Saudi-Egypt bridge plan could cause friction with Israel

Sunday 17/04/2016
Tourists preparing to board a boat in front the Tiran island in the Straits of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and Saudi Arabia.

Cairo - A planned bridge linking Egypt’s Sinai peninsula with western Saudi Ara­bia should increase trade between the two Arab countries and give them tighter con­trol over the Gulf of Aqaba. Howev­er, such a move could create friction with Israel.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia said recently they would construct a 6-12km bridge, which is expected to shorten land travel between the two countries by almost two-thirds.
The project is expected to cost $4 billion, which Saudi Arabia — intent on a comprehensive strategic part­nership with Egypt as part of its wider plan to unify Sunni countries against Shia Iran — is to pay.
However, the project could be seen as bad news in Tel Aviv, where tighter Egyptian-Saudi control over the Gulf of Aqaba could restrict Is­rael’s access to the Red Sea through the Strait of Tiran, Israel’s only gate­way to the sea.
“The construction of the bridge will necessitate the presence of more Egyptian and Saudi troops in Red Sea islands to protect it,” Egyptian researcher Abdel Monem Halawa said. “This will bring about tighter Egyptian and Saudi control over the area, which will, at the end, mean that Israel’s access into the Red Sea will primarily be subject to approval from the two countries.”
The planned bridge would cross the Red Sea islands Tiran and San­afir. Ships carrying goods via the Port of Eilat in southern Israel pass through the Strait of Tiran. The clo­sure of the strait in May 1967 precip­itated an Israeli war on Egypt.
There are international peace­keeping troops, mostly US soldiers, on the two islands to guarantee the unrestricted movement of Israeli ships in light of a peace treaty Israel signed with Egypt in 1981. Egypt also maintains a military presence on the islands.
Construction of the bridge would increase the Egyptian and Saudi military presence on the islands, which might provoke objections from Israel. Israeli officials have not publicly spoken about the bridge but Halawa said Tel Aviv must be gritting its teeth in anger and might relay its fears to Washington to put pressure on Cairo and Riyadh to call off the bridge construction.
In Egypt, economists say the long-awaited bridge would be a lifeline for Egypt, whose economic slowdown has significantly affected the livelihoods of millions in the country.
Trade exchange between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is $2 billion-$3 billion a year. If the bridge is built, trade volume is projected to in­crease to at least $8 billion a year, economists say.
“This is not only about the move­ment of goods and persons between two countries, but also about the movement of these goods and per­sons between two continents,” said Rashad Abdo, an economist and the head of the think-tank Egyp­tian Centre for Economic Studies. “It will also contribute effectively to the rise in Saudi investments in Egypt.”
Saudi Arabia invests $6.2 billion in Egypt and has announced plans to invest an additional $7 billion in Egypt in the next few years. Easier movement of goods and people be­tween the two countries will con­tribute, economists say, to further increasing Saudi investments in Egypt.
About 1 million Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia and the bridge is expected to ease the movement of Egyptian workers to the Gulf state. About 13% of Egypt’s workforce of 26 million is unemployed, the Egyp­tian government said.
The bridge could boost the tour­ism in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia in unprecedented ways, econo­mists say. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians make pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia every year and about 600,000 Saudis visit Egypt annu­ally.
“The bridge will make the Sinai peninsula and its tourist attractions very easy to reach for Saudis and holy sites in Mecca and Medina very easy to reach for Egyptians,” Abdo said. “This will at the end signifi­cantly boost the tourism sector in both countries and translate into huge financial revenues.”