Analysis: Back to the Tiran Straits and a bridge too far

It is broadly hinted that relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are improving. Will this positive trend continue?

Tiran Island (photo credit: MARC RYCKAERT (MJJR) / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Tiran Island
Two islands and a bridge are posing a major challenge to the security of Israel and that of Jordan. Spanning the Gulf of Aqaba, the bridge or causeway will link Egypt and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Egypt will transfer the small islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi sovereignty.
These two islands command the only access from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Red Sea and from there routes to Africa, Asia and Australia. Yet the change in status quo has far reaching consequences.
Jordan has remained silent so far, perhaps believing that as an Arab state it has nothing to fear from Saudi Arabia. Israel, informed by Egypt of the decision, finds itself in a quandary, not wanting to jeopardize its fragile relations with Cairo while hoping to develop its ties with Riyadh.
One wonders how Egypt entered into a peace treaty with Israel, in which it affirmed its sovereignty over the two islands and agreed to their inclusion in Area C, thus providing for monitoring by the MFO of security measures and navigation.
Yet it now transpires that Saudi Arabia asked for “the return” of the islands in 1982, while Israel was in the process of withdrawing from the Sinai Peninsula. President Mubarak asked for the issue to be shelved in order not to endanger the evacuation. Saudi Arabia indeed refrained from making its claim public, but kept pressing Cairo to acknowledge its sovereignty over the islands.
Eventually Mubarak bowed under pressure – discreetly. In 1990 he issued a presidential decree specifying the coordinates of Egypt territorial waters in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, which did not include Tiran and Sanafir. The decree was deposited with the UN at the request of Saudi Arabia.
This raises an interesting question.
It was the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli vessels that triggered the Six Day War. Now Egypt is transferring the islands to Saudi Arabia, formally an enemy of the State of Israel.
The Saudi minister of foreign affairs did affirm that Saudi Arabia would abide by the international obligations of Egypt (the peace treaty) but went on to say that his country would have no dealings with Israel.
It is broadly hinted that relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are improving. Will this positive trend continue? Until and unless a peace treaty is concluded between them, the situation remains volatile. Saudi Arabia is ruled by an Islamist family regime, based on Wahhabism, one of the most extremist schools of Islam, with a deeply rooted hatred of Israel.
A revolution in this authoritarian kingdom could happen. Right now, Israel’s only access to the Red sea and beyond is passing into the hands of a country with which it has no diplomatic relations. This is a major new strategic challenge. It will also require adapting the military annex to the peace treaty, which has already been breached when Israel agreed to let Egypt move troops and heavy equipment into Sinai.
The junction between these two countries could be achieved via a modern highway through Israel, which is less costly to build and far cheaper to maintain. One cannot escape the conclusion that, by building a bridge at enormous cost, the two countries have come to terms with the thought that there is no hope for peace or normalization between Israel and Arab countries in the foreseeable future.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have formally declared that the transfer of the islands to Saudi sovereignty is part of a final agreement on the determination of the maritime borders between them following years of negotiations. Under the Egyptian constitution, the agreement must be ratified by the parliament.
The publication of the agreement led to angry protests and demonstrations in Egypt. Public figures and members of parliament claimed that the two islands were and had been Egyptian forever. The government, they said, had bowed to Saudi money at the detriment of the honor of Egypt and its constitution.
President Sisi is doing his best to explain that there is no abandonment of sovereignty, that the islands do belong to Saudi Arabia and that Egypt took control of them in 1950 at the Saudis’ request.
The Foreign Ministry has issued relevant documents, but they are not wholly convincing.
Egyptians have been taught from infancy that the islands belong to them. There are recordings of president Nasser proclaiming on two occasions – the first in 1957 following the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and the second in 1967 on the eve of the Six Day War – that the islands are “a hundred percent Egyptian.”
Ancient maps show that both islands were considered Egyptian for half a millennium, until WWI or until Saudi Arabia became independent in 1932 and joined international conventions, including maritime law.
There is no clear cut evidence one way or another. Political commentators are united in thinking that Sisi, who desperately needs Saudi help, was ready to make concessions which he believed were minor. He forgot to take into account Egyptian susceptibility – or the constitution. He has a tough task ahead.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has no wish to destabilize the Egyptian president, embroiled in economic and security woes. This unexpected drawback has overshadowed a very successful meeting between King Salman and President Sisi, who are striving to present a united front against Iranian incitement.
It also leaves Israel in a strategical limbo.
The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.