A few hours before Biden’s flight to Saudi Arabia, senior officials told AFP that the Jewish state “has no objections” to the return of the two islands, Tiran and Sanafir. Israel said on Tuesday it was “hopeful” for the beginning of normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia on the occasion of the U.S. president’s weekend visit to the Gulf Arab monarchy, a regional power.
The fact that President Biden is making an unprecedented official flight directly to Saudi Arabia from Israel sums up the dynamics of the last few months. There are delicate, fragile, new relationships in various aspects, a senior Israeli official told reporters on Tuesday on condition of anonymity, adding that Israel hopes that these are the first steps, the beginning of a normalization process.
The transfer of the islands is a prerequisite in a possible process of normalization of relations between the Jewish state and the Arab kingdom.
During President Biden’s visit, Israel and Saudi Arabia may settle the issue of Riyadh returning the islands currently under Egyptian control and allowing it to control access to the Israeli port of Eilat. Egyptian authorities have already given the green light for this handover of the islands, but it must also be approved by Israel, according to the 1979 peace agreement between the two countries.
Israel, which signed peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020 under the “Abraham Accords” and hoped to add Saudi Arabia to this list.
In the context of Israel’s green light for the return of the Tiran and Sanafir islands, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace “to all carriers” today, signalling an end to its long-standing ban on Israeli flights over its territory, another key step toward normalizing bilateral relations during Biden’s visit to the region. Saudi Arabia will now allow Israeli planes to pass through its airspace and even charter flights between the two countries to facilitate access for Israeli Muslim pilgrims to Mecca, senior officials have suggested.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said U.S. President Joe Biden welcomes Saudi Arabia’s decision to open its airspace to all civilian air carriers, including flights to and from Israel.
In a Twitter message hours before Biden became the first U.S. leader to fly directly from Israel to the kingdom, Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate of Civil Aviation said it was announcing “the decision to open the kingdom’s airspace to all carriers, which meet the requirements of the H.Q. for overflight’.
Tiran and Sanafir Islands
Tiran and Sanafir are located in the 13 km wide Strait of Tiran in the Indian Ocean between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is a narrow shipping lane that is the entrance to the Red Sea from the Jordanian port of Aqaba and the port of Eilat in Israel.
During the Suez Crisis in 1956, the two islands in the Strait of Tiran were temporarily occupied by the Israeli military. As a result of the Six-Day War in 1967, the territories once again came under the control of the Jewish state. Their return to Egyptian jurisdiction took place in 1982. On one of the islands, there are positions of international observers who monitor compliance with the peace treaty (Camp David Accords) between Egypt and Israel. The latter is a player whose interests are affected by the status of the lands as ships leaving the Gulf of Eilat (Gulf of Aqaba) move through Tiran and Sanafir. Despite the general agreement with this deal, the Israelis still had questions about the details.
Despite the fact that Cairo agreed to the alienation of strategically important territories five years ago as part of bilateral agreements with the Saudis on the delimitation of maritime borders, several points of the deal still remain the subject of controversy.
One of the important questions around the “island” deal will also be whether Egypt can receive compensation. The adoption of an agreement on the demarcation of maritime borders with Saudi Arabia, which assumed the alienation of Tiran and Sanafir, led five years ago to the indignation of the Egyptian public. In different cities of the Arab Republic, protests against territorial concessions were repeatedly held. Moreover, Cairo’s consent to the transfer of islands in the Red Sea, according to experts, outraged the army circles, which are the backbone of Egyptian power. So an attempt to expand the Abraham Accords will require the Biden administration to be attentive to the needs of all three regional allies.
High stakes for the U.S.
In these months, the White House has been working on a Biden trip to Saudi Arabia, which will give the U.S. president the first chance since the inauguration to speak directly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. The focus of the American leader and his team on the kingdom’s human rights violations, the persecution of Saudi dissidents, and the humanitarian consequences of the bloody war in Yemen significantly undermined the ruling house’s confidence in its traditional ally, which led not only to Riyadh’s refusal to stand in solidarity with the position of Western countries in the context of the Ukrainian crisis but also to his unwillingness to coordinate with the United States issues around the level of oil production.
The White House sees control over oil production as the key to stabilizing fuel prices in the United States, the fluctuations of which are reflected in Biden’s ratings.