A Quiet Détente Is Emerging Between Israel and the Gulf States

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and King Salman of Saudi Arabia clasp hands at Cairo airport in Egypt on April 11. The author says that one of the outcomes of their meeting, a deal over two islands in the Gulf of Aqaba, reveals a warming of relations between Israel and its Gulf state neighbors encouraged by Egypt’s Sisi. The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

The recent announcement that Egypt was returning control over Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Arabia has gotten some attention, but deserves more. It is a moment that reveals much about current Middle Eastern politics.

In 1950, the Saudis transferred control, but in their view never sovereignty, over the islands to Egypt to protect them from what it claimed was the threat of an Israeli takeover. During a visit to Egypt by King Salman this past week, control was transferred back.

(There is a reasonably fierce debate in Egypt over whether in fact President Sisi has unconstitutionally abandoned sovereign territory—or anyway as fierce as debates can be, given repression and censorship in Egypt.)

During the past few years we have heard repeatedly that relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab states were greatly improved because today they have common enemies in Iran and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), and a common concern about the disappearance of American hegemony in the region. What happened with the two islands this week is proof that the improved relations really do exist.

For one thing, Saudi Arabia has apparently agreed to respect the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. When that treaty was signed in 1979, the Saudis denounced it and broke relations with Egypt. Times have changed.

The treaty contains this clause:

The Parties consider the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba to be international waterways open to all nations for unimpeded and non-suspendable freedom of navigation and overflight. The parties will respect each other's right to navigation and overflight for access to either country through the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba.

So the Saudis are implicitly but clearly guaranteeing that they will not interfere with Israeli use of the Gulf of Aqaba, which provides access to the Israeli port city of Eilat.

Moreover, there is much talk of a bridge over the Gulf of Aqaba, from Sinai to Saudi Arabia. Discussions of this potential construction have apparently taken place, and Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia seem to be acting like…neighbors. That is, common sense is prevailing, rights are being respected, and while Israel and Saudi Arabia have no direct public contacts at all, they are able to communicate and get business done.

This is a huge change, and of course a welcome one—though the background story of their common fears about American policy and the growing power of common enemies is not at all comforting.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.