By Rob L. Wagner
1 May 2016
JEDDAH – It is no coincidence that an announcement concerning a $4 billion bridge linking Egypt and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea came just before Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “gifted” two islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Arabia.
The idea of a bridge between the two countries has been talked about for years but proved to be cost-prohibitive. Saudi King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud proposed the idea in 1988 and Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi suggested in 2012 to revive the proposal.
Acquisition of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir may have solved at least part of the costs issues, making construction of the bridge more feasible. Tiran has been considered an anchor point for the bridge and even a railway has been suggested.
Israel and the United States, following the protocol established in the 1979 peace accord between Egypt and Israel, approved the formal transfer.
Saudi Arabia has provided Egypt with billions of dollars since Sisi assumed power in 2013. The kingdom sees Egypt as a vital partner in establishing a coalition of friendly Sunni Muslim nations.
Yet, even though Israel did not object to the transfer, the acquisition gives a major strategic advantage to Saudi Arabia because of its location at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba, a major shipping lane for Israel and Jordan.
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Saudi Arabia would honour the agreement that gives Israelis freedom to use the route. He said the Saudis are expected to assume Egypt’s responsibility of the “military appendix of the peace agreement”.
Possession of the islands allows Saudi Arabia to place military personnel there. In addition, the islands serve to help build the proposed bridge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
“I was not surprised, but puzzled by Egypt’s decision to transfer the control of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia,” said Ehsan M. Ahrari, adjunct research professor for the Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College in Pennsylvania. “The strategic significance of this move stems from the fact that Israel said nothing about it. Of course, we know now that Egypt informed Israel in advance of its impending move and at least got a tacit approval of it.”
Ahrari said there should be little dispute that the transfer was appropriate.
“Technically, the Israelis could have said ‘no’ based on the fact that it was violation of the transfer of territory agreement from Israel to Egypt,” he said.
The analyst said the transfer bodes well for the region, particularly because Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel share the common foe: Iran.
“This action also speaks volumes about the growing trust between Egypt and Israel on the one hand and between Israel and the Gulf states on the other,” Ahrari said. “The unifying factor is the fear of Iran. Perhaps, we are witnessing a major realignment of friendship in that part of the world.”
The transfer signals an effort by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to find alternatives to boosting their respective economies. The proposed bridge would slash transit times to move goods.
Egypt has seen an alarming decline in tourism since the 2011 revolution and even steeper drops over the last year. About 1.2 million tourists visited Egypt in the first quarter of 2016, a drop from 2.2 million during the same period in 2015.
Saudi Arabia looks to strengthen its infrastructure to provide more tourist destinations, including building more museums. The Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has opened most of its archaeological sites to tourists, including a number of Islamic heritage sites available only to Muslims.
Linking the two countries will encourage tourism and if the proposed “green card” scheme that would give Arabs and Muslims permanent residency status in the kingdom receives approval, the Red Sea bridge would facilitate the movement of workers.
“Egypt has had a lot of trouble with inbound and outbound tourists,” said Fazal Bahardeen, chief executive officer of CrescentRating. com, a company that ranks tourism destinations for Muslim travellers. “But connectivity, whether by bridge or by land, is a key component for tourism. It will most likely encourage tourism between the two countries. The relationship between the two countries and the economies of both countries is bound to improve.”