JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – US President Joe Biden announced on Friday the planned withdrawal of a multinational observer force that has secured two islands in the Red Sea for more than forty years. This would allow them to be transferred from Egypt to Saudi Arabia in a US-brokered agreement that includes steps by Riyadh toward normalizing relations with Israel.
Hours after arriving here on a direct flight from Israel, Biden said that US forces and other foreign soldiers have served on one of those islands, Tiran, since the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, but that they would leave by the end of the year. .
The President declared, “We have made a historic deal to turn a flashpoint in the heart of the Middle East’s wars into a zone of peace.” “Now as a result of this penetration, this island will be open to tourism and economic development while retaining all necessary security arrangements and existing freedom of navigation for all parties, including Israel.”
Saudi Arabia has for years sought sovereignty over the islands in order to develop them as a tourist area, and Egypt agreed to cede them, but Israel’s consent was required for the transfer to take place.
Tiran and Sanafir were previously held by Israel, and agreed to transfer them to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty on the basis that a multinational observer force was there and that it would receive guarantees of freedom of movement around the islands.
While Saudi Arabia refused to allow the observer force to remain in Tiran, it agreed to provide assurances to Israel regarding freedom of transport, which along with progress in two other steps toward normalization with the Jewish state was sufficient to persuade Jerusalem to sign. On the deal brokered by the Biden administration over the past several months.
The first of these two steps was announced Thursday evening, hours before Biden arrived in Jeddah, where he met Saudi leaders on Friday evening: The Saudi Civil Aviation Authority said it had decided to open its airspace to all air carriers, in a move. It aims to allow overflights of Israeli aircraft traveling to and from India and China.
In a speech late Friday night after bilateral meetings with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Biden described the decision to fly by Riyadh as a “big deal, not only symbolic, but substantial.”
He added, “This is the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will be a broader normalization of relations” between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The United States confirmed the second move publicly for the first time Friday night while noting that it faced complications in ending the procedure in time for Biden’s trip. As a result, the White House only said that Biden “welcomed the relevant steps under discussion to include direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for next year’s Hajj on approved carriers.”
Because the next Hajj will not be until late June 2023, the two sides will have plenty of time to finish talks on the issue beforehand.
Biden’s announcement came after he ended two highly anticipated meetings with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, at the Al Salam Royal Palace in Jeddah.
Biden has come under fire for an apparent shift in his policy toward Saudi Arabia, which he pledged as a candidate to treat as a “pariah” because of its human rights record.
In recent months, the United States has courted Riyadh in an effort to build a united front against Russia and persuade the Gulf kingdom to pump more oil to help lower U.S. gas prices and reduce European dependence on Russian crude.
The US media has focused in particular on whether Biden will shake hands with the crown prince upon his arrival at the palace for bilateral meetings. The American president contented himself with his fist, as he did with Israeli leaders upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport two days ago.
Biden said the goal of the trip was to promote Israel’s integration into the region and that successful mediation of the island’s transfer would give him a foreign policy win that the White House hopes will overshadow talk of the apparent policy reversal toward Riyadh.
While Israel has intensified its efforts to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia since the signing of normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco in the Ibrahim Accords in 2020, Riyadh has long made it clear that it will not formally recognize Israel without a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The rise of Mohammed bin Salman, seen as the furthest thing from the Palestinian cause, has slowly veered Riyadh from its historical position, but it is likely to continue as long as King Salman, the more traditionally pro-Palestinian, remains in the picture.
Salman is 86 years old and is rumored to be in poor health. It is believed that he largely abandoned the duties of governance to his son, who decided to move the island forward after years of paralysis.