The Egyptian state has been stretching its hands in all directions, in the hope of blocking some of the consequences of the compounding global crises on the domestic economy and politics. Meanwhile, an old political crisis related to the uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir, in the Red Sea, is slowly floating back to the surface with a new load of misunderstandings.
On May 24th, the Israeli correspondent of Axios news website leaked details about a trilateral negotiation between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel about the Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Red Sea. Brett McGurk, the White House Middle East Coordinator, is the mediator of the negotiations.
The Western media is celebrating the news as a step for the long-aspired diplomatic normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. On the flip side, the Egyptian and Arab media reaction is standing somewhere between wrath and loathe. They are claiming that Israel and the United States are facilitating the cession of sovereignty rights over the islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. However, both Western and Arab claims are utterly wrong. The negotiation is neither about normalizing ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel nor about deciding which state owns the islands.
The issue of who has the sovereignty rights over the twin islands had already been settled in mid-2017 when the Egyptian and the Saudi governments signed an agreement on maritime delimitations in the Red Sea. The agreement situated the Tiran and Sanafir islands within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Saudi Arabia. The decision was endorsed by the Egyptian parliament and judiciary, after a year of internal political tensions and legal disputes, instigated by biased media reports that falsely claimed that President El-Sisi had sold the islands to Saudi Arabia in exchange for money.
Likewise, it is still too early to speak about normalizing ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In generalized terms, the American and Western observers always make the mistake of treating Saudi Arabia as just another country in the Arab Gulf region. In that sense, they assume that if other Arab Gulf countries have already signed a peace treaty with Israel, then Saudi Arabia will follow suit. The truth is, that Saudi Arabia is literally the mother of the Gulf countries, in terms of history, culture, demography, and even geographic size and location.
Saudi Arabia existed long before the other Arab Gulf countries were established by tribes originating from the land of Hijaz, and also long before the foundation of Israel. That puts a huge moral responsibility on Saudi Arabia and makes it very careful with its regional policies, especially if it is about a thorny issue like normalizing ties with Israel. Last week, the Saudi Foreign Minister told the World Economic Forum in Davos that normalizing ties with Israel is “a result of a long path” of compromising bilateral and regional disagreements, that include solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In parallel, the list of demands that Israel is putting on the table of the current negotiations tells that the Israeli government may be using the twin islands issue to get more economic benefits from neighbor Saudi, without necessarily getting to the point of normalizing ties, which they know is still a difficult goal. For example, Israel asked for opening the Saudi airspace for Israeli flights, in exchange for Israel’s approval of the outcomes of negotiations.
In essence, the current US-facilitated negotiation between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel is about dismissing or limiting the scope of work of the American-led multinational forces and observers in Sinai (MFO), on the twin islands of Tiran and Sanafir. That is mainly to enable Saudi Arabia to fully administer the islands and benefit from their perfect geo-strategic location in the crosshairs of the Gulf of Aqaba, the Gulf of Suez, and the southern ports of Israel. Currently, the MFO is supervising the islands and the maritime movement around them, per the stipulations of the 1979 Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. For that to change, Israel’s approval is a must.
In the heat of the initial political controversy over the Saudi-Egypt agreement, in 2016, Israel gave written consent to the procedure of returning Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi sovereignty. Moshe Ya’alon, the then Minister of Defense, in the Israel government of Netanyahu, told the press that the MFO was also approached by Saudi Arabia and Egypt to get its approval. “The four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States – agreed to transfer the responsibility of the islands, on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the (Egypt-Israel) peace treaty;” Ya’alon confirmed.
However, it seems that after the installation of a new government in Israel, Saudi Arabia found it a good opportunity to re-open the negotiations on the issue and try to completely remove the MFO from the islands. Likewise, Israel found it a good opportunity to ask for economic benefits in return, and perhaps bring Saudi Arabia to the point of accepting normalization. Whatever the final decision is, both of them will benefit in some way.
Still, Egypt’s involvement in the process, during such a sensitive time of domestic political and economic stress, may expose Egypt to unwanted nuances. It may stir the anger of the Egyptians who opposed the initial move of giving the islands back to Saudi Arabia, in 2016, and renew protests and street riots around the issue. Learning from the lessons of the first episode of the crisis, the Egyptian state needs to be very transparent and not to hesitate share all details with the public citizens. Otherwise, they will fall easy prey to the fake news and the biased media that may shake the bond of trust between the Egyptians and their political leadership.
Also, read on The Levant