Early in April, Egypt handed sovereignty of two islands off the west coast of Sinai to Saudi Arabia in a move that sparked widespread criticism and local protests in Egypt. The two islands, Tiran and Sanafir are located on the Straits of Tiran which separates the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. While the two islands are of direct importance to both Egypt and the Kingdom, they are also vital to Jordan and Israel and this move will have a ripple effect beyond the Saudi shores.
Both islands were administered under the Ottoman sovereign of Egypt through its governor, Muhammed Ali Pasha. In fact, the Ottomans order Ali Pasha to cross the Gulf of Aqaba into the Arabian Peninsula to quell the upraising that led to the birth of the first Saudi state in 1818. Two year later, there would be another attempt to establish an independent Arab state motivated by the growing nationalist sentiment in the provinces of the vast Ottoman realm.
Fast forward to the middle of the 20th Century, 1957 specifically. Saudi Arabia is an independent state and a member of the United Nations. Its permanent representative to the UN wrote to the Secretary General in an official complaint stating that Israel had infringed upon the Kingdom’s maritime territories several times in late April and May of that year with destroyers and other military vessels coming within 2 kilometres of a town on the eastern coast.
In 1967 the islands were at the centre of controversy that led to the Six-Day War. Then Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, established a blockade of the Straits of Tiran thus strangling Israel’s access to supplies through its port on the Gulf of Aqaba. Having previously cautioned against such a move, Israel launched a surprise attack and won the war and gained new territory in Sinai and the Golan Heights.
While Saudi Arabia has always claimed the Straits of Tiran for their own, they were invaded and occupied by Egypt for over 40 years.
With the Camp David Accords in 1979, Egypt and Israel ended 31 years of war in peace with the latter returning the Sinai Peninsula to the Egyptian government under president Sadat. The Golan Heights were not returned to Syria. As part of the Accords, ships were allowed to pass through the Straits of Tiran, a limit was placed on Egypt’s military presence on the Sinai Peninsula and a bridge between the port of Aqaba and Egypt was to be built (the bridge was never constructed).
While Saudi Arabia has always claimed the Straits of Tiran for their own, they were invaded and occupied by Egypt for over 40 years. The invasion and occupation were ordered by the Saudis who had little military power as was revealed by official documents released. The ousted president, Hosni Mubarak in 1990 quietly specified the coordinates of Egypt’s territorial waters which did not include Tiran and Sanafir and they were deposited with the UN.
The Prince [Mohammed bin Salman], second in line to the throne and the son of the Saudi king, was reported to have been aggressive during the negotiation process
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the coup mastermind who toppled Egypt’s first elected civil president, signed over the islands after negotiations led by Saudi’s prince Mohammed bin Salman. The prince, second in line to the throne and the son of the Saudi king, was reported to have been aggressive during the negotiation process and pushed through the deal with assurances that it would be presented before the Egyptian parliament and not a referendum.
The new “old” landlords have made promises to invest upwards of 1 billion dollars in Egypt in the immediate future with a long term investment fund of up to 25 billion dollars to be set up. They also promised to build a bridge (causeway) between the two nations that crosses over the islands.
Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations and while it has not been officially confirmed, there have been reports of mutual intelligence sharing and cooperation between the two. There have been several attempts by Riyadh to soften relations through the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 and 2007 which was rejected by Israel. The kingdom had previously objected against the Camp David Accords and severed ties with Egypt before re-establishing them again.
There will be no “direct” ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv
The Straits of Tiran bring Saudi Arabia to the forefront of Israel’s foreign policy both because of its strategic significance and its inclusion in the Camp David Accords. While the Saudi Foreign Minister has announced that the Kingdom will honour any international treaties (the Accords) grandfathered in by the transfer, he has stated clearly that there will be no “direct” ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
While the transfer of sovereignty and promised investment have been hailed by some as strengthening ties between Cairo and Riyadh, there are reports that the political outlook for the Saudi government has shifted towards dealing with Egypt more cautiously. This is in part due to the cash injections provided by the Kingdom in support of el-Sisi after his coup against President Morsi, which bore no fruit for the late King Abdulla and his cabinet. The islands are seen as a fulcrum by which Saudi can influence Egypt’s government as well as enter the Palestinian debate by default through the Accords.
Riyadh now has the right to position itself as a potential mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While the peace process has always been mediated by the United States, an ally of the Kingdom and Israel, it has failed numerous times to bring any real progress on the issue. Part of the reason behind this is due to the US being an ally of Israel and not so much an ally of Palestine, especially the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip. With Saudi in the mix, they will most likely be fighting in Palestine’s corner, much like the US has been doing in the Israeli corner. If anything, Palestine needs Saudi support because there is little influence it can exercise on its own against Washington and Tel Aviv.
While critics see the move as “selling out”, they fail to recognise the historical, geopolitical and social significance of the two islands. Solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will have a resounding positive effect on the region which will most likely carry on through to Asia (due to commercial and historical links).
For the Kingdom, this new added responsibility is what it was looking for to establish ties, albeit indirect for now, with Tel Aviv and to be part of the Palestinian question. The last time a Saudi king got involved, there was an oil shock and it was in 1973. There may be a feeling of pseudo-fiduciary responsibility on the part of Riyadh owing to religious and historical ties with Palestine.
Palestine needs Saudi support because there is little influence it can exercise on its own against Washington and Tel Aviv
For Egypt, the transfer of sovereignty has made el-Sisi less popular and may add to the already increasing instability in the country. There is little hope of the causeway being built, much like it failed to materialise in the Camp David Accords with Jordan. Any future investment funds may come with stringent conditions as Saudi’s new youth driven diplomacy takes heed from past experiences.
Israel has stated that it was contacted by Cairo prior to the deal being signed and had given the green light for it to go through. Tel Aviv must have had strict assurances from the Saudis beforehand that they will honour the Accords in relation to the Straits. While there might not be direct relations between the it and Riyadh, there will be more cooperation, this time on the international stage, and more negotiations as Saudi Arabia joins the table.