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Egypt Gifts Saudi Arabia Two Strategic Islands in the Red Sea; Informs Israel

Saudi Arabia, one of most powerful militaristic countries in the Middle East, now controls the Strait of Tiran, Israel’s outlet to the Red Sea. It’s significant that Israel doesn’t seem to be concerned.

Armin Rosen
April 11, 2016
The Strait of Tiran and Tiran Island. Wikimedia
The Strait of Tiran and Tiran Island. Wikimedia

As an apparent act for gratitude for bailing out the Egyptian state during a period of economic and internal instability, Cairo is granting Saudi Arabia authority over two uninhabited islands in the Red Sea. While Tiran and Sanafir are technically Saudi territory, Egypt has administered the islands since 1950.

This is more than a mere thank-you note. Egypt didn’t simply gift the Saudis a random or ceremonial pair of rocks in the Red Sea this past weekend. It gifted Egypt the two most important rocks in the entire Gulf of Aqaba (or, if you prefer, the Gulf of Eilat). Tiran and Sanafir, which boast a total surface area of 44 square miles, serendipitously clog the narrows separating the tip of the Sinai and the Saudi coast. Whoever controls them can choke off both Israel and Jordan’s access to the Indian Ocean. And the islands have played more than a bit part in the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Along with his expulsion of U.N. observers from the Sinai in May of 1967, Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser’s blockade of the Strait of Tiran to vessels traveling to and from Israel was one of the major precipitating events of the Six-Day War. The islands were so important that former Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan made a point of visiting them during his honeymoon in Israeli-occupied Sharm el-Sheikh. Crucially, Israeli rule over the Sinai didn’t just extend to the peninsula, but to the straits on the peninsula’s eastern edge—something that prevented any prospective Arab army from blockading the gulf from its eastern side. The islands remained under Israeli control between 1967 and the final implementation of the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1982.

With this past weekend’s announcement, control over the islands is passing from a country that recognizes Israel to one that does not. It’s remarkable to reflect on just how little this actually matters.

Between a frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Hamas’s energetic tunneling endeavors, Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal, and the looming threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, there’s reason for healthy concern over Israel’s long-term strategic outlook. The fact that the island handover is apparently of such little importance to Israel is a strong antidote to such pessimism. The banality of the transfer, at least from Israel’s strategic perspective, should complicate the perception that Israeli-Arab affairs are an immovable grind of violence and suspicion. Things can and do actually change.

As the AP reported, Israel has decided not to object to the transfer of the islands’ control, despite briefly considering whether to declare the move a violation of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. The current Egyptian leadership depends on Israeli security cooperation in the Sinai, where ISIS has gained a foothold. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former general who took power after ousting Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood president in 2013, has a shared interest with his Israeli counterparts in reining in Hamas, which is affiliated with the Brotherhood. Relations between Egypt and Israel, it seems, are stable enough for Cairo to pull off a move like this without the Israelis being overly suspicious of Egypt’s motives.

Or of Saudi Arabia’s motives, either. A country which doesn’t recognize Israel—which is also one of the most militarily powerful states in the Middle East and the world’s top-ranked arms importer—now controls Israel’s outlet to the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and just about all of Asia. And Israel doesn’t seem to be the least bit concerned.

There are some less-than-reassuring explanations for why Egypt’s hand-off of the islands is so innocuous from Israel’s perspective: The Iranian threat has brought together Saudi Arabia and Israel for reasons having nothing to do with mutual acceptance or co-existence. But the non-event of Saudi control over the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba proves that the leaders of the Arab world just can’t be bothered with perpetual warfare against the Jewish state, which is now a tertiary or even non-existent concern. As the AP reported, Saudi Arabia will abide by Egypt’s treaty understandings with Israel after taking control over the islands, meaning Saudi Arabia has committed itself to maintaining Israeli navigation in the Red Sea, despite the lack of formal recognition.

Even if Israel is not technically at peace with most of the Arab world, there is at least a stable status quo that regional states respect, along with mutual interests and even occasional reason for cooperation. In a chaotic Middle East, it’s what’s not making news that might be the biggest case for optimism.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.

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