Saudi control of Red Sea islands has Arab-Israeli ramifications

Sunday 01/05/2016
Handover of islands has been controversial in Egypt

CAIRO - By taking over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sana­fir, Saudi Arabia will be party to the peace agree­ment between Egypt and Israel, opponents of the move say.
“By controlling the two islands, Saudi Arabia will be obliged to be part of the peace treaty between Is­rael and Egypt, which will weaken Arab positions and leave the Pales­tinians out in the cold,” said Samir Ghattas, a member of the Egyptian parliament.
In early April, Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed to define their mari­time borders in a deal that included the handover of the two islands to Saudi Arabia. Egypt said it occupied the two islands — after getting per­mission from Saudi Arabia — in the 1950s to protect them against Israel.
The handover of the islands has been controversial in Egypt with protests in several areas. Protests erupted in Cairo on April 15th and also in Alexandria. Similar demon­strations took place on April 25th, which is Sinai Liberation Day, mark­ing the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the peninsula in 1982.
Egyptians have been taught for years that the two islands are Egyptian territory and those who holidayed in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh often sailed to Tiran and Sanafir as part of tour packages.
“But, sorry to say, this is all wrong,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo Universi­ty. “A study of historical documents shows that Egypt was mandated by Saudi Arabia to only oversee the se­curity of the two islands, which are originally part of Saudi territory.”
The two islands are at the en­trance to the Gulf of Aqaba, an im­portant conduit to the southern Israeli port of Eilat. The islands are also Israel’s gateway into the Red Sea.
Soon after Egypt and Saudi Arabia signed the maritime border agree­ment, Saudi Arabia said it would abide by the terms of the Egyptian- Israeli peace treaty as far as naviga­tion in the area is concerned.
The closure of the straits of Tiran in 1967 precipitated Israel’s attack on Egypt and capture of the Sinai peninsula.
Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Saudi Arabia champi­oned the Arab boycott of Egypt as a result and Riyadh was also a strong backer of the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel.
The kingdom is now fast becom­ing part of peacemaking efforts with Israel. Ghattas said with Egypt out of the equation, because of its peace treaty with Israel, and Syria devas­tated by its civil war, the Palestin­ians will be alone in the struggle against Israel should Saudi Arabia enter the “peace barn”.
Analysts said Saudi Arabia is be­coming closer in geographical prox­imity to Israel and this is not by chance.
“On the contrary, the maritime border demarcation deal between Egypt and Saudi is the by-product of work done by more than one side to bring Saudi Arabia and Israel closer together,” political analyst Saad al- Zunt said. “Major alterations are taking place at the regional scene and what is happening between Egypt and Saudi Arabia cannot be separated from this.”
There is a line of thought that the United States is setting the stage for a broad alliance — combining Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel — to face off Iran as a threat to these countries’ security.
An Iran economically and mili­tarily empowered by the release of sanctions after it hammered out a nuclear deal with the West is be­coming Saudi Arabia’s most serious enemy. The Shia state has been try­ing to besiege Saudi Arabia by com­ing to the centre of power in several Arab capitals, including Baghdad, Sana’a, Damascus and Beirut.
To keep the Iranian threat at bay, Saudi Arabia is apparently ready to cooperate with anybody, including Israel. Saudi Arabia has been trying to stop Iran’s attempts to influence neighbouring countries.
It led a coalition against the Iran-backed Houthis, who overran sev­eral Yemeni cities, including Sana’a. It has offered financial support to the armed opposition to President Bashar Assad since the start of the Syrian civil war.
Now, analysts say, Saudi Arabia is mending fences with Israel, which is equally concerned over Iran’s return to the international com­munity. This is a true meeting of contrasts, joining the most impor­tant country in Sunni Islam with the country that proclaims itself the homeland of the Jews.
“Cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia will be more pro­nounced in the days to come,” Zunt said. “Each of the two states is ap­parently ready to cooperate with the devil so long as this serves its strategic interests.”