OPINION | Can Egypt Bring Saudi Arabia Closer to Israel?
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OPINION | Can Egypt Bring Saudi Arabia Closer to Israel?

By Adam Yefet
Gulf State Analytics

OPINION | Can Egypt Bring Saudi Arabia Closer to Israel?

Image Attribute: Sinai Peninsula and Gulf of Aqaba, Courtesy: Google Earth

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in Cairo for the signing of various economic, security, and political agreements. Although the deals had been in the works for years, one in particular is causing a domestic uproar in Egypt -- the return of the islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi control. The transfer of land from one Middle Eastern state to another is a rare occurrence. To better understand the geopolitical and historical context of the Egyptian-Saudi islands transfer, it is useful to take stock over how the islands factor into the triangular relationship between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Riyadh granted stewardship of the islands to Cairo in 1950 for Egypt’s strategic use against Israel, officially established as a state only two years earlier. Prominent Egyptian figures throughout modern history, including former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, have made statements asserting that ownership. Today many Egyptians view the islands as an integral part of their sovereign territory. Sisi’s relinquishment of the islands last month has caused a stir among critics, who accuse him of unconstitutionally trading territory for financial and military assistance. Indeed, officials in Cairo made this decision within the context of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) providing billions of dollars in aid to keep the Egyptian economy afloat since el-Sisi ousted Egypt’s Islamist government in 2013.  

The islands are situated in the Straits of Tiran at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, a major trade route for Israel and Jordan. Egypt’s use of the islands to blockade Israeli sea traffic through the straits fueled tension in the lead-up to the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. During that conflict Israel seized control of the islands, and occupied them until 1982, when it withdrew under conditions of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

That treaty includes provisions relating to the presence of Egyptian troops and UN Multilateral Forces on the islands. Saudi Arabia has confirmed indirectly to Israel that its parliament must still vote to approve amendments to the treaty, including the issue of the islands’ return to Saudi Arabia. While Egypt and Israel have upheld a peace treaty since 1979, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia have had very close ties for many years, Israel and Saudi Arabia have never maintained formal diplomatic relations. There has, however, been plenty of covert cooperation between the Jewish state and the Al Saud rulers, dating back to the 1960s when intelligence officials from both governments established back-channel links. Presently, this tacit alliance is highlighted by Israeli and Saudi officials having meetings to discuss the Syrian crisis.

A Shifting Regional Landscape  

Despite the expected domestic backlash, analysts expect the Egyptian parliament to approve the transfer of the islands as a result of the GCC states, most importantly Saudi Arabia, bankrolling Egypt’s government and providing broad political and military leadership in the region. The transfer of the islands signals a shift in Saudi perceptions of the kingdom’s military capabilities, and potentially a shift in Riyadh’s perceptions of Israel as a regional fixture. Since King Salman’s ascension to the throne in January 2015, the Saudis have been taking a more active military role in the region with campaigns in Yemen and against Daesh (“Islamic State”) in the Levant. It is likely that the Saudis believe that is best to manage the islands’ security themselves rather than paying Egyptian troops to do so. 

Further indication of deepening ties between Saudi Arabia and Egypt came with King Salman’s announcement during the trip that Egypt and Saudi Arabia would build a bridge through the islands connecting the two countries. At the same time, construction of the bridge could bode well for improved relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi officials’ indirect communication with Israel suggests that they are more concerned about their strategies vis-à-vis Yemen, Syria, Daesh, as well as their geopolitical rivalry with Iran, than about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With regard to Iran, Daesh, and possibly Syria, officials in Tel Aviv and Riyadh find themselves with converging interests. Reports of Saudi and Israeli intelligence agents meeting in Jordan lend credence to this idea. 

In March, both the GCC and the Arab League labeled Iranian-backed Hezbollah a “terrorist” group and froze billions of dollars of remittances and aid. They also issued a travel advisory for Lebanon. These measures weaken Hezbollah at a time when it is supporting the Syrian Ba’athist regime and simultaneously maintaining its front against Israel with threats from both sides heating up in recent weeks. These developments may indicate deeper cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

It should not be forgotten either that it was Salman’s predecessor, then-Crown Prince and later King Abdullah, who spearheaded the Arab Peace Initiative in the early 2000s, offering a broad normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel. The goal was the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1949-1967 borders and the resolution of several territorial issues, most importantly the return of the Golan Heights from Israel to Syria, an issue that Israeli prime ministers have refused to budge on. The Arab states’ stance on the Golan Heights may become more flexible, however, as the future of a unified Syrian state grows ever more dim. Moreover, the proposed bridge linking Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be held eternally hostage to the Israeli Air Force.

A cooperative, bilateral relationship must not be mistaken for a friendship. Although security interests may converge during an especially tumultuous period in Middle Eastern history, the question of Palestine will likely continue to be a deal-breaking wedge between the two. In each country, especially Saudi Arabia, there is significant domestic opposition to establishing any level of overt cooperation. With the U.S. and Egypt in a facilitation role, however, the process of the island transfer may end up being a substantial first step toward official communication between Saudi Arabia and Israel.    

About the Author

Adam Yefet is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy

AIDN0020520160029 / INDRASTRA / ISSN 2381-3652