x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Saudi Arabia closes embassy in Cairo following protests

The unexpected escalation followed days of protests by hundreds of Egyptians outside the Saudi Embassy in Cairo and consulates in other cities to demand the release of Ahmed El Gezawi.

RIYADH // Saudi Arabia closed its Cairo embassy yesterday and recalled its ambassador following protests over a detained Egyptian human-rights lawyer.

The unexpected escalation followed days of protests by hundreds of Egyptians outside the Saudi Embassy in Cairo and consulates in other cities to demand the release of Ahmed El Gezawi. Relatives and human-rights groups say he was detained for allegedly insulting the kingdom's monarch.

Saudi authorities denied that and said he was arrested for trying to smuggle anti-anxiety drugs into the kingdom.

Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, was in touch with the Saudis to "heal the rift following the sudden decision," the Egyptian official news agency said.

It was the worst diplomatic tiff between the two regional powerhouses since Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries broke off diplomatic ties with Egypt after it signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1987.

El Gezawi's case has revived long-standing resentment over the treatment of Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia, which is a destination for more than a million Egyptians searching for better jobs.

The lawyer flew to Jiddah on his way to perform a minor pilgrimage, called umrah, to Islam's holy shrines in Mecca and Medina, said his sister Shereen El Gezawi. The fact that he was arrested on his way to perform a religious rite further inflamed Egyptian sentiment.

His family said he had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to a year in prison and 20 lashes by a Saudi court for insulting the king. However, he was not notified of the court's ruling ahead of his Saudi trip. El Gezawi had earlier filed a lawsuit in Egypt against King Abdullah over the alleged arbitrary detention of hundreds of Egyptians.

As Arab uprisings have toppled four longtime Middle Eastern rulers, Saudi Arabia has been worried about signs of rebellion within its borders. Authorities have met attempts to advocate for more rights, as El Gezawi has done, or question the authority of the monarchy in any way with strong opposition.

Many Egyptians suspect the drug case against El Gezawi was forced to cover up his human-rights work.

Outside the Cairo embassy earlier this week, protesters chanted, "Down, down with Al Saud!" referring to the Saudi royal family and "Screw you, your majesty!" in reference to King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch.

The demonstrators called for the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador in Cairo, and some raised their shoes alongside a picture of King Abdullah, a sign of deep contempt in the Arab world.Associated Press