CAIRO (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s crown prince wound up his three-day visit to Egypt on Tuesday with a symbolically significant visit to Al-Azhar, the world’s foremost seat of learning for Sunni Muslims.
Accompanied by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was given a tour of the mosque at the heart of old Cairo to see the outcome of three years of restoration work financed by a Saudi grant. Also at hand was Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb.
The mosque, built in the 10th century, is now part of a sprawling university teaching Islam as well as secular subjects and a nationwide network of schools. It is perceived to be a bastion of moderation whose teaching counters radicalism and violence, but it has in recent months been accused of theological rigidity and of resisting calls to renew Islam’s religious discourse.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are viewed to be Sunni powerhouses whose weight, together with that of smaller Sunni Arab allies like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, is called upon to counter the growing influence of non-Arab and Shiite Iran in the region.
Al-Tayeb thanked Prince Mohammed profusely for the kingdom’s help.
“This is our duty and every Saudi hopes that he can contribute, even in a simple way, to the renovation and improvement of Al-Azhar,” the Saudi heir apparent said in reply to al-Tayeb.
The prince was given a warm welcome in Egypt, whose government views Saudi aid and investment as key to reviving the country’s battered economy. Posters featuring the prince alongside el-Sissi lined major roads in central Cairo. Pro-government television networks broadcast promotional videos about Saudi Arabia and the prince’s efforts to modernize the oil-rich kingdom.
In what is perhaps a first for a Saudi heir apparent, Prince Mohammed and el-Sissi watched a play on Monday night at Cairo’s Opera House. In another first, he visited the spiritual leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church, Pope Tawadros II, at the Cathedral of St. Mark in central Cairo.
He and el-Sissi traveled through one of several tunnels being built under the Suez Canal linking mainland Egypt with the Sinai peninsula. They later boarded a boat from a red-carpeted dock as an army band played marching music. The two countries have plans to build a causeway across the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba and to develop areas on both sides, including a multi-billion dollar city stretching across Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
The current close relationship between the two countries follows a period of tension in late 2016 and early 2017 when Riyadh unexpectedly froze shipments of fuel to Egypt in response to sharp differences over Syria.
The prince left later Tuesday for London where he would be visiting before he travels on to Washington.