April 14, 2016 | The Hill

Egypt hands strategic Red Sea islands to Saudis, and Israel doesn’t object

Egypt and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement Saturday for Cairo to return control of two uninhabited but strategic Red Sea islands to the kingdom. The islands — Tiran and Sanafir — lie in the Straits of Tiran, a key waterway linking the Red Sea with Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian ports in the Gulf of Aqaba. Yet despite the islands' tactical location, and the fact that Israel has no official ties with Saudi Arabia, the Jewish state registered no objection and even hinted that the move may be positive. As one prominent Egyptian blogger aptly observed, “We live in changing times.”

The question over Tiran and Sanafir dates back to 1950, when Saudi Arabia asked Egypt to administer the islands for fear Israel would seek to seize them to ensure free navigation in the Red Sea. Indeed, Egypt's closing of the straits to Israeli shipping was among the proximate causes of Egyptian-Israeli fighting in the 1956 Suez Crisis and 1967 Six-Day War. Israel's victory in the latter conflict saw it occupy the islands for 15 years, after which it returned them, along with the neighboring Sinai Peninsula, following the two countries' peace treaty.

Since then, Tiran has occasionally been visited by peacekeepers — generally Americans — running a small operating base as part of an international force created to monitor adherence to the treaty. Otherwise, the islands have been empty and generally forgotten — by Israelis and Saudis as much as by Egyptians. Indeed, although negotiations over them had been six years in the making, the islands were barely discussed in Egyptian media until Saturday. Once news of the agreement broke, the country's social media entered a collective frenzy over the government having “sold” part of its putative patrimony in exchange for Gulf petrodollars.

The furor is mainly a sideshow, as the islands were widely recognized as having belonged to the Saudis all along. What is more significant, however, is what the handover — which came amid a broader package of Saudi investment in Egypt — says about the current state of relations between Cairo, Riyadh and Jerusalem.

The decades-long partnership between Egypt and Saudi Arabia grew closer than ever after the Egyptian military's 2013 removal of Mohamed Morsi, a president hailing from the shared archenemy of the Egyptian and Saudi states: the Muslim Brotherhood. Over the next two years, Riyadh gave its Arab cousins billions in no-strings-attached aid in a bid to help vanquish the Muslim Brotherhood, stabilize Egypt's perpetually flagging economy and secure the country's reinstalled military-led government.

Since then, however, ties have frayed as the Saudis — already hobbled by dropping oil revenues— came to suspect that their largesse was being unwisely spent. Leaked tapes of Egypt's president joking about Gulf Arabs' exorbitant wealth didn't help. The island handover is therefore a sign that Riyadh no longer intends to give its counterparts “free money,” in the words of one well-connected Saudi businessman, but will expect a certain amount of give-and-take.

The transfer of control also says something about Israel's relations with the two Arab powers. Egypt and Israel now enjoy unprecedented security cooperation against shared extremist threats in their border area, and Cairo reportedly apprised Jerusalem of the island deal before it was signed. Israeli leaders, for their part, agreed to the handover as long as the Saudis upheld the Egypt-Israel peace treaty — specifically, ensuring freedom of navigation and allowing the presence of peacekeepers on Tiran.

The head of Israel's parliamentary committee on foreign affairs went further, noting that the country has “an interest in expanding cooperation in the Sunni axis, which is struggling against the radical axis headed by Iran.” And for their part, the Saudis said that while there would be “no direct relationship” with Israel, they would uphold any commitments that Egypt had sealed with the Jewish state.

The relative nonchalance with which both Israel and Saudi Arabia accepted the new arrangement is a telling statement on burgeoning (if still back-channel) Saudi-Israeli relations as well. The threat of a nuclear-capable, and now-cash flush, Iran has brought the two states together as never before, and Saudi Arabia's traditional role as an Arab and Islamic leader supposedly championing the Palestinian cause has taken a backseat. It's a remarkable turnaround given that just five years ago, Israel fiercely opposed Washington selling F-15 fighter jets to the kingdom, arguing that they would compromise its own security.

The handover of Tiran and Sanafir underscores broader trends roiling the Middle East. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses a clear and present danger to EgyptSaudi Arabia and Israel, and so too does an emboldened Iran enriched by sanctions relief. In such circumstances, ownership of two uninhabited islets is of comparatively minor importance.

From the U.S. perspective, the agreement highlights the fact that the dark clouds overhanging the region also offer silver linings: in this case, a firmer alliance between three of Washington's principal Mideast allies. Politics makes strange bedfellows, but so too do common enemies.

Oren Kessler is deputy director for research and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @OrenKessler


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