A view of Israel, including the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Suez canal.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Recently signed agreements between Saudi Arabia and Egypt that transfer sovereignty over two small islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia could create longterm problems for Israel, an Israeli expert and former IDF officer told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
The agreement, which was signed during a visit by Saudi King Salman in Cairo, would also allow for a bridge connection between the two countries.
There are two main issues in the agreements that affect Israel, said Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay, director of research at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
The first, he said, is related to the relatively successful Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthis and what has turned out to be practical control over the Mandeb Strait, which separates Djibouti and Yemen between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
The Saudis have been relatively successful in blockading Yemen’s ports from Iranian shipments.
In addition, the Saudis were able to pry the Red Sea coastal countries of Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti from Iran’s orbit, noted Shay.
Therefore, today, “the Saudi-led coalition, that includes Egypt, has almost full control of the Red Sea, from its entrance at the Mandeb Strait to the Suez Canal.
“I don’t think Saudi Arabia is going to close the Red Sea to Israel,” asserted Shay, but in the long term, with new unpredictable geopolitical conditions, Israel needs to “reassess its security and political strategy in this region.”
Both Israel and the Arab coalition led by the Saudis are working to counter Iran’s ambitions in the region.
“As long as the Saudis are OK with Israel and the Arabs are focused on efforts against Iran, Saudi-Egypt control of the Red Sea is not a problem,” he said.
Also included in the Saudi-Egyptian agreements was the transfer of sovereignty to Saudi Arabia of two small Red Sea islands, Sanafir and Tiran.
These islands, which had previously been under Saudi control, and then passed to Egypt during wars with Israel, and briefly under Israeli control in 1967, were returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace agreement.
Prior to 1967, Shay notes, Egypt used the islands to blockade the southern Israeli port of Eilat.
Another issue the transfer of the islands raises, he points out, is that Israeli airplanes using the airspace over them in transit would technically be flying in Saudi airspace.
As long as the Saudi permit this, there would not be a problem.
“This waterway is very sensitive for Israel as it is the only passage from Israel to Asia,” said Shay, adding that Egypt is forbidden by the peace treaty to place military forces on the islands or along Sinai’s seashore area bordering the Red Sea.
The Israeli expert also mentioned the agreement to build a bridge connecting Egypt and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea and how this could facilitate huge amounts of new commerce between Africa and Saudi Arabia.
This would also include new routes for Muslim pilgrims making the haj to Mecca as well as other possible energy transfer.
“Planners believe that tolls paid by millions of Muslim pilgrims on their way to holy sites in Saudi Arabia could make up for the expected cost of the bridge within seven-10 years,” noted Shay in a recent report published for the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the IDC.
“The Egyptian-Saudi agreement regarding the marine borders and construction of a bridge connecting Egypt with Saudi Arabia has to take in consideration the Israeli interests – an outlet to the Red Sea for its shipping and the Camp David accord,” he wrote.