi Arabia for years. When the local press reached out to Ahmed Mursi following his father’s electoral victory, the son insisted that he had no intention of leaving the Kingdom. The younger Mursi works as a resident urologist at a Saudi hospital in the Eastern Province.

King Abdullah’s Joyful Reception

Saudi Arabia had its own run-in with the Brotherhood in April. King Abdullah recalled his ambassador to Cairo and shut down the embassy on April 28 after the arrest of an Egyptian on drug-smuggling charges led to anti-Saudi demonstrations in Cairo and threats to their diplomats.

Alarmed by the sudden deterioration of relations, the Brotherhood sent a 113-member delegation of elected officials, led by the Parliament Speaker and the head of the Consultative Council. Saad al-Katatni, the speaker, told the King during their May 4 meeting in Riyadh that the Brotherhood trusted completely in the fairness of the Saudi judiciary and praised the “historic relations” between the two countries and the Kingdom’s clean hands in backing Egypt.

The King responded that it was a “joy” to meet the delegation and praised their honorable position. “I can only say that we shall not allow this passing crisis to last long,” he said. “Our decision to recall the ambassador and shut down the embassy was to protect its staff from any ominous consequences,” the King told the delegation. “What happened recently and its ramifications on the relations between the two brotherly countries hurts every Egyptian and Saudi citizen.” The ambassador returned days later.

Egypt and Gulf Security

Since Saudi Arabia has diplomatic relations with Iran, it cannot object to Egypt reestablishing relations with Tehran after more than thirty years of estrangement. But Mursi is expected to first confirm the primacy of relations between Egypt and the GCC.

In an interview with a Saudi paper published just before his trip to the Kingdom, Mursi emphasized Egypt’s red lines. “We in Egypt cannot forget that Saudi Arabia has always stood by the Arabs,” he said, adding that “Gulf security is a red line” for Cairo. It is worth noting that Iran is the only country that has explicitly threatened the Gulf in recent memory. Members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, as well as parliamentarians and other officials, have warned that sanctions could result in the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important energy chokepoint.

Shortly after Mubarak was ousted, Egypt’s Foreign Minister at the time, Nabil al-Arabi, appeared to be courting Iran. Iranian warships were even allowed to pass through the Suez Canal just weeks after Mubarak was forced from power. After al-Arabi said that his country wanted to open a new diplomatic page, the Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi rushed to embrace his statement and promptly invited al-Arabi to Tehran. Al-Arabi quickly backtracked and reasserted that the Arab identity of the GCC states was “a red line against which Egypt rejects any trespass.”

Saudi and Egyptian Media Promote Closer Ties

In a preview of Mursi’s visit, the Saudi Sharq al-Awsat newspaper recalled that the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, also visited Saudi Arabia in 1936 to meet King Abdul Aziz Al Saud. Banna came to admire the King as a Muslim role model. He even asked the King to allow for the establishment of a Saudi branch of the Brotherhood. Abdul Aziz reportedly told him, “We are all Muslim Brothers.”

Egyptian and Saudi media have repeatedly reproduced a photograph taken when the two met more than 70 years ago. It shows al-Banna kissing the hand of King Abdul Aziz.

Iranian Media Mostly Silent

Since the Arab uprisings gained momentum early last year with the toppling of Mubarak, Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have boasted that their 1979 revolution set the stage for the rise of Islamist forces across the Arab world. Iranian media, however, has not been observed to cover Mursi’s trip to Saudi Arabia. Except for a few very brief news items, official and semi-official news outlets in Iran have carried no details of Mursi’s meetings or statements. Very few editorials have mentioned the trip.

Such silence may be explained by an embarrassing episode which occurred late last month. On June 25, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency ran a fabricated interview with Egypt’s newly elected president. The phony interview opened with Mursi denying that he would make his first official visit to Saudi Arabia. Mursi also pledged to restore ties with Iran in order to “bring strategic balance to the region,” the interview suggested. Mursi quickly denied that the interview had taken place and his office threatened to sue Fars News.

Iranian media is most concerned with the fate of Shi’ite Saudi cleric Nimr al-Nimr at the moment. Nimr was detained earlier this month after a shootout with Saudi security forces. Details remain murky. But it should be clear why Mursi’s trip is not receiving much attention in Iran: his statements suggest that Egyptian-Saudi relations are strong and improving. Egypt’s June elections did not deliver the new ally Tehran wanted.


Foreign Reports is a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that writes and distributes timely intelligence reports on political developments in the Middle East relevant to oil markets. Oil companies, governments, and financial institutions rely on Foreign Reports for their insight and analysis on key issues affecting the world generally and the Middle East specifically. The firm was founded in 1956 and the current President is Nathaniel Kern.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top