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Saudi King's Visit Gives Egypt Political Boost

KING FAHD BIN ABDEL AZIZ arrived Monday in Cairo on the first trip to Egypt by a Saudi monarch since then-President Anwar Sadat's 1979 signing of a peace treaty with Israel. For Egypt, the trip symbolizes its return to the Arab world after years of isolation. And it holds out the hope of financial support for Egypt's beleaguered and debt-ridden economy.

``The visit of King Fahd is significant now after 10 years of cold relations with the Arabs,'' a foreign ministry official says. ``Now we will put all this behind us with the visit of the Saudi king.''

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In addition, the Fahd visit - coming on the heels of a weekend meeting near the Suez Canal between President Hosni Mubarak, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, and King Hussein of Jordan - is intended to bolster President Hosni Mubarak as he prepares for his April 3 meeting with President Bush in Washington.

Recently, Egypt has been criticized by Washington. The Bush administration, castigating Cairo for not implementing ``significant'' economic reform, withheld $230 million in cash aid. And it expressed concern about alleged Egyptian plans to build a chemical-weapons plant.

The summit meetings are an obvious attempt to remind Washington of how important Egypt is in the region.

In advance of an Arab League summit, King Fahd has been working to reconcile Egypt and Syria (and Syria and Iraq as well). The Saudis want a minimum degree of reconciliation before convening the summit, which had been expected as early as last January.

Speaking to foreign reporters last week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel-Meguid said he didn't think ``there is now readiness to convene an Arab summit,'' but that the Saudis are working toward an aim close to Egypt's heart. Jordan's King Hussein has said he will not attend an Arab summit unless Egypt is there. An Arab summit, whenever it occurs, is expected to crown Egypt's return to the Arab fold with an invitation to Mubarak.

Perhaps equally important to Egypt is the cash the Saudis might be carrying with them - what one Egyptian official called ``a gift.''

Egypt was miffed last summer when, after it announced that the Saudi king would be coming, he didn't show. At that time, there were rumors that the Saudis would bring cash aid to help Egypt out of its payments problem, which is causing it to be an unwilling partner in an International Monetary Fund economic reform program.

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This time, officials do not expect hard cash, but they hope that the Saudis will invest in the Arab Organization for Industrialization, an Egyptian weapons factory originally financed by Gulf Arab governments. They froze their capital because of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. Egyptian officials say that if the Saudis invest, the other Gulf nations will be prompted to unfreeze their capital.

``The Fahd visit will help the resolution of this problem,'' the foreign ministry official says. ``It will pave the way for the participation of the Arabs again.''

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