Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

May 1, 2016

The Rationale Behind Tiran and Sanafir Islands Deal

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

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.”

 

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