Egypt has been going through its most tense days since the ouster of its first democratically elected President Muhammed Morsi in 2013 via a military coup. The reason for the tension is the transfer of the two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, situated east of the Sinai Peninsula, to Saudi Arabia. Although the Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi administration defends that this is the “return of a trust,” millions of angry protesters across the country believe Egyptian territory is being “sold.” It is possible to see people making furious demonstrations and chanting heated slogans everywhere from the parliament to the streets. They are all saying the same thing: “Tiran and Sanafir belong to Egypt.”
The history of the island debate between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is quite old. Tiran and Sanafir, which are located at the point Aqaba opens out to the sea from the two gulfs at the north end of the Red Sea, were under Saudi Arabian control until 1950. When attacks started on Arab lands in the region with the establishment of Israel, then Saudi King Abdulaziz left Tiran and Sanafir to the protection of Egypt. Based on the agreement between King Abdulaziz and Egyptian King Farouk, the islands were going to be protected by the Egyptian navy against Israel’s threats.
Following administrators in Egypt, Mohamed Anwar Sadat and Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, in statements they made at various times, confirmed that the islands belonged to Saudi Arabia. As Israel had to completely withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula in accordance with the Camp David Agreement signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979, the transfer of the islands back to Saudi Arabia was also delayed. The Riyadh and Cairo administrations were worried that in the event the islands were transferred before the application of the agreement, Israel would consider them as “the land of a third country” and occupy them. The transfer-return that was thus postponed until 1982 did not take place to date for various reasons.
In a visit to Egypt in April last year by Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz who ascended the throne in early 2015, the islands issue was officially solved. With the agreements signed between the two countries, the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands back to the Saudi side were made certain, with a promise made to Egypt for a minimum investment of $25 billion, economic support and grant in response. Within the scope of the agreement, consensus was also reached on linking the Sinai Peninsula with Saudi Arabia via highway.
The Egyptian administration delayed the effectiveness of the agreement for more than a year due to its tensions with Saudi Arabia especially over the Syria issue. The government first ensured that the press discussed the matter in an extremely critical manner, forming public opinion against it; then, they courts took decisions negating the agreement. However, when Cairo and Riyadh later built rapport again, this time, the Sissi government quickly passed the law concerning the transfer of the islands through parliament and made it official.
According to the details reflected in the press, Israel was specially informed prior to the agreement. Free passage through the Gulf of Aqaba is an extremely critical matter in terms of Israel, because this is where the Port of Eilat connects to the Red Sea. Israel, which attempted to occupy the islands twice, once in 1957 and then in 1967, had overcome its concerns that access to the Red Sea would be prevented through the islands with the Camp David Agreement. It is stated that Israel is given a guarantee to prevent the rise of access risk again with the transfer of the islands to Saudi Arabia.
According to a comment by Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s senior Middle East analyst Zvi Bar’el, the statement by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel el-Jubeir saying, “We are going to respect all the international agreements signed by Egypt in relation to the islands,” signifies the implicit recognition of Camp David by Riyadh. Considering the anger caused in the Arab world when Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Agreement, the point reached after 30 something years is, of course, interesting.
It is also noted that Egypt and Israel were guaranteed that following the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir, Saudi Arabia would not use the islands for military purposes. There still remains a U.S.-led “peace force” deployed on Tiran island. The future of this unit will likely become clear in accordance with Saudi Arabia’s decision. However, it is also believed that the current situation can be maintained particularly within the context of close relations that restarted with the U.S.
Considering the island diplomacy between Egypt and Saudi Arabia along with the Middle East’s hottest topic in recent weeks, the Qatar blockade, it could be said that another new window of dialogue has opened in relation between Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Pressuring Qatar through the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas had obviously pleased Israel the most. Now, it seems a new regional common denominator has emerged over which Saudi Arabia and Israel are going to have to consult.
When we add to all this the giant natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean on which Egypt, Israel, Greece and South Cyprus are working, it is possible to reach the clues of a different dimension of the Qatar siege. The secret behind the matter is, perhaps, hidden in Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s statement, “We are going to form an alternative route that will link the Middle East to Europe.”