Tiran and Sanafir: Why Saudi Arabia wants the Red Sea islands

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7 min read
01 August, 2022
Analysis: A source of tension between Egypt and Saudi Arabia for decades, Riyadh's control of the islands will boost its strategic influence in the Red Sea and bolster the Kingdom's tourism potential.

Strategically located in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir have a complicated history in a geopolitically turbulent part of the world.

These uninhabited islands have been a source of much tension between Egypt and Saudi Arabia for decades.

Today, with Tiran and Sanafir back under Saudi Arabia’s control, these islands are set to enhance Riyadh’s position in Red Sea political governance and bolster the Saudi tourism industry’s potential.

Saudi Arabia originally controlled Tiran and Sanafir until transferring control of them to Egypt in 1950.

The Saudis did so because at the time they had no confidence in their ability to protect the islands from an expected Israeli annexation. Therefore, it was pragmatic for Riyadh to want Tiran and Sanafir under Egyptian protection.

"The most important factor related to these islands' transfer seems to pertain not to the prospects for any watershed Saudi-Israeli diplomatic accord, but instead to the Kingdom's tourism sector"

That was two years before Gamal Abdel Nasser and his army officers toppled King Farouk, and thus prior to the Kingdom beginning to perceive Egypt as a revolutionary and pan-Arab menace to the conservative Gulf monarchies.

Yet by 1957, Saudi Arabia began making US-supported claims on the islands.

Since the transfer in 1950, Egypt has exercised sovereignty over these islands, except for the two periods in which the Israelis occupied Tiran and Sanafir - first from the 1956 Suez Crisis until the following year, and then again from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war until they withdrew in the early 1980s in accordance with the 1979 Camp David Accords.

To monitor the Egypt-Israel peace deal, a Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) has been in Tiran with the mission of guaranteeing freedom of movement through the Gulf of Aqaba.

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In 2010, one year before Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising, Riyadh made its sovereign claim to Tiran and Sanifir at the UN, and Cairo consented. Six years later, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s government ceded the islands to Riyadh.

This was a sign of gratitude to Saudi Arabia, which alongside the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait provided Egypt with billions in the 2013 coup’s immediate aftermath.

This announced transfer enraged many Egyptian citizens, yet officials in Cairo maintained that Tiran and Sanafir were originally Saudi islands that Riyadh merely leased to Egypt under King Farouk. Egyptian courts had issued contradictory rulings before the country’s highest judicial body ruled in favour of the transfer in 2018.

For many groups in Egypt this has been a tough pill to swallow. “Egypt is one of those countries, and there are quite a few around the world, where the very idea of giving up a millimetre of what is considered to be national territory is the worst sacrilege imaginable,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, in an interview with The New Arab.

Red Sea islands: Why Saudi Arabia wants Tiran and Sanafir
A satellite image Tiran Island and Sanafir Island in the Straits of Tiran where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba meet on 7 April 2016. [Photo by USGS/NASA Landsat/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images]

“That's one reason why it was entirely possible for Anwar Sadat to convince Egyptians to go along with the peace treaty with Israel because it involved regaining a great deal of Egyptian territory, and that, for many Egyptians, was a value above and beyond any other,” he added.

“In this case, meaning giving up control of territory that many Egyptians had assumed was simply theirs, or didn't know about but wanted to claim anyway because why not, became an outrageous betrayal, the actual terms of the history of the transfer of control notwithstanding.”

When US President Joe Biden was in Jeddah in mid-July, he credited “months of quiet, persistent diplomacy” for securing an agreement to remove the MFO, which includes US military personnel, from Tiran with remote-controlled cameras replacing the multinational peacekeepers.

He said this will “transform an area that once sparked wars into a future hub of peaceful tourism and economic development”.

"Although this transfer will probably increase trust and diplomatic dealings between the Israelis and Saudis, it is important to avoid exaggerating the extent to which it is likely to push Riyadh closer to normalising with Tel Aviv"

Israel relations

The status of Tiran and Sanafir has recently sparked much discussion about the tacit Saudi-Israeli partnership. Some voices contend that the removal of peacekeepers from the islands could help Riyadh and Tel Aviv move toward normalising relations.

This is because, on 14 July, Israel gave its approval to the parameters of the transfer deal, in which Riyadh must commit itself to the terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords, which grants Israeli ships freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran.

That day Biden expressed his optimism about this development being a step toward normalisation in Saudi-Israeli relations. Yet, although this transfer will probably increase trust and diplomatic dealings between the Israelis and Saudis, it is important to avoid exaggerating the extent to which it is likely to push Riyadh closer to normalising with Tel Aviv.

“The current greenlight given by Israel for removing the peacekeeping force from the islands proved its confidence that Saudi Arabia does not pose a security threat, but this for itself is not much of a surprise,” said Ilan Zalayat, a Tel Aviv-based defence and political risk analyst, in an interview with TNA.

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Although Israel’s approval of this transfer will bode positively for the country’s reputation in Saudi Arabia, it would be naïve to conclude that this would be enough to change the fact that most Saudis remain staunchly opposed to the Kingdom entering the Abraham Accords.

Despite Saudi Arabia not being a democracy, public opinion is an important factor prompting Riyadh to maintain its support for the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which rests on normalisation with Israel occurring in exchange for Israel ending it occupation of Arab lands seized in 1967.

“There will also be a certain level of Israeli reputational improvement for some Saudis, who will be glad to see the islands transferred to Saudi Arabia [but] that still leaves a fair bit of negative opinion to overcome within Saudi Arabia, however,” Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at Stratfor/RANE, told TNA.

Red Sea islands: Why Saudi Arabia wants Tiran and Sanafir
The $500 billion NEOM project is set to be built from scratch along the kingdom's western coast. [Getty]

NEOM and tourism potential

The most important factor related to these islands’ transfer seems to pertain not to the prospects for any watershed Saudi-Israeli diplomatic accord, but instead to the Kingdom’s tourism sector.

Indeed, a pillar of Saudi Arabia’s grandiose Vision 2030 agenda is tourism, an industry with much potential to take off with resorts on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastline.

“In addition to influencing trade access, the islands also have been sought out for their potential as a major tourist hub,” said Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, in an interview with TNA.

“Saudi Arabia has sought control over these islands to further develop its tourism industry and establish greater influence over regional maritime passages through the Red Sea.”

These islands coming back under Saudi control is directly linked to Saudi Arabia’s plans for NEOM, a planned megacity bigger than Dubai located in Tabuk province. Tiran and Sanafir will be part of this futuristic city, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman calls a “civilizational leap for humanity”.

"Saudi Arabia has sought control over these islands to further develop its tourism industry and establish greater influence over regional maritime passages through the Red Sea"

Saudi Arabia’s ambitions vis-à-vis NEOM and the Kingdom’s tourism sector were the “original impetus for Saudi Arabia to ask Egypt to return control of their island,” according to Ibish. “It's got more to do with tourism and entertainment and building up that whole sector than national security and that kind of grand strategy.”

Nonetheless, it is important not to overlook the Israeli dimensions to NEOM and Vision 2030. Although Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords is highly unlikely, there is an “economic normalisation” between the Kingdom and Israel.

As a technologically advanced and innovative country which exists near NEOM, the Saudis are keen to benefit from what Israeli investors, businessmen, and engineers can bring to the table when it comes to Riyadh’s economic diversification agenda.

Mindful of NEOM’s difficulties in luring sufficient foreign investment, it is easy to conclude that Israeli investment in this futuristic megacity could have important commercial and political ramifications for Saudi-Israeli relations, even without Riyadh joining the Abraham Accords.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero