Saudi Arabia said to reassure Jordan, Israel on Cairo deals
Amman - Plans to return two islands from Egypt to Saudi control and build a bridge over the Red Sea to link the Arab countries should have few repercussions on Jordan and Israel because the moves are part of a Saudi effort to create a regional Sunni alliance against Shia Iran, diplomats in the region said.
Jordanian officials have said little about an April 11th visit by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz but two Jordan-based Arab diplomats said the plans were laid bare in the closed-door talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II.
“It was meant to reassure Jordan and Israel that none of the moves were aimed against them but, rather, to face Iran’s growing threat by forming a Sunni alliance to protect the collective interests of governments in the region,” explained one of the diplomats.
Jordan was asked to relay the Saudi message to Israel, which Egypt had already done when it decided to return the islands to Riyadh a few days earlier, both diplomats said insisting on anonymity because they were not allowed to brief the media.
An emerging Sunni coalition against the Iranian-led Shia alliance is becoming more visible, although transforming it into a purely military alliance could prove ineffective against Tehran and its allies.
The Sunni alliance was manifested in the Saudi-led coalition battling Iranian-backed insurgent Houthi Shia militias in Yemen. It was also evident in moves by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to crack down on Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, and in their funding of Sunni rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime — a Shia offshoot — in Syria.
With Iraq, Syria and parts of Lebanon under heavy Shia Muslim influence, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are concerned that Iran’s sway will expand in a region traditionally dominated by rival Sunni governments.
In what appears to be part of this alliance building, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, where agreements on the islands and the bridge were signed. On April 12th, Salman visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Prince Mohammed was in Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba meeting King Abdullah. A statement released after the talks said both men “rejected Iranian interference in the region’s affairs and igniting sectarian strife”.
Israel is not opposed to the return of two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia or the plan to build a bridge connecting the two Arab countries because it favourably views Arabs trying to unite against the Iranian threat.
“It relates to us and it does not bother us,” Knesset member Tzachi Hanegbi, who heads parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, told Israel’s Army Radio in an April 12th interview.
Transferring the sovereignty of Sanafir and Tiran islands back to Saudi Arabia should give it control over the Red Sea.
The Saudi-led coalition appears to be heading towards victory in the year-old war with the Houthis in Yemen.
The Saudis are practically controlling the Bab el Mandeb strait, which separates Yemen on the Arabian peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. The strait connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
Commanding the strait, Saudi Arabia was able to block Iranian shipments from arriving at Yemeni ports. The Saudis were also able to draw the Red Sea’s coastal countries of Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti away from Iranian influence.
In the long-term, the arrangement could be problematic for the Israelis, observed Shaul Shay, a former Israeli military officer who now heads research at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Israel.
“The Saudis will not close the Red Sea to Israel,” Shay said.
However, he added that in the long term, considering unpredictable geopolitical conditions, Israel must “reassess its security and political strategy in this region”.
Israel and the Saudi-led Arab coalition have a common interest but are working separately to undermine Iran’s ambitions in the region. Israel is specifically wary of Iran’s weapons programme and accuses Tehran of seeking to acquire a nuclear bomb.
Therefore, as long as the Arabs are focused on Iran, Israel has no problem with the Saudi-Egyptian control of the Red Sea, Shay noted.
The islands, which were under Saudi control and passed to Egypt during wars with Israel, which then briefly controlled them, were returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt.
One of the sensitive issues the transfer of the islands could raise regards Israeli planes using the airspace over them in transit to Asia. This would technically mean they would be flying in Saudi airspace. Israel and Saudi Arabia have neither peace agreements nor diplomatic relations.
By the same token, Egypt is forbidden by the Camp David peace treaty from deploying military forces on the islands or along Sinai’s seashore area bordering the Red Sea.