Showing Pragmatism, Egypt’s Morsi Looks to Saudi Arabia

Showing Pragmatism, Egypt’s Morsi Looks to Saudi Arabia

The first official foreign visit of any newly elected president represents a significant symbolic statement. Knowing this, new leaders choose their first visit very carefully, often selecting a country that is either a major strategic ally or an important trade partner. Nonetheless, the Egyptian government’s announcement that President Mohammed Morsi’s first foreign visit will take him to Saudi Arabia came as something of a surprise.

Morsi is no doubt aware, based on media reports, that during the bloody protests that led to the end of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, Saudi King Abdullah was urging U.S. President Barack Obama to do everything in his power to support Mubarak. This unpleasant history, however, is not important to the pragmatic Morsi. The choice of Saudi Arabia for his first visit reflects the priorities of both Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, for whom the Egyptian economy is the top concern and Saudi Arabia is a very important economic partner.

Saudi-Egyptian relations deteriorated in 1978 after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel, but relations gradually improved in the 1980s as Egypt and Saudi Arabia cooperated in supporting Iraq’s war against Iran. A further warming of relations came during the first Gulf War, when Egypt offered support to the U.S.-led coalition to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Over his long rule, Mubarak developed a close friendship with King Abdullah and other Saudi officials. And during the decade preceding Mubarak’s ouster, Saudi investment in Egypt increased sharply as Riyadh emerged as the leading Arab investor and the second-largest global investor in Egypt.

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