Saudi Arabia has closed its Cairo embassy and recalled its ambassador after days of protests by Egyptian activists angered by its detention of an Egyptian human rights lawyer this month.

The diplomatic tiff, the worst in decades between the two Arab allies, was provoked by the arrest of Ahmed al-Gizawy on his arrival at Jeddah airport where he had flown to perform a pilgrimage to the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina.

Saudi authorities said he was arrested for trying to smuggle in a huge quantity of the anti-anxiety medicine Xanax, which is banned in the country.

However, activists said he is being held because of a court case he launched in Cairo against King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Demonstrations have raged for days outside the Saudi embassy in Cairo and in front of the kingdom’s consulates in Alexandria and Suez by his supporters.

Mr Gizawy had initiated legal proceedings in Cairo over the alleged detention of hundreds of Egyptians in the kingdom without trial.

His family said he was sentenced by a Saudi court in absentia to a year in prison and twenty lashes for insulting the king. They said he was not informed of the court ruling against him before he set off for the kingdom.

The crisis is a sign of the changes in Egypt since last years’ revolution, which toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.

Despite longstanding complaints against the treatment of Egyptians in the oil-rich kingdom, the authorities in the past would have moved quickly to quash any attempt to voice public anger against the Kingdom or its rulers.

But in the current atmosphere Egyptians feel they have earned the right to express their views in public, and the authorities are less eager to rush into the use of violence to silence them, even if they are imperilling crucial relations with an important ally.

Outside the Cairo embassy last week, protesters chanted, “Down, down with Al-Saud!” referring to the Saudi royal family and “Screw you, your majesty!” in reference to King Abdullah.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s ruling military council, said in a statement he was working to “heal the rift” with Saudi Arabia and had contacted Riyadh over its “surprise decision”.

The Egyptian foreign ministry also “condemned” the actions of the protesters.

More than a million Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia, and Cairo is looking to the Kingdom for financial support to help bridge a funding gap of about $11bn in the coming months.

The Saudi news agency, quoting a foreign ministry official, said the protests were “unjustified” and attempts to storm its missions threatened the safety of diplomatic staff, in a violation of international conventions.

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