The islands of Tiran and Sanafir are two tiny specks of land located at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba. . . . And yet, the islands continue to make headlines. In the last 70 years, they have changed hands nearly half a dozen times. This week, Tiran and Sanafir — which historically belong to Saudi Arabia but since 1950 were ruled by Egypt and twice captured by Israel — were in the news again as Cairo agreed to hand them back to Riyadh in exchange for the creation of a $16-billion investment fund.This is a bigger deal than one might imagine.
“It is very significant. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is agreeing, according to press reports, to abide by the Egypt-Israel peace treaty,” Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser, tells me. “When that treaty was signed in 1979, the Saudis denounced it and broke relations with Egypt. Now they are formally accepting it, and that means they acknowledge and will respect Israel’s rights to use the Gulf of Aqaba and pass through what are formally Saudi waters.”
“Moreover, all three parties–Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia–are acting like neighbors, agreeing (though there are still no open and direct Saudi-Israeli diplomatic contacts) on not only the islands and the Gulf but also a bridge to be built across the Gulf between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.” He sums up: “It is a remarkable demonstration of how the attitude of Arab states toward Israel is changing.”
Indeed, the island transfer is not an isolated event, Al-Monitor reports:
The recent move — the transfer of the two islands to Saudi Arabia — reveals part of the dialogue that has been developing between Israel and its Sunni neighbors.A highly placed Israeli security official, who spoke to Al-Monitor anonymously, added some details:
Israel’s relationships in the region are deep and important. The moderate Arab countries have not forgotten the Ottoman period, and are very worried about the growing strength and enlargement of the two non-Arab empires of the past: Iran and Turkey.
On this background, many regional players realize that Israel is not the problem, but the solution. Israel’s dialogue with the large, important Sunni countries remains mainly under the radar, but it deepens all the time and it bears fruit.