Mega city, megabuck deals as Saudi crown prince visits Egypt

Saudi Arabia and Egypt agreed Monday to a $10 billion investment for a futuristic mega city project during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Egypt, underlining a growing strategic partnership between the two Sunni Arab nations.


Egypt extended a warm welcome to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on his first trip abroad, with military fanfare, a trip to the Suez Canal, and an agreement 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 square kilometres (10,000 square miles) in an area facing Jordan and Egypt.

A 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.

The 32-year-old Saudi crown prince and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi travelled through one of the new tunnels being built under the Suez Canal, before boarding a boat from a red-carpeted dock as an army band played marching music. He later cut the ribbon at a ceremony to inaugurate a nearby army-built resort.

Egypt seeks investment from oil-rich Saudi Arabia to help develop the area, where Cairo wants to establish an international transport, logistics and production hub. On the first day of the three-day visit, the two signed agreements on common investment funds and environmental protection, the Saudi news agency SPA reported.

Meeting top religious figures

Posters featuring Prince Mohammed alongside Sisi lined major roads in central Cairo, where the Saudi crown prince met with Egypt’s Coptic Pope Tawadros II Monday in the first such visit by a Saudi official to the spiritual center of the country’s Orthodox Christian community.

He also met Egypt’s top Islamic official, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, and saw a performance at the Cairo Opera.

Prince Mohammed’s visit comes ahead of Egypt’s presidential polls in late March, with Sisi expected to win a second four-year term.

On the Saudi domestic front, the crown prince’s visit comes just a week after he triggered his most recent shake-up, replacing the kingdom’s military chief of staff and other defense officials in what appeared to be an attempt to rethink tactics in the stalemated war in Yemen.

A Saudi-led coalition has been battling Iran-allied Shiite rebels known as Houthis since March 2015. The war in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people and devastated the Arab world’s poorest country, while the Houthis remain firmly in control of the capital and much of the north.

Backlash on transfer of Red Sea islands

While the two Sunni Arab powers share warm relations, Sisi faced a backlash last year over the transfer of two strategic Red Sea islands to the Saudis, denounced by critics as a quid pro quo for the massive aid package. The move sparked some of the largest protests against Sisi’s rule, which were swiftly dispersed.

The government insists the islands were always part of Saudi Arabia, and that Egypt only assumed temporary custodianship of them in the 1950s at a time of soaring Arab-Israeli tensions.

On the eve of the crown prince’s visit, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court dismissed all previous rulings on the islands, including those that struck down the deal. The agreement has been ratified by Egypt’s parliament, which is packed with Sisi supporters.

Saudi crown prince to head to UK, US

Prince Mohammed, who landed in Cairo on Sunday, is to fly to Britain on Wednesday 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.

The crown prince and Sisi agreed in talks to bolster economic ties and launch joint projects, “particularly in the tourism sector on the Red Sea,” Radi said.

Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, and Saudi Arabia, one of the wealthiest, tightened their longstanding alliance after Sisi led the military overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013, with Riyadh providing tens of billions of dollars in aid. As Sisi has consolidated power and global oil prices have fallen, however, the emphasis has shifted to investment.