Saudi Interest in the Red Sea Islands of Tiran and Sanafir Grows as Its Security Interests Expand

The Egyptian parliament is expected to vote soon in favor of the return of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. The decision, after months of controversy in Egypt, will fulfill the April 2016 agreement reached between Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud that formally acknowledged Saudi sovereignty over the two small islands and provided for their return to Riyadh’s control.

Most attention has focused on the political aspects of the Egyptian decision and the controversy sparked in Egypt among opponents of the agreement to transfer islands long considered part of sovereign Egyptian territory. Far less attention has been paid to the arguably more significant strategic implications represented by the surprise Egyptian decision, as well as the strategic consequences of Saudi control over the islands in the context of today’s transformation of the regional strategic environment.

The islands of Tiran and Sanafir -- the former 80sq.km. and the latter 33sq.km -- are situated in the narrow 13km expanse between the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas. Both islands are uninhabited except for a small Egyptian military presence and the deployment of MFO observers on Tiran.  The narrow and at times shallow  (from 290 to less than 20 meters) passages formed through this seaway link the Gulf of Aqaba to the Red Sea. The Straits control access to the Israeli ports of Eilat and the Jordanian port of Aqaba --both significant strategic and economic assets.

Dramatic changes in Riyadh’s security views are at the heart of the surprise agreement. The Saudi desire to control the seaway reverses a more than six-decade willingness to defer to Egyptian power to occupy and control the islands. It signifies a determination to re-establish sovereign control over the islands and the surrounding waterway, and more broadly to end its deference to Egyptian maritime military supremacy in an arena Riyadh now considers vital to Saudi security. A project to build a 15-kilometre (9.3 mi) bridge across the Straits, linking Egypt and Saudi Arabia, stands as yet another example of the re-imagining of strategic, trade and development patterns being contemplated throughout the region.

This more activist Saudi policy is rooted in a changing and more dynamic Saudi political agenda as well as the transformation of the Saudi security environment. Foremost among these security calculations is the ongoing war in Yemen, which has focused Saudi attention as never before on its neighbor to the south and heightened its interest in playing a more visible and active role in controlling access, interdicting arms smuggling, and contesting Iranian influence in what is believed to be a key maritime supply corridor to Yemeni rebels battling the monarchy.

Expanding Saudi maritime aspirations are also evident in growing practical signs of Saudi interest in establishing a military base further south along the Red Sea coast at Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen and overseeing the Bab el Mandeb chokepoint governing access from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Close to 10 percent of international oil trade transits the channel daily.  Saudi Arabia is a latecomer to the African spit of sand where American, French, and more recently Chinese military bases are already located.

Such interest and investment attest to the dynamic pace of the contest for control of assets in seaways critical to international maritime trade linking the Far East with the Mediterranean that are also a focus of competing national security interests.

Regarding both the Tiran Straits and Djibouti, Egypt is both the object of Saudi concern and a necessary if junior partner. Much has changed since 1950 when Saudi Arabia, lacking even a rudimentary navy, acquiesced in Egyptian control of Tiran and Sanafir. At the time both Arab nations were focused on strangling the trade of the newly established state of Israel. Egyptian control of the Tiran Straits offered Cairo a military platform to restrict maritime trade to the fledging town of Eilat, where almost all oil imports from Iran were directed.

One of Israel’s central achievements in the Suez War of 1956 was the opening of the Straits to unrestricted Israeli commerce. The Egyptian decision to close the Straits to Israel-bound trade and to encumber Israeli efforts to train and patrol in the wider Red Sea set the stage for the June 1967 war. In the course of the war, Israel occupied the islands, and opened the Straits and the Red Sea to the Israeli navy and maritime trade. The peace treaty with Egypt confirmed the islands’ return in 1982 to Egyptian control. Egypt in turn acknowledged unrestricted freedom of access for Israel. An international umbrella, the US-dominated MFO – was created to monitor adherence to the peace treaty, including freedom of navigation through the Straits.

As a consequence, the Straits no longer play the role or retain the importance for Cairo that they once did. Egypt's interests have moved away from control over Israel's strategic waterways to protection of maritime strategic assets, mainly gas, in the Mediterranean. At a time when the strategic partnership between Israel and Egypt is stronger than ever, Egyptian control of the Straits in order to deny maritime access to Israel represents a strategic anachronism.

In that sense, growing Saudi interest in restoring sovereignty and control offers Cairo a welcome opportunity “to get something for nothing” in terms of promised investment and goodwill. Nevertheless, the perception among Egyptians of Egyptian retreat in the face of expanding Saudi interests and financial power has complicated the effort of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi to win popular and institutional approval for the islands’ return.

Egyptian security officials may be able to reconcile the return of the islands to Riyadh but they are not as sanguine about the related, expanding Saudi naval footprint at Bab el Mandeb, guarding the approaches to Suez.

"Cairo is totally against the deal [to establish a Saudi base in Djibouti] because it considers Djibouti to be under the Egyptian sphere of influence and because its location is important for national security," an anonymous Egyptian diplomatic source told The New Arab.

"This move goes against the generally accepted customs between Arab countries as the area has a direct influence on the passage of ships towards the Suez Canal.

"If Saudi Arabia wants to ensure that Iran does not take control of the area, that is understandable - however, this must take place with Egyptian oversight and permission."

Israel evidently has no such reservations about effective Saudi control over what remains for Israel the strategic Gulf of Aqaba waterway. The Saudi-Egypt deal required Israel’s approval to modify the terms of the peace treaty with Egypt to enable Saudi Arabia as guarantor of free Israeli passage through the Straits—and this Israeli approval was duly accorded. In this respect, Riyadh has become a formal partner in the security arrangements for maritime security in the Straits and host to the MFO contingent based on Tiran. More broadly, the changes in the structure of maritime security in this vital waterway reflect a nascent if growing convergence of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia.