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U.S. Negotiating a Deal to Transfer Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia

Tiran Island and Sanafir Island in the Straits of Tiran, January 14, 2014. AFP
Tiran Island and Sanafir Island in the Straits of Tiran, January 14, 2014. AFP

The State Department has quietly been mediating talks between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt on negotiations that could be a first step toward normalizing relations between the larger Arab countries and the Jewish State. 

According to officials, the negotiations involve the transfer of two strategic islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty. The two islands, Tiran and Sanafir Islands control the Straits of Tiran, a strategic sea passage to the ports of Aqaba in Jordan and Eilat in Israel. 

Throughout the mediation efforts, U.S. and Israeli sources have stated that Saudi Arabia agreed to keep the islands demilitarized and maintain full freedom of navigation to all ships but wanted an end to the presence of outside observers in the islands. Israeli officials have also agreed to potentially end the presence of outside observers but have asked for alternative security arrangements.

According to reports, should an agreement go through, the Israeli government also wants Saudi Arabia to take certain measures as part of broader efforts to reach a deal on several critical issues. Israeli officials have asked that Saudi Arabia allow Israeli airlines to cross more into Saudi airspace, allowing commercial airlines to shorten flights to countries like China, India, and Thailand. Additionally, the Israeli government also wants Riyadh to allow direct flights from the Jewish state to Saudi Arabia for Muslims in Israel seeking a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

In 1950, Saudi Arabia gave Egypt control of the islands and was later demilitarized as part of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty signed under Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. President Biden and officials of the administration hope to reach an agreement before the President’s upcoming trip to the Middle East in late June, which could include a potential visit to Saudi Arabia.

In June of 2017, the Egyptian government approved a deal to transfer sovereignty back to Saudi Arabia but needed buy-in from Israel because of the 1979 peace treaty. Israel approved of the transfer of the islands back to Saudi Arabia pending a deal between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on continuing to ensure that freedom of navigation in the Strait remained unhindered. In the end, the deal was never finalized, and several unresolved issues remained such as allowing multinational observers led by the U.S. to observe the Strait.

Ever since the Administration came into power, the President and his team have given Saudi Arabia the cold shoulder, upsetting one of America’s key allies in the region and instead engaging in negotiations with Saudi Arabia’s greatest rival, the Islamic Republic of Iran. With this potential plan, officials believe that this could build trust between Israel and Saudi Arabia, creating an opening to warm relations between the two countries who view Iran’s regime as the greatest threat to security and stability to both countries.

As Iran’s regime continues supporting terrorist proxy groups in Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and many other Arab states have either opened or complete normalized relations with Israel to deter against the threat of Iran. When President Trump and his administration were able to negotiate the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other Arab states, Saudi Arabia praised the agreement but indicated that it would not normalize relations with Israel unless the three was progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

With the Biden administration on track to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Tehran and economic sanctions relief on the way for the Islamic Regime, many believe that the Saudi government will strongly change its stance and move to normalize ties with the state of Israel.

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