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US Brokers Deal between Egypt and Saudi—with Israel’s Help

May 24, 2022

by: Kate Norman

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Map showing the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea

Tuesday, 24 May 2022 | The United States is reportedly mediating talks to transfer two islands in the Red Sea from Egypt’s control to Saudi Arabian control. The swap also affects Israel, meaning the Jewish state is hovering in the background of the talks—which could warm ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

Tiran and Sanafir are both islands in the Red Sea that lie between the Gulf of Aqaba to the open Red Sea. Hovering in the middle of the Straits of Tiran, control of these uninhabited islands yields control of a strategic shipping passage that connects Israel’s Eilat port to the rest of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed a deal in 2016 to transfer control of the islands to Saudi Arabia. The deal sparked protest among Egyptians and faced legal hurdles in 2017 from Egyptian courts who questioned its constitutionality.

Now the subject is back in the light as Axios reported yesterday that US President Joe Biden is working to broker the agreements ahead of his visit to the Middle East next month.

Original ownership of the islands is murky depending on the source. Egypt claims control of the islands as early as 1906 when it drew up official borders with the Ottoman Empire, France24 pointed out.

However, most sources point to original Saudi ownership of the islands, which the kingdom then leased to Egypt in 1950.

The islands factored into the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, allowing Israeli ships passage through the Straits of Tiran under the monitoring of US-led multinational observers patrolling the islands.

Transferring ownership of the islands—and therefore control of the vital waterways—means putting Israeli access in question. Israel reportedly approved of the transfer, Axios reported, citing Israeli and US sources in the know, as long as the multinational observer force remains in place, guaranteeing continued Israeli passage.

Saudi Arabia, however, does not want to keep the force on the islands, Axios reported, but agreed to maintain the demilitarized status of the islands as well as continued freedom of passage for Israeli ships.

Talks are still underway to iron out the final few sticking points of the transfer, US and Israeli sources told Axios.

Successful negotiations could lead to warmer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, following in the footsteps of the landmark Abraham Accords in 2020, in which Israel normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia at the time was rumored to be one of the next Arab countries in line to make peace with its Jewish neighbor, as the two countries currently do not have diplomatic relations.

Saudi Arabia, though it approved of the Abraham Accords, did not join itself, citing the reason of wanting more progress in solving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict before establishing its own formal relations with the Jewish state.

However, Riyadh did open up some of its airspace after the Accords to Israeli flights traveling to the UAE and Bahrain. Israel is also seeking more Israeli access to Saudi airspace to significantly shorten flight times to China, India and Thailand, as well as direct flights to Saudi Arabia so Israeli Muslims could travel from Israel’s Ben Gurion airport to the Muslim holy cities of Medina and Mecca.

A successful end to the land transfer could be a diplomatic win for US President Biden on the eve of his visit to the Middle East next month, particularly to participate in a summit with the leaders of Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Times of Israel reported.

A happy ending to the land agreement, which involves and affects Israel, could also be the next step to drawing Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords fold.

Posted on May 24, 2022

Source: (Bridges for Peace, May 24, 2022)

Photo Credit: US Central Intelligence Agency/

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