Tiff between Egypt and Saudi Arabia endangers new Arab alliance

Back when President Trump gave his speech in Saudi Arabia during his first official trip abroad I wondered if he might be on the verge of opening the door to a new era of Arab participation in the war on terror and possibly improved relations with the west. Those hopes were stoked quite a bit when a block of Arab countries announced that they would be cooperating in just such an endeavor, but even then there were doubts remaining. Such things had been tried before and the individual nations in the region had a history of squabbling over pretty much everything except the price of oil. The alliance was already treading on shaky ground when they recently decided to isolate Qatar, but now another fight seems to be erupting.

The government of Egypt is in the midst of carrying out a deal which would return two islands in the Straits of Tiran (the stretch of water between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba) to Saudi Arabia. It seems that Egypt’s president (and the legislature which his party largely controls) is ready to turn over the islands which Saudi Arabia gave to them for protection more than half a century ago, but the public is largely and loudly opposed to the move. (Associated Press)

In a raucous and tense meeting, Egyptian lawmakers on Sunday began reviewing a disputed 2016 agreement to hand control over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, a move critics say ignores a final ruling by a high court to annul the pact.

The ratification of the pact — an almost foregone conclusion if put to a vote by the 596-seat chamber packed with supporters of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — could spark a repeat of the street protests that greeted the agreement when it was first announced in April 2016. It would likely also set the state’s legislative branch on a collision course with the judiciary. Last year’s protests, the biggest since el-Sissi took office in 2014, were foiled with the arrest of hundreds of protesters and activists, most of whom were later released.

There’s little debate over the fact that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the two biggest players in the Arab pact and if their relationship falls apart yet again it will likely scuttle much of the deal the White House has been working on. If Egypt’s president is swarmed with more massive street protests and the prospects of violence on the home front we also run the risk of further destabilization of that country. But their president, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, seems to be getting a bit heavy handed. His nation’s Supreme Court has already rejected this land deal, but al-Sissi has responded by simply ignoring them, saying, “I have nothing to do with the ruling of any court of law. These rulings are the concern of the judiciary and they amount to nil.”

That’s not exactly a formula for winning over the hearts and minds of your people.

The crazy part of all this is that the islands in question aren’t exactly prime real estate. Tiran Island is all of 31 square miles in territory. Sanfir Island is less than half that size. The beaches of both of these desolate lumps of sand and rock are rumored to be peppered with land mines. Both are uninhabited, though Tiran has room for a small helicopter base on one end and supported some troops protecting the Suez Canal back in the fifties. Sure, their position in the straits between the two nations could be considered strategic if they were ever at each other’s throats, but most of the action there historically has had to do with Arab defensive positions against Israel. (And I don’t think anyone is anticipating a new war with the Israelis any time soon.)

But this goes back to the complicated history between Saudi Arabia and Egypt I mentioned above. They’re prone to squabbling and probably don’t need much of an excuse to start up again. Egypt is only now coming out of a period of crisis and reestablishing something of a stable government. Keep an eye on this situation because it might still work out productively, but all the elements are there for a collapse in relations, and nobody in the west needs that headache.