The “Maritime Delimitation” agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which moved whereby the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea from Egypt’s to Saudi Arabia's territorial waters, launched a new chapter in the history of the Middle East.
The strategic importance of the two islands originates from the fact that the waterway between the Sinai Peninsula and Tiran Island is the only waterway to the Gulf of Aqaba, which is in turn the only outlet to Jordan and Israel to get out to Asia and Africa. The agreement actually turns the Strait of Tiran into a multilateral international corridor after it was exclusively Egyptian. Despite symbolic and strategic value of the Strait, the proper political significance of the agreement is to enlarge the “Camp David” agreement signed in 1978 between Egypt and Israel, by getting other regional states like Saudi Arabia involved in the security regime designed in it. According to the new regional balances we are currently witnessing the emergence of an axis that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Israel in front of the another one led by Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s Calculations
Saudi Arabia fights a bitter regional conflict with Iran across the Middle East, and Riyadh badly needs a military force from outside to adjust the balance of power to its favor. For this purpose Riyadh gathered forces from dozens of Islamic countries to carry out military maneuvers. Saudi Arabia’s activities were accompanied by three unfavorable factors: first, Washington's “abandonment” of its support for Riyadh vis a vis Iran; second, the changes in international order, so there is no longer the “American dominance” as it was just few years ago; third, the decline in oil prices, which hurts badly Saudi Arabia’s ability to buy the loyalty of its own people at home and its influence abroad.
Winning Egypt's support seems a matter of urgency to Saudis, after the experience had shown that important Islamic states such as Pakistan and Turkey were not willing for an exclusive alliance with Riyadh against Tehran, especially after lifting of the economic sanctions against Iran. Since 2013 Riyadh supported the Egyptian regime financially and politically, based on the common desire to overthrow the “Muslim Brotherhood “, but the Egyptian performance in the Syrian and Yemeni crises and Egypt 's desire to form a “joint Arab force” based in Cairo shocked the decision-makers in Saudi Arabia.
The Egyptian regime found itself sucked in a deep crisis; it badly needs financial support from outside due to the deficit in the Egyptian budget, the collapse of tourism sector and the decline of the Suez Canal revenues. Lack of economic vision and the persistence of corruption networks sharpened that crisis. The Egyptian regime also needed political support after mounting international criticism of the closure of the public sphere, the suppression of freedoms and the issue of slain Italian researcher Giulio Regeni. The time was ripe - from Saudi perspective - to exploit the Egyptian deficits in order to hit several birds with one stone. First, to repeat historical precedents of the kingdom by exploiting weaknesses of neighboring Arab states to seize border gains, as Riyadh did previously with Yemen in Najran and Asir, with the UAE in the “Oasis of Buraimi”, and “Shaybah Field” and “Added bar “, with Kuwait in “Neutral Zone”, with Bahrain in “Palm fronds field” and with Qatar in “Alkhvos station”. Second, to get a Egyptian recognition of the Saudi leadership of the Arab world, by prioritizing Saudi views in the Syrian and Yemeni crisis. Third, the promised Saudi financial assistance and investments in Sinai Peninsula in return for the two islands, is linked with a bridge that connects Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
That means that Saudi Arabia is using promised investments as excellent mean to control not only the Egyptian politics, but also its national security determinations. Fourth, and most importantly, Saudis join the “Camp David” arrangements in every sense of the military's obligations regarding the Red Sea security and maritime straits (already occurred between Saudi Arabia and Israel). Riyadh is trying to reset its importance for US interest with other tools than oil and financial deposits in American banks, at least until Obama's mandate expires later this year.
Unlike Saudi Arabia calculations which are based on rational aggressive motivations, the Egyptian accounts seem to be governed to a large extent by the economic pinch and the growing international isolation. It seems that a swap with Riyadh is involved here to secure Saudi weight in order to defend the Egyptian regime in international arena. Other swaps were known previously such as appeasement with Israel in exchange for turning a blind eye to the absence of freedoms and violation of human rights at home, as well as concessions in the field of economic sovereignty by fully adopting the receipts of global finance institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The previous waiver to swap the two islands clearly carries the meaning of “national humiliation” rather than “Arab brotherhood” as Egyptian media claims.
The Egyptian media was rushing to the defense of Saudi Arabia and its “right to retake” the two islands but that was not enough to convince millions of Egyptians. Opponents of the deal raised the following questions: even if we assume that the two islands belong to Saudi Arabia, why Riyadh did not make a complaint to the Security Council after Israel's occupation of the two islands in 1956 and 1967? And why Saudi Arabia was not a party in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979, where the treaty addressed Egypt exclusively on them? If the islands were really Saudi territory, why any former president of Egypt did not conceal them back to Saudi Arabia? Can Saudi Arabia prove ownership of the islands by exercising “connec
ted sovereignty” since its foundation in 1932, albeit for one day or one hour or even one minute?
Legitimacy in Play
The Al-Sissi Regime is coming apparently to a real crisis of legitimacy, the biggest since the overthrow of the “Muslim Brotherhood” in 2013. The “Maritime Delimitation” agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia brought demonstrations back to Egyptian streets of wider political spectrums: leftist, nationalist, liberals and youth movements. The Al-Sissi regime seems to pay a high price of its legitimacy for the closure of the public domain, the lack of economic vision and for its political bankruptcy internally and regionally.