JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia gave a lavish reception to Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi on Thursday, a gesture analysts said indicated the Arab world’s wealthiest country was ready to put old tensions behind it to do business with the new Islamist president.
In his first official foreign visit since his election in June, Mursi, who belonged to Egypt’s influential Muslim Brotherhood movement which had long had strained ties with Saudi Arabia, arrived in Jeddah late on Wednesday.
Saudi media said on Thursday that Crown Prince Salman and a host of other royal family members were at the airport to greet Mursi upon his arrival in Jeddah, the summer seat of the Saudi government, before he was driven to a meeting and dinner with King Abdullah late on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia enjoyed strong ties with former president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled last year by a popular uprising that propelled Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood to the top political spot in the Arab world’s most populous country.
The Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia share Sunni Muslim values, but Riyadh regards the movement as an ideological rival with an aggressively activist political doctrine that might destabilize allies and foment discord inside the kingdom.
Yet Mursi’s election left Saudi Arabia with little option other than to try to extend its hand to the new president.
Saudi analysts said the reception King Abdullah prepared for Mursi showed the kingdom was willing to start a new era in relations with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The message is that we have no problem with the revolution or the Brotherhood and let’s continue with the well-established Saudi-Egyptian relationship,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi analyst.
Hussein Shobokshi, another Saudi commentator, said: “Through this visit Saudi Arabia has made it very clear and obvious that it is over the Mubarak era and that it has started a new chapter with the new leader of Egypt.”
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, has pledged $2.7 billion to support Egypt’s battered finances after the uprising that toppled Mubarak.
But relations nosedived in April when Riyadh briefly recalled it ambassador to Cairo, Ahmed al-Qattan, after protests outside the embassy over the arrest of an Egyptian lawyer in the kingdom.
Egyptian parliament members, including senior Muslim Brotherhood figures, travelled to Saudi Arabia to defuse tensions.
Saudi Arabia took the first step towards building new ties with Egypt. Qattan said earlier this month that King Abdullah had extended an invitation to Mursi to visit Saudi Arabia.
Saudi media said the talks centered on “major regional and international issues, including ways to contain the Syrian crisis”, but revealed few details.
Saudi Arabia has been a major supporter of Syrian rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Mursi has said that Egypt would work to end bloodshed in Syria.
Saudi media said that Mursi’s visit was a recognition by Egypt of Saudi Arabia’s regional weight.
“By choosing the kingdom for his first visit abroad, ... Mursi recognizes that the two countries are the pillars of Arab national security,” the deputy editor of Saudi Arabia’s al-Riyadh newspaper, Yousuf Al Kuwailet, wrote in a column.
The Arabic language al-Watan daily said that Mursi’s visit was a signal that Saudi Arabia and Egypt were ready to work together on critical regional issues, such as Syria.
“The Saudi and Egyptian leadership greatly realize the importance of tidying up the ‘geo-political house’ of the region and to prepare things for a new Syria,” Yasir ba Amer wrote in al-Watan.
Mursi was due to make a minor pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca on Thursday and to meet members of the Egyptian community in Jeddah before returning home.
(Reporting by Sami Aboudi and Asma al-Sharif; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Andrew Osborn)
This story was corrected to fix the ambassador's first name and title of the columnist