CAIRO – Saudi Arabia's ambassador returned to Cairo on Saturday, a week after he was recalled following a wave of protests against the detention of an Egyptian lawyer that prompted the worst diplomatic row between the two countries in decades.
The unexpected Saudi diplomatic break came following 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, a prominent human rights lawyer.
Relatives and 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 conservative oil-rich kingdom.
An Egyptian delegation traveled to Riyadh and met Friday with the aging Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, in an attempt to heal the rift. King Abdullah said the ambassador will return to Egypt, and the Saudi Embassy announced Ambassador Ahmed Kattan was returning to his post Saturday.
"We will not allow this passing crisis to go on for long," King Abdullah said Friday according to a Saudi official media. "The repercussions of the recent events on the relations between the two countries pained every honorable Saudi and Egyptian."
Neither Saudi nor Egyptian officials described what, if any, agreements were made leading to the diplomatic easing of tensions, and el-Gezawi is still in Saudi custody.
In another sign that the two countries are moving beyond the crisis, Saudi Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf said in Riyadh that his country is committed to an economic aid package to Egypt worth $3.7 billion. The kingdom pledged the aid last year, but had yet to deliver on it.
Al-Assaf said the first batch, worth $500 million, will go forward.
"The kingdom has coordinated with the authorities in Egypt to dispatch the loan," he told reporters.
Egypt's economy took a hit following last year's uprising, as tourists and foreign investment stayed away because of the turmoil. The government is also seeking a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to finance its budget deficit and help prop up its dwindling revenues.
Ambassador Kattan had announced before the diplomatic rift that the aid was to be delivered in June, explaining in part the Egyptian efforts to swiftly resolve the crisis.
Egypt's ruling military generals have criticized demonstrators for endangering relations between the two countries. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador and shut its diplomatic missions after what it said were "unjustified" protests that violated the missions and threatened staff.
The lawyer's case had 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. Occasional bouts of tension over mistreatment of Egyptians in the kingdom have plagued the relations, but they have never reached such an extent.
Saudi officials have increasingly viewed Egypt's post-revolution trajectory — particularly the political gains by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood — as worrisome trends that could encourage greater opposition in the Gulf.
The Egyptian delegation arrived in Saudi Arabia on Thursday. The delegation of over 100 Egyptian personalities was led by the speaker of the Islamist-dominated parliament Saad el-Katatni, also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
El-Katatni told a Saudi newspaper, Okaz, that the parliament won't interfere in the lawyer's case and that they have confidence in the Saudi judiciary.
Still, some activists denounced the mission because they said it was not clear who organized it and whether it would work to protect rights of Egyptian workers in the kingdom or was simply an attempt to placate the Saudis because Egypt needs its support.