Biden Reveals Red Sea Islands, Airspace Deals Between Israel and Saudi Arabia

'It is on a path that we hope will eventually lead to normalization, but it is the first step,' says U.S. National Security Advisor Sullivan

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Jeddah
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. President Joe Biden at Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, on Friday.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. President Joe Biden at Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, on Friday.Credit: BANDAR AL-JALOUD - AFP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Jeddah

JEDDAH — U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday formally lauded two agreements made with Saudi Arabia widely considered to be significant steps on the long path toward normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

As Biden visits Israel, and election shuffle begins

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One deal concerns the removal of multinational forces from the Red Sea islands, and the other concerns the opening of Saudi airspace for all Israeli flights.

"This is the first public step that Saudi Arabia has taken vis-à-vis Israel. And in that regard, it is historic," U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Air Force One prior to Biden's arrival. "It is on a path that we hope will eventually lead to normalization. But it is the first step, and the first step is a big step."

Saudi Arabia had control of both the Tiran and Sanafir islands until 1950, when Riyadh handed them over to Cairo in fear that Israel would seize them. Israel did capture the islands in 1967 during the Six-Day War, but returned them to Egypt in 1982 as part of its withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. In 2017, Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed that the islands would be returned to Riyadh – a move that was approved by the Egyptian parliament and Supreme Court.

Due to the terms of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, it also required Israeli approval. Israel provided tacit approval, pending an Egyptian-Saudi agreement to allow U.S.-led multinational observers to continue their oversight of the islands while ensuring freedom of navigation for vessels en route to Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat. That agreement has been at a standstill for the past four years, as final status issues have remained unresolved.

According to Friday's announced agreement, the multinational peacekeepers will be removed from Tiran by the end of 2022 and the area will be developed for tourism and other peaceful pursuits, while Riyadh will preserve and continue its preexisting commitments in the area. Biden welcomed the agreement, which the United States said was negotiated over many months and took Israel's interests into consideration.

These negotiations paved the way for Thursday's announcement that Saudi Arabia would open its airspace for all civilian flights – including those from Israel. The deal significantly cuts flight times to destinations such as Thailand and India. Gulf Air, Emirates and Israeli airlines were previously permitted to use Saudi airspace for Dubai-Tel Aviv and Manama-Tel Aviv routes, but Israel had been restricted from using Saudi airspace for other commercial flights.

A potential deal on Saudi Arabia permitting direct charter flights from Israel for Muslims seeking to make next year's hajj pilgrimage in the kingdom – set for the end of June – is still under discussion.

Ahead of the February 2020 elections in Israel, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to woo Arab voters by lauding efforts to launch such flights, with Netanyahu allies claiming a Saudi airline agreed to such a route. The deal never materialized after Saudi Arabia pulled out of a supposed agreement.

Netanyahu repeated this effort in subsequent elections.

The leaders also agreed to strengthen the truce in Yemen, currently in its 15th week. Saudi Arabia pledged to provide over $1 billion for development projects and fuel support, in addition to a joint Saudi and Emirati $2 billion deposit to the Central Bank of Yemen. Biden, meanwhile, reaffirmed America's commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend itself from Iranian-backed Houthis.

The United States and Saudi Arabia also signed a bilateral framework for cooperation on 5G/6G broadband cellular networks. The U.S. believes new technological cooperation in this area could help bring 5G to low and middle income countries in a non-exploitative manner. They also reached agreements on energy security and clean energy production and cooperation.

Other areas of agreement include bolstering Saudi-Iraq relations and further integrating Iraq in the Gulf Cooperation Council, cybersecurity cooperation, space exploration and public health cooperation.

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