North Africa, West Asia

The changing security dynamic in the Red Sea

The expected transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands is revealing a number of regional dynamics between Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Maged Mandour
3 April 2017

The Red Sea has been subjected to a rapidly altering security dynamic, reflecting Saudi Arabia’s increased regional power, the declining role of Egypt, and growing Saudi-Israeli cooperation.

Wikimedia Commons/NASA. Public Domain.

This shifting dynamic was exemplified in the agreement to transfer two strategic islands, Tiran and Sanafir, from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty. The deal sparked considerable domestic backlash against the Egyptian regime, and as a result, was recently annulled by the supreme administrative court. Wikimedia Commons/NASA. Public Domain. However, there are some indications that the court order will be ignored and the transfer will take place regardless. The head of the people’s assembly declared that it is the responsibility of the assembly, not the courts, to review the agreement and decide whether it were constitutional or not.

The strategic importance of these islands stems from the ability of the nation that has sovereign power to control the strait of Tiran, which is the sole shipping route to Eilat – the only Israeli port on the Red Sea – and the port of Aqaba in Jordan.

It is worth mentioning that Egypt’s closure of the strait in 1967 was one of the primary triggers of the war with Israel. However, under the Camp David Accords –  which Saudi Arabia is not a part of – freedom of navigation is guaranteed, with international peacekeeping forces stationed on the islands.

The transfer of the islands is indicative of the nature of the relationship between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Egypt and Israel

The transfer of the islands is the strongest indicator yet of Cairo’s relationship with Tel Aviv; a long-term strategic ally, rather than a potential foe.

Cairo has decided to forgo a potential strategic advantage, which the Egyptian navy could have used to blockade Israeli shipping in case of conflict. Thus, the notion that Israel is viewed as a potential threat by Cairo, even in the long-term, no longer holds.

This view is also shared by Israel, as it did not object to Egypt’s purchase of the S-300 advanced air defense missile system from Russia.  

It is important to keep in mind that Egyptian/Israeli cooperation has been increasing over the past few years, most noticeably after the Hamas takeover of the Gaza strip in 2006 when Egypt started to participate in the blockade.

However, the nature of their cooperation did not involve any action that would adversely affect Egyptian national security, but the transfer of the Islands could, indicating a qualitative shift in their relationship.

The level of Israeli involvement in the transfer of the two islands was revealed in a leaked audio between the Egyptian foreign minister and a senior Israeli official, illustrating the high level of cooperation.   

Egypt and Saudi Arabia

Egyptian-Saudi relations recently soured due to the delay in the transfer of the islands. As a direct consequence, Saudi Arabia stopped oil shipments to cash strapped Egypt. However, the Egyptian regime seems adamant to proceed with the execution of the deal, even though considerable domestic opposition has crystalized around this issue.

This is indicative of the strategic nature of the relationship, as Cairo attempts to placate its main regional ally, despite the fragility of the Egyptian domestic front. Since the transfer of the islands came into play, the first semblance of organized mass opposition to the Egyptian regime was triggered, and resulted in a lengthy court battle.

Even though Egypt has avoided getting involved in the war in Yemen, against the wishes of its erstwhile ally, it still sees Saudi Arabia as its primary regional backer in the case of wide scale domestic disturbances.

Egypt is attempting to cultivate a wide network of allies, which could potentially back the regime in case of wide scale protests. This sometimes produces contradictory positions in terms of foreign policy. The most notable example of this is the UN Security Council vote, where Egypt voted for two contradictory resolutions regarding Aleppo: one sponsored by Saudi Arabia, the other by Russia.

Thus, the transfer of the islands can be seen as driven primarily by domestic considerations of the need to cultivate regional allies who would support the regime in case it fell under threat.

Even though relations have soured and Egypt did not perform the expected role in maintaining Gulf security against increased Iranian penetration, Egypt is relying on Saudi paranoia about unrest in the largest Arab country, as it could potentially inspire similar unrest as it did in Bahrain in 2011.    

Saudi Arabia and Israel                       

Arguably, the most interesting dynamic is that of Saudi-Israeli relations. Since Saudi Arabia is not part of the Camp David Accords, it was not obliged to keep a peacekeeping force stationed in Tiran and Sanafir, nor was it obliged to maintain freedom of navigation in the strait.

However, Saudi Arabia proclaimed that it guarantees freedom of navigation and that it is committed to the conditions of the Camp David accords. The transfer deal was also approved by the United States. The guarantee of navigation means that, in case of conflict between Israel and any other Arab party, for example Hamas or Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia would keep the strait open.

This is reflective of the view held by both Riyadh and Tel Aviv that the real threat is emanating from Iran. As such, it is indicative of the implicit cooperation between the two countries against Iran, and what is seen as its regional proxies, including Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent Hamas.

Israel appears to be in acceptance of an increased Saudi role in the Red Sea, which means that it is not perceived as a security threat, even in the long term, by Tel Aviv.

As such, the expected transfer of the islands is revealing a number of regional dynamics. The most vivid example of which is the new perceived strategic role of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is expanding its role in the horn of Africa, especially with the recent conclusion of a deal with Djibouti to build a military base on its territory.

The strategic location of the base, across the Yemeni shore, gives Saudi Arabia the ability to project its power over the Bab El Mandab strait. This serves to consolidate the position of Saudi Arabia as the reigning power over the Red Sea.

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