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Saudi crown prince sets off on maiden foreign tour

Prince Mohammed bin Salman's two-day visit to Cairo comes ahead of a scheduled trip to Britain and then the US
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia's crown prince lands in Egypt on Sunday on the first leg of his maiden foreign tour as heir to the throne, a diplomatic charm offensive that follows his stunning rise to power.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman's two-day visit to Cairo comes ahead of a scheduled trip to Britain on Wednesday for talks with Prime Minister Theresa May and the United States from 19 to 22 March.

The trips are aimed partly at courting investors and come after a tumultuous period that saw a major military shake-up and a royal purge, part of the prince's sweeping power play that has shaken business confidence.

The son of Saudi King Salman is already seen as the country's de facto ruler controlling the major levers of government.

His visit to Cairo, a key regional ally, comes before Egypt's presidential polls in late March, with incumbent Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expected to win a second four-year term.

"Prince Mohammed's visit will be interpreted as proof of Saudi support for Sisi to remain as the president of Egypt in the coming term," Mostafa Kamel al-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University, told AFP.

Egypt is part of a Saudi-led military coalition which intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to fight Iran-backed Houthi rebels, a conflict that the United Nations says has engendered the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are also part of a bloc of nations that has boycotted Qatar since June over alleged ties to Islamic extremists and Iran. Qatar denies the accusations.

A Saudi government source said Prince Mohammed's choice of Egypt for his maiden overseas trip as crown prince "reaffirms Saudi-Egyptian cooperation at the highest level".

Talks would cover regional rival Iran, the conflict in Yemen, counter-terrorism and energy cooperation, the source said.

The crown prince is also expected to visit France in the coming weeks.

'Uncertainty and turbulence'

The diplomatic offensive comes as Prince Mohammed, a self-styled moderniser who has sought to project a liberal image of Saudi Arabia to investors, consolidates power to a level unseen by previous rulers.

A dramatic shake-up announced on Monday saw military top brass, including the chief of staff and heads of the ground forces and air defence, replaced.

Prince Mohammed's reshuffle came after he sidelined political rivals to become heir to the throne last June and orchestrated a royal anti-corruption purge in November that saw princes, ministers and tycoons locked up in Riyadh's luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel for nearly three months.

"His first trip as crown prince is symbolically a moment for the young Saudi ruler to try to put Riyadh's best foot forward on the world stage," Andrew Bowen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told AFP.

"It comes at a time of uncertainty and turbulence at home and he has an upward task of both selling to the business community that Saudi is a stable and safe place to do business and that he has a steady hand on foreign policy despite Qatar and Yemen. This certainly won't be an easy sell."

The British government said Prince Mohammed's visit will help enhance cooperation in tackling challenges such as "terrorism, extremism, the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen".

But some protests are expected during his visit over the West supplying Saudi Arabia with arms despite the kingdom's role in the crisis gripping Yemen, said Mohamed Abdelmeguid, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

'Competitive rivalry'

The crown prince's visit to the United States in late March, which a Saudi government source said could include multiple cities, would highlight the Trump administration's efforts to sign a nuclear cooperation accord with Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh is expected to announce this year who will build the first two of up to 16 reactors, and negotiations are under way with the United States for its agreement to export technology needed for their construction.

Besides the US company Westinghouse, Russian, French, Chinese and South Korean firms have all been seeking the Saudi contracts.

Another key focus could be the Aramco initial public offering.

The kingdom is preparing to sell under five percent of its state-owned oil giant, the crown jewel of the Saudi economy, in what is expected to be the world's largest ever initial public offering (IPO) of shares.

"Prince Mohammed may seek to foster a competitive rivalry between a UK government desperate to attract Saudi investment to offset the Brexit chaos and his US hosts, particularly over the Aramco IPO," said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in the United States.

US President Donald Trump hosted Prince Mohammed in March 2017, just weeks after taking office, and he chose Saudi Arabia for his first official overseas visit as president.

Saudi Arabia has grown close to its longtime ally Washington under Trump, whose harder line on Iran and softer stance on arms sales are a welcome shift in policy for Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia viewed Trump's predecessor president Barack Obama as too accommodating towards Iran, particularly on negotiating a 2015 nuclear deal.


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