Two minuscule islands of enormous strategic value

The two islands have long been thought of as an integral part of Egypt.

A view of Israel, including the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Suez canal (photo credit: REUTERS)
A view of Israel, including the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Suez canal
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Al-Garida al-Rasmiya – the Egyptian government’s official gazette – published on August 17 the Egyptian-Saudi maritime border agreement signed on April 8, 2016, during the visit of King Salman to Cairo. This procedural step completed the ratification of the agreement.
Though nothing was said about Tiran and Sanafir, the attached British Admiralty map and the coordinates specified in the agreement put the islands squarely in Saudi waters, a move vehemently condemned by most Egyptians that led to a protracted judicial battle, and ended with a decisive parliamentary vote immediately ratified by the president. Also included in the August publication were exchanges of notes between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and between Egypt and Israel.
The two small, uninhabited islands commanding the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat are now in the hands of a country that has no diplomatic relations with Israel. Yet those islands, together with eastern Sinai, are part of “area C,” which under the terms of the military annex to the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt were to be demilitarized with only Egyptian civilian police admitted.
Naval patrols of the Multinational Force and Observers, set up to supervise the implementation of the treaty, regularly visit the area and report to Egypt and to Israel. It was agreed that the MFO will still patrol the islands, though it is not clear whether it would keep reporting to the Egyptians, which would then communicate the reports to the Saudis, or whether it will report directly to the Saudis.
Generations of Egyptians had been told that the islands belonged to Egypt. Gamal Abdel Nasser had emphasized that fact twice and most notably in 1967, when he said that no Israeli vessel would be allowed in the Strait of Tiran and foreign vessels would be searched to ensure they were not carrying goods to or from Israel – a naval blockade that triggered the Six Day War.
Egyptian sovereignty has been documented since the 15th century and appears supported by the Convention of London of 1840 on the borders of the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia only achieved statehood in 1932; when it became member of the UN in 1945 it signed several international treaties, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Probably only then did it claim the two islands, perhaps on the basis that they were far closer to its shores than to those of Egypt.
Surprisingly, Cairo appeared to have accepted that claim though nothing was done at first: in a September 1988 note, Saud Al Faisal, Saudi foreign minister, reminds his Egyptian counterpart, Esmat Abdel Meguid, that since 1950 Egypt was only holding on the islands because of the Arab military situation opposite the Zionist entity and the need to reinforce Egyptian defenses in Sinai and the Gulf of Aqaba following Israel’s takeover of “Umm al-Rashrash” – Eilat – in March 1949. Saud Al Faisal also mentions that in 1981, president Hosni Mubarak asked King Khaled not to raise the issue until Israel had completed its withdrawal from Egyptian territories. In his note, Saud Al Faisal concludes that it is to be hoped that the good relations between Cairo and Riyadh would facilitate the transfer of the islands to Saudi Arabia.
In 1990, Abdel Magid penned a circumspect reply to that note and a subsequent one in which Saud Al Faisal reminded him that he had admitted in their talks in New York that the islands belonged to Saudi Arabia. Abdel Magid writes that indeed Egypt does not deny Saudi rights to the islands but is worried about the consequences of their transfer for international and regional obligations it had undertaken in the framework of the peace treaty with Israel. Those obligations prohibit any military presence, and limit control of the islands to police officers arriving in small boats equipped only with light arms.
Apparently by 2016, the Egyptians believed that they now could go ahead – perhaps because president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wanted to express appreciation for the help extended by Saudi Arabia following the ouster of the Muslim Brothers in 2014, including massive financial support. Discussions began in earnest with Saudi Arabia and with Israel.
As part of the April 8, 2016, agreement the then-Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (now full-fledged crown prince) sent a letter to Egyptian prime minister Sherif Ismail to the effect that Saudi Arabia would undertake 1) to respect international law and the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 ensuring free international passage through the Strait of Tiran to vessels of all nationalities; 2) to refrain from any military activity on the islands; and 3) limit security presence to nonmilitary forces, though border guards would be permitted.
Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign mister, forwarded the note to the prime minister of Israel asking him to accept and confirm Saudi obligations as specified in the note regarding the two islands. Nevertheless, Israel was not easily persuaded by that vague wording. Further discussions were needed for Egypt to spell out clearly its obligations and those of Saudi Arabia.
On December 18, 2016, Shoukry wrote a detailed letter to the prime minister saying that Egypt: 1) fully reasserted its commitment to the peace treaty, to the treaty creating the MFO and to all treatises and agreements between Egypt and Israel; 2) confirmed that the two islands had been transferred to Saudi Arabia; 3) stressed that the Saudi undertaking in the April 8, 2016, agreement included Tiran and Sanafir; 4) stated unequivocally that Riyadh and Cairo would sign an agreement detailing the role of the MFO in the Strait of Tiran, Tiran, Sanafir and the Gulf of Aqaba; and 5) pledged that Egypt would not agree to any modification in the agreement without Israel’s agreement.
On December 19, 2016, the prime minister of Israel replied that he had duly noted the aforementioned commitments.
Thus were two minuscule islands with enormous strategic importance transferred from a country at peace with Israel to a country still technically hostile. The Gulf of Aqaba is Israel’s only pathway to Asia and Africa, two continents of vital importance for its security and its economy. The 1967 blockade by Nasser led to the Six Day War as mentioned above. There does not seem any likelihood at present of a military confrontation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, both engaged in the fight against Iranian encroachment; there are rumors of close security cooperation between them.
Nevertheless, there has been no official change in Riyadh’s attitude toward the Jewish state. Though the kingdom has successfully weathered al-Qaida terrorist attacks and the Arab Spring, it remains deeply committed to the Wahhabi religious establishment based on extremist Salafi doctrine.
It is more than likely that America, which was party to the negotiations for the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, of which it is a guarantor, as well as a founding member of the MFO, took an active part in the discussions regarding the transfer of the islands. It must also have pledged its support.
But when all is said and done, Israel had little choice to accept the islands’ transfer. Had it refused, it would have led to a crisis with Egypt with implications for the relations between the two countries and for the already volatile situation in the Middle East. One hopes that, Egypt will keep its end of the bargain and ensure that all terms of its agreement with Saudi Arabia are kept, to the letter.
The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.