An interesting proposal emerged in April involving two near-neighbours, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Separated by the Gulf of Aqaba, with Israel sandwiched between them in the north, the two countries have agreed to construct a bridge over the Red Sea. The King of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, told reporters the news while on an official trip to Cairo. During the visit, the Egyptian President, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, presented King Salman with the highest honour of Egypt, the Order of the Nile. Previous holders include Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II.
While the news accompanied other items such as investment and trade agreements, the significance of the bridge proposal is in its timing. From Egypt’s point of view, strengthening its relationship with Saudi Arabia means accessing capital and infrastructural investment for the southern part of the Sinai. As a region, the Sinai Peninsula is a strategically significant space for governments in Cairo and Tel Aviv. Encompassing around 23,000 square miles of territory, it was the subject of military conflict in 1956, during 1967 to 1970 and in 1973. As late as 1982, the Israeli armed forces had a military presence in the area following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. As part of the terms and conditions struck by the 1979 peace treaty involving Egypt and Israel, there are observers and a multinational force in place designed to ensure that the treaty’s stipulations regarding force build-up/military preparation in the four monitoring zones are respected.
Recently, the Sinai has proven problematic for other reasons and has had a deleterious effect on tourism in particular. There have been terrorist attacks against both Egyptians and international visitors, the most recent involving the downing of a Russian charter jet in October 2015, which led to the killing of 224 people. While there continue to be arguments about what determined the fate of Flight 9268, the overall security situation in Sinai remains tense. The region suffered further instability from the collapse of the Libyan and Egyptian governments of Gaddafi and Mubarak respectively. Since 2010, the Egyptian authorities have been battling against militants mainly in northern Sinai and an added complication has been clashes with groups interested in maintaining smuggling tunnels between Gaza and the Sinai.
“While the deal might be good for Egypt, Israeli naval experts worry that the bridge would compromise the security of the port of Eilat”
While most of the unrest and killings have occurred in northern Sinai, the deal to build a bridge with Saudi Arabia is not a new initiative, but it is one fraught with difficulty. Environmentalists are already greatly concerned about the potential damage it will cause to the marine ecosystems it will pass through, while Israel and Jordan have both expressed security concerns about the proposal.
There are essentially two geopolitical factors at play – one local, one extra-regional. Locally, the proposal is controversial because of physical geography. Located at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, there are two islands with a curious geopolitical history. Tiran and Sanafir effectively separate the Gulf from the Red Sea. In 1950, Saudi Arabia consented to Egypt occupying the islands for ‘defence purposes’. In April 2016, after many years of negotiation, Egypt has agreed that the islands do indeed fall under the jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia and that it was time to formalise that understanding through a legal agreement. In return for the agreement, the Saudi monarch offered an investment package that included the bridge project.
While the deal might be good for Egypt, Israeli naval experts worry that the bridge would compromise the security of the port of Eilat. Would militants use the bridge to attack Israeli vessels passing underneath? Would the bridge interfere with freedom of overflight? Context is everything here because in 1967, Egypt did indeed attempt to block Israeli access to the Gulf of Aqaba.
But there is more to the bridge project than local geopolitics. More generally, the promise of Saudi investment into Sinai needs to be seen in a wider geopolitical context. Saudi Arabia is spending more on defence and is currently involved in a violent and controversial conflict in Yemen, attacking rebel forces which are pitched against the recognised government in Sana’a.
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while rooted in deep-seated religious differences, is arguably best timed by reference to the 1979 Iranian revolution. Saudi Arabia was not alone in fearing that revolutionary Iran was intent on expanding its geopolitical influence. As such, the Saudi government supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq when it entered into a decade-long conflict with its neighbour. Paradoxically, the removal of Saddam’s Sunni-minority regime in 2003 ushered in the emergence of Shi’a-majority political parties.
Saudi Arabia recently reached out to Pakistan in its attempt to build a coalition of support again Iran. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to send financial support to Pakistani religious bodies. From an Iranian perspective, the bridge proposal might also be most unwelcome if tied to this wider geopolitical perspective. Israel and Iran, for different reasons, might find common cause.
This was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.