The Saudis and Egypt recently signed an intriguing deal – in exchange for billions of dollars in largesse, Egypt transferred to Saudi sovereignty two islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. Using these islands, the Saudis will build a bridge between the two countries, which will aid in trade and travel – the latter important to relieve ferry congestion during the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca.
There is a back story, of course, and it marks the growing willingness to publicly accept Israel as a de facto member of the Status Quo Bloc – the trajectory of the region is forging a reluctant pragmatism among those who fear losing…
The back story is that the islands used to belong to the Saudis, but were transferred to Egypt in the 1950s as a way to threaten Israel. Egypt positioned troops on the islands and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, which was an indirect cause of both the 1956 Suez crisis and the 1967 Six Day War.
Israel captured the islands in both wars, handing them back each time. Part of the conditions of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was that Egypt was not allowed to transfer the sovereignty of any of the lands Israel had captured in the 1967 war and handed back.
But Israel hasn’t complained about the transfer of sovereignty to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, its Defence Minister has revealed that not only was Israel consulted, it has received written assurances from the Saudis, Egypt and the US that Israel will retain the right of navigation for its commercial ships and navy to sail through Saudi wAters and under a Saudi bridge.
I have written in the past that Israel is a de facto member of the Status Quo Bloc. Its strategic interests are similar to full-blown members like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But this willingness of the latter two countries to openly (if still underhandedly) enter into an arrangement with Israel shows that, with the US increasingly disinclined to deal the
with the Middle East, Middle East actors are increasingly taking care of themselves – and this includes realising the pragmatism required to enter into this arrangement.
I’ve written in the past that US President Obama’s Middle East policy is premised on the US purposefully distancing itself from its troublesome friends (in order to force more accommodating behaviour), and becoming closer to its enemies. I’ve long been very dismissive of the policy, but maybe, just maybe, Obama had the outcome – more self-reliant actors – in mind all along. I’m hesitant to entertain the idea, because it would allow acceptance that Obama is a strategic genius and more ruthless than Machiavelli (as many thousands of people will die as a result of his policies). But maybe it’s true.
For the record, even if it is true, and even if Obama foresaw what has happened, I still think it’s a bad idea, as actors absolutely opposed to American interests (i.e. Iran and Russia) are better off as a result. But if Obama really is this generation’s Machiavelli, he is a genius.