Egypt’s official newspaper Al-Ahram said Monday that Cairo had consulted with Israel before announcing Sunday that it was turning over control of the islands of Tiran and Snapir (Sanafir) to Saudi Arabia – essentially giving the Saudis control over the Straits of Tiran, the sea passage to Eilat and Aqaba, and strategically located near the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal, through which oil from Saudi Arabia – and soon, from Iran – is transported to Europe.
The announcement, in which Egypt declared that the two islands were actually in Saudi Arabian, not Egyptian, waters was made on the occasion of a visit to Egypt by Saudi King Salman Al-Aziz over the weekend. According to the report, the Saudis promised to honor the provisions of the Camp David Accords, to allow free passage of Israeli ships through the Straits of Tiran. However, the Accords also forbade Egypt from placing any military forces on the island, and it is not clear that the Saudis have agreed to this.
The two islands, along with the rest of Sinai, were conquered twice by Israel – in Operation Kadesh in 1956 and in the Six Day War in 1967. In the latter war, it was the closure of the Straits of Tiran by then-Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser to Israeli shipping that was the immediate trigger to the start of the war, as such closures are recognized under international law as acts of war.
Channel Two disputed the Egyptian report, saying that its sources maintained that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had sought to quash the move, but failed. With that, Netanyahu proclaimed Sunday night that Israel’s relations with Egypt “have never been better,” and that the two countries cooperated on a wide range of security issues.
Egypt took control of the islands in the early 1950s, when the Saudis handed them over to Egypt in order to “supervise” shipping in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Israeli officials quoted on Channel Two said that Egypt had taken this move now because it was likely in great need of cash, which the Saudis are willing to give – for a price.