Egypt-Saudi Agreement: Reading between the Lines
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
The Egyptian-Saudi agreement reached over the long weekend that King Salman and President Sisi spent in Egypt focused largely on economic issues for Egypt and presumably security interests for Saudi Arabia. The throwaway for both sides was the Egyptian return to the Saudis of the two islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Straits of Tiran entering the Red Sea which Egypt had occupied for most of the past 65 years—except when Israel occupied them briefly after the Sinai War and again after the Six-Day War until they were returned in 1979 as part of the Camp David Accords. From the Israeli perspective, these islands–manned by an international peacekeeping force–and the Egyptian Peace Treaty guaranteed Israel navigational passage out to the Indian Ocean.
With the return of the islands to the Saudis—with whom Israel has no formal diplomatic relations or contacts—there was a natural concern in Jerusalem as to what would become from this agreement as a result Egyptian relinquishment of sovereignty of the islands. It now turns out that Egypt had informed both the U.S. as well as Israel that the Saudis would honor the Camp David understanding concerning these islands.
There is, however, a much larger picture that is developing here. Not only did the Saudis apparently agree to this understanding before the fact, but it appears they now have duly so informed the Israelis in writing of this understanding. It is not clear at all how many formal communiques the Israeli Government has ever received from the Saudis and it might suggest there or have been some other contacts. Already when King Abdullah was still alive, Israel had obtained Saudi acquiescence to overfly Saudi Arabia enroute to attacking Iran’s nuclear installations.
In the brief year and a quarter since he became the new ruler, King Salman has given a number of signals that he is looking for ways to gradually liberalize—in Saudi terms—his extremely conservative regime. He is also concerned about the current and future role that Turkey is playing.
Israel is interested in regional stability which has been grossly shaken over the past six years. Change in the Arab world is exceedingly slow, but it would not be totally out of the question that as Egypt no doubt made a commitment now to the Saudis to assist them should the war with Yemen resume, it would not be a totally impossible scenario if Israel were to provide the Saudis perhaps with intelligence; perhaps encouraged to do so by Washington. Together with added Egyptian forces, this could facilitate the Saudi efforts to defeat the extremist Yemini forces—supported by ISIS and Iran–which are threatening to takeover Yemen and are posing a potential threat to the House of Saud. It could also add another small chit to relations with Israel, something which might well be discussed next week when Obama speaks with the King while participating in the summit of Arab leaders.