What Egypt's Handover of the Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia Means for Israel

Egypt made an excellent deal: It receives an outstanding economic lifeline in exchange for territories that it does not even own. However, this rescue line is also a knotted rope that turns Egypt into a Saudi satellite state.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Saudi King Salman (top-R) waving to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi as he leaves Cairo's international airport. April 11, 2016
Saudi King Salman (top-R) waving to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi as he leaves Cairo's international airport. April 11, 2016Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The maritime border demarcation agreement signed two days ago between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, authorizing the return of Tiran and Sanafir islands to the kingdom, aroused — as expected — a political storm in Egypt and concern in Israel.

>> Israel, Saudi Arabia Are Reportedly Negotiating Economic Ties

>>UPDATE June 15, 2017: Egypt's parliament approves transfer of Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia amid public criticism

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s rivals, among them the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 protest movement and leftist representatives, assert that he lacks constitutional authority to cede any Egyptian territory, and if he does want to do so, he has to submit a request for parliamentary approval. Sissi and his government reject this claim, explaining that the two islands are sovereign Saudi territory and that they were leased to Egypt in 1950 to “strengthen the defense of Egypt and Saudi Arabia from Zionist aggression.”

Map of the islands of Sanafir and Tiran in the Red Sea.

Officially, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are correct. According to the correspondence between the late Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sedki in the 1980s, President Hosni Mubarak asked Saudi Arabia not to raise the issue of the islands' ownership until Israel completed its withdrawal from Egyptian territory as per the Camp David Accords. The fear was that bringing up the issue of sovereignty would cause Israel to refrain from discussing withdrawal from Taba by arguing that Israel's earlier withdrawal from Tiran and Sanafir didn't need to be part of the Camp David Accords, since they were Saudi territory.

There is no dispute between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the question of the islands' ownership. Despite this, the two countries held a series of seven meetings between 2007 and 2016 to reach an accord on delineating their maritime borders, which was part of Saudi King Abdallah's policy to complete the demarcation of borders between Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt and Jordan.

Although formally there is no concession of Egyptian territory, the agreement was received in Egypt as political payment for the enormous investments and unprecedented aid that Saudi Arabia has provided to the country over the past two years, and for the aid it promised to provide for the coming five years. The kingdom and Saudi firms are expected, among other things, to invest over $20 billion in Egypt. The Saudis will also provide about $1.5 billion for developing northern Sinai. They will fund a causeway connecting Sharm el-Sheikh and Saudi Arabia, and supply Egypt’s energy needs with a long-term loan with 2 percent interest.

Tiran (foreground) and Sanafir (background) islands in the Straits of Tiran between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia as seen from an airplane.Credit: AFP

Saudi Arabia also expects that Egypt will fall in line with Saudi policy on the war in Syria and Yemen, where it is unclear how long the current cease-fire will last. Egypt apparently made an excellent deal: It receives an outstanding economic lifeline in exchange for territories that it does not own. At the same time, this rescue line is also a knotted rope that turns Egypt into a Saudi satellite state.

It is unclear if Egypt coordinated with Israel regarding the transfer of the islands to Saudi Arabia, although their status is included in the Camp David Accords, and any change requires agreement by both sides. It will be interesting to hear the response of the prime minister or the defense minister, especially after Israel already tolerated Egyptian violations of the accords when it permitted Egypt to send artillery and air forces into western Sinai up to the Gaza border as part of Egypt’s war on terror and Hamas.

Formally, there is no section in the Camp David Accords that forbids Egypt from transferring territories from its sovereignty to that of another state, all the more so when the islands are already recognized as a part of Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi control causes some worry wrinkles regarding the future of the freedom of passage defined in the Camp David Accords, to which Egypt, but not Saudi Arabia, is bound. In order to calm Israel, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced that the kingdom would fulfill all obligations to which Egypt was signed regarding freedom of passage, but would not hold direct contacts with Israel. Such a general declaration, even if not aimed directly at Israel, can suffice. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is considered an ally of the west and of the United States in particular. The Saudi declaration also can be considered informal recognition of the Camp David Accords, the signing of which had caused Egypt to be ostracized by the Arab States.

The question now is if Saudi Arabia will not only respect freedom of passage but also if the clauses forbidding the deployment of a military force on the islands, especially when jurisdiction over the islands also provides it control of the entry and exit of the eastern arm of the Red Sea, which also leads to the port of Aqaba.

If the bridge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which would connect not just two countries but the continents of Asia and Africa, will indeed be built, it will always be a “hostage” against any attempt to restrict freedom of passage.

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