A view of Israel, including the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Suez canal.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a region noted for its glacial speed of progress toward anything resembling conflict resolution, it was pleasantly startling last week to actually witness the Earth move – or at least a small but significant part of it in the form of two tiny Red Sea islands.
Egypt dramatically announced Friday that it had renounced sovereignty over two Red Sea islands in dispute for decades with Saudi Arabia – Tiran and Sanafir. It acknowledged that the islands are within Saudi territorial waters and said a joint Egyptian-Saudi committee would soon produce an agreement on the countries’ maritime borders.
The islands are actually reverting to Saudi sovereignty after the kingdom placed them under Egyptian trusteeship in 1950, fearing the new State of Israel might seize them.
Israel did occupy the islands during the Six Day War, but returned them to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty.
The move by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has met with outrage by many Egyptians, including politicians, military officers and the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter of which blamed “the criminal Sisi for robbing Egypt’s natural resources in exchange for Saudi financial aid and support in the corrupt Egyptian regime.”
However, the deal with the Saudis must be seen in a regional, rather than bilateral, context. The kingdom is in the midst of efforts to build a regional Sunni alliance against Iran, which it is confronting in Yemen via Iran’s Houthi proxy, in Lebanon by urging fellow Gulf states to get tough with Hezbollah, and in Syria by funding rebel fighters opposing Tehran’s ally Assad.
In a diplomatic offensive in pursuit of a regional alliance, Saudi King Salman’s next stop after last week’s visit to Sisi was to call on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On the eastern front, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman on Monday visited Jordan’s King Abdullah and produced a joint statement rejecting Iranian interference in regional affairs.
Despite the islands’ use by Egypt to blockade the Straits of Tiran, which precipitated the Six Day War, Israel does not oppose their return to Saudi Arabia – or even the accompanying plan to build a bridge connecting the two Arab countries.
As Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzachi Hanegbi told Army Radio, “We have an interest in expanding the cooperation in the Sunni axis, which is struggling against the radical axis headed by Iran.”
The seeming ease with which this land transfer was effected, and particularly Israel’s speedy endorsement of it, is a clear indication that it is the result of long-standing secret contacts in the pursuit of common interests that have developed from the peace treaty. One example of such détente is Israel’s agreeing to let Egypt introduce more troops into the Sinai Peninsula than the treaty provided for, in order to support Cairo in the escalating fight against Islamic State’s terrorist affiliate there, as well as Hamas.
Even though Jerusalem and Riyadh lack official relations, they are united in opposition to the region’s biggest threat, Iran. To this end, recent reports seem entirely plausible that the Saudis have given tacit approval for Israel Air Force jets to pass through their airspace en route to an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, should this become necessary.
On the other hand, the island deal might signal much more peaceful possibilities. Most intriguing among these is an agreement to build a bridge connecting Egypt and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea. Such a development would foster new commerce between Africa and Saudi Arabia, not to mention providing a convenient land route from France to China, with a stop for pilgrims making the haj to Mecca.
“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 to 10 years,” noted Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay in a recent report published for the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the IDC.
The causeway project, estimated to cost about $4 billion, would link Saudi Tabuk with the Egyptian resort of Sharm e-Sheikh, passing through Tiran Island at the entrance to the Gulf of Eilat. Its planning was originally suspended in 2005 by the government of then-president Hosni Mubarak due to Israel’s security concerns and was reportedly being revived by his successor, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013. Three years later, circumstances seem more favorable for such a concrete step toward Middle East cooperation.