In the most tangible sign yet of a thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and “Israel”, Tel Aviv is untroubled by Egypt’s decision to cede sovereignty over two Red Sea islands to Riyadh.
Tiran and Sanafir are two tiny, entirely uninhabited specks of land, which sit in the narrow sea passage between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But the strategically placed islands provide a valuable outpost for controlling entry into the Gulf of Aqaba, as well as the ports of Eilat and Aqaba in “Israel” and Jordan, respectively.
The April 12 announcement by the government in Cairo claiming that the Red Sea islands, “fall within Saudi territorial waters in light of the new border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” took much of the world by surprise, and none more so than Egyptians themselves.
For the people of Egypt, who remember Tiran and Sanafir from their sixth grade textbooks, the islands were always Egyptian. What’s more, in the minds of many in Egypt, the islands have always been associated with a time of nationalistic fervor and patriotism, and their country’s four wars against the “Israelis”.
So what has changed?
“The Island is for a Billion”
Cairo’s decision to cede sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir came as Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz made a rare visit to the Egyptian capital, during which he announced plans for Saudi aid and investment for Egypt.
However, the days when Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies showered Egypt with billions of dollars – a practice adopted after then-military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 – are long gone.
Record-low oil prices and costly regional wars have virtually bankrupted the Saudi kingdom, making strong financial support for countries like Egypt an unsustainable policy.
According to sources cited by Reuters, Saudi Arabia’s financial support for Egypt will no longer involve “free money”, and will increasingly take the form of loans that provide returns to help the Saudis grapple with the economic fallout resulting from low oil prices.
“This is a change in strategy. Return on investment is important to Saudi Arabia,” a Saudi businessman familiar with the matter told Reuters.
However, Egypt, which is struggling to revive an economy devastated by years of political upheaval and an ongoing insurgency in its Sinai Peninsula, can hardly offer much in the way of assurances.
So, in exchange for petroleum supplies over the next five years to the tune of 23 billion US dollars, and an estimated 4 billion for infrastructure, energy and agriculture projects, Sisi has quite simply sold a piece of Egyptian territory.
The Egyptian president’s executive decision to hand over the islands without parliamentary approval was only announced after the deal was already sealed, leading to anti-government protests and a storm of criticism on social media sites.
The well-known, self-exiled, Egyptian satirist, Bassem Youssef, mocked the deal in a tweet suggesting Sisi was selling the islands to the highest bidder – much like a common bazaar merchant.
“Roll up, roll up, the island is for a billion, the pyramid for two and a couple of statues thrown in for free,” Youssef’s tweet read.
But Saudi dissident and director at the Institute for Gulf Affairs, Ali al-Ahmed, believes that President Sisi was motivated by far more than just economics.
“This was really a brilliant political move for everyone involved, and especially Sisi, who is facing growing internal political opposition. He is getting a lot of money for the islands, as well as political support from “Israel” and the Saudis. I predict that Sisi will be in the White House before long, for what you might call the next phase of his political rehabilitation,” Al-Ahmed said.
“We Reached an Understanding”
In 1967, the “Israelis” used Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to block the passage of ships through the Strait of Tiran as an excuse to launch the Six Day War, which resulted in the “Israeli” occupation of both Tiran and Sanafir.
Under the provisions of the Camp David Accords, the islands were returned to Egypt in 1982 and a multinational force was deployed to ensure freedom of navigation through the strait.
So when the Saudis finally got their hands on the islands – which they have contested since 1950 – the first order of business was to reassure the “Israelis”.
“We reached an understanding between the four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, “Israel” and the United States – on the passing of responsibility for the islands, on condition that the Saudis step into the Egyptians’ shoes regarding the military annex to the peace treaty,” Haaretz quoted “Israeli” War Minister Moshe Yaalon as saying.
Noteworthy is the fact that the deal was only struck after an agreement was reached between the four major stakeholders – Cairo, Riyadh, Washington, and Tel Aviv.
The mere fact that Tel Aviv was party to a multilateral negotiation process including the Saudis is a telling sign.
According to Al-Ahmed, the agreement, “officially makes Saudi Arabia and “Israel” neighbors.”
“This makes “Israel” very happy because with the islands becoming part of Saudi territory, the “Israelis” now have a direct pathway to the Red Sea both in terms of commerce and militarily…. The waterways between these islands and Saudi Arabia are very shallow. So the ships have to go between the islands and Egyptian territory, which has now become international waters. Those international waters have now become accessible to the “Israelis”, giving them the right guaranteed under international law to sail or fly or deploy anything that they want in this area,” Al-Ahmed added.
Indeed, the fact that Tel Aviv, which now enjoys growing clandestine security cooperation with Riyadh, received written assurances that the Saudis intended to respect the free passage of “Israeli” vessels through the Strait of Tiran, is the most significant aspect of this deal.
“We know now that there has been coordination between the Saudi regime and the “Israelis”, and this agreement was reached with the approval of the “Israelis”. The Zionist state has become integral to Saudi policy,” said Dr. Naseer al-Omari, an Egyptian-born author and political commentator.
In what is fast becoming the Middle East’s worst kept secret, the “Israeli”-Saudi undeclared alliance has found a common enemy in Iran. The agreement over the Straits of Tiran suggests that their agenda of common interest is broadening.
“Saudi policy is creating a new equation in the region. “Israel”, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, are moving strategically against one single power, which is Iran. This makes the regime in Riyadh a tool in the hands of the policy makers in Washington in their efforts to rearrange the region and in what they perceive to be a defensive strategy against Russia and China and Iran,” Al Omari opined.
Source: al-Ahed News