Closer Saudi-Egypt ties seen after Sisi ratifies islands deal

Sunday 02/07/2017
Coming closer. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud shake hands during a reception ceremony in Cairo in 2016.(Reuters)

Cairo- Cairo and Riyadh are look­ing to strengthen coop­eration following the Egyptian government’s signing off on a contro­versial maritime boundary demar­cation deal with Saudi Arabia, ex­perts said.

“The door is now wide open for more robust cooperation between the two countries at all levels,” said Tarek Fahmy, a political science professor at Cairo University. “The signing of the deal and its subse­quent approval by parliament, de­spite difficulties, reflect a strong desire in both Cairo and Riyadh for stronger ties.”

The maritime border demarca­tion bill, which restores Saudi sov­ereignty over the strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, was approved by parliament on June 14 and ratified by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ten days later.

The deal, which was agreed to in April last year during Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s visit to Cairo, was polarising for Egyptians, prompting legal chal­lenges to block its implementation.

“Egyptian, Egyptian,” protest­ers chanted outside of parliament during the vote to hand over the is­lands, with many questioning the documents produced by the gov­ernment as evidence of Tiran’s and Sanafir’s provenance.

Owing to the sensitivity of the is­sue, officials appeared to rule out a hand-over ceremony.

Located at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba between the Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia, Tiran and Sanafir are key to control over the Gulf, as well as being Israel and Jordan’s only path into the Red Sea.

The return of the islands to Saudi Arabia, observers said, would sig­nificantly contribute to strength­ening ties between Cairo and Ri­yadh, which had cooled in recent months.

“The legal battle that ensued af­ter signing the agreement in Cairo in April last year gave the impres­sion that its implementation would stumble, which was reason enough for concern in Riyadh, even if this concern was not expressed offi­cially and the Saudis said this bat­tle was a purely Egyptian internal affair,” former Assistant Foreign Minister Mustafa al-Fiqi said.

Saudi Arabia, which is seeking to implement an ambitious devel­opment project known as Vision 2030, considers the two islands in­tegral parts of the plan.

“The causeway that will be built over the two islands to connect the Sinai Peninsula with the western part of Saudi Arabia is actually at the centre of this plan,” said Salah al-Guindy, an economics professor at Mansoura University.

The construction of the cause­way will cost $4 billion but will cut travel time between Egypt’s Sinai and the western part of Saudi Ara­bia to a few hours.

That should boost bilateral trade, with Egypt estimating the value of goods to be carried to and from Saudi Arabia through the causeway at $15 billion annually. The causeway will provide Saudi Arabia greater access to markets, not just in Egypt but across Africa.

The roots of Sisi’s enthusiasm for the maritime boundary demarca­tion deal can be found in forecasts about the presence of substantial mineral resources off Egypt’s Red Sea coast, economists said.

Sisi last year said Egypt could not explore mineral resources in the area until its maritime boundaries with Saudi Arabia were clearly de­fined. In 2015, the Egyptian presi­dent signed a maritime boundary demarcation deal with Greece and Cyprus. A year later, an Italian com­pany with concession in an area off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast an­nounced the discovery of the re­gion’s largest natural gas field.

“I expect the government to in­vite international oil companies to explore oil and gas in this area very soon,” Guindi said. “This expected move is backed by several interna­tional studies about the presence of huge reserves off the Red Sea coast.”

A strengthening of political ties between Egypt and Saudi Arabia comes as they cooperate in the dip­lomatic row over Qatar’s alleged funding of terrorism. The move also comes amid general suspicion towards Tehran and Egyptian ac­cusations that Qatar and Turkey are harbouring fugitive Muslim Brotherhood figures.

An alliance between Egypt, Sau­di Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and most of the Arab world, ana­lysts said, is indispensable, if Arabs want to keep Iranian and Turkish influence out of their countries.

“Both countries are using Qatar as an entry point into the region, taking sides with Doha to achieve an old dream of domination over the Arab Middle East,” Fiqi said. “This is why an alliance led by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia is necessary if the Persians and the Ottomans will be kept out of the region.”