Egypt is reportedly holding up the transfer of a pair of Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, months after the Biden administration was believed to have finalized a deal that included Riyadh opening up its airspace to Israeli airliners.
While visiting Riyadh in July, US President Joe Biden announced the planned withdrawal of a multinational observer force that has secured the islands of Tiran and Sanafir for over forty years, allowing their transfer from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.
US troops and other foreign soldiers have served on one of those islands, Tiran, since the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, but would leave by the end of the year, Biden said at the time.
But Egypt has recently begun raising new reservations over the deal, including its stipulation that cameras be installed on the islands to monitor activity there in lieu of an observer force, Axios reported Wednesday, citing four Israeli officials and one US source.
While hosting Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the White House last week, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stressed that the Biden administration wanted to see the deal implemented, the report said, adding that the observer force will remain in the interim.
Israeli officials told the news site that Egypt is holding up the agreement over its frustration with a US freeze on some military aid to Cairo.
The Biden administration has twice held up 10 percent of the over $1 billion in military aid over Cairo’s human rights record. Egypt has been pushing for the release of the remaining aid.
The White House, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the Egyptian Embassy in Washington and the Saudi Embassy in Washington all declined to comment.
Saudi Arabia has for years sought sovereignty over the islands so it can develop them as a tourist zone. Egypt agreed to relinquish them in 2017, but Israel’s approval was needed for the transfer to go through.
Tiran and Sanafir were previously held by Israel, which agreed to transfer them to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace treaty on the condition that a multinational observer force be stationed there and assurances be given for freedom of movement around the islands.
While Saudi Arabia refused to allow the observer force to remain in Tiran, it did agree to provide assurances to Israel regarding freedom of movement, which along with progress on a pair of other steps toward normalization with the Jewish state were enough to convince Jerusalem to sign off on the agreement.
The first of those two moves was announced hours before Biden arrived in Jeddah on the first-ever direct flight from Tel Aviv to the city. The Saudi Authority of Civil Aviation said it had decided to open its airspace to all air carriers, in a move meant to allow overflights by Israeli planes traveling to and from India and China.
The second step was a Saudi commitment to consider allowing direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for the next Hajj pilgrimage in June 2023.
While the US and Israel both presented the moves as steps toward normalization with the Jewish state, Riyadh has played down such a prospect, insisting that it will only forge diplomatic ties with Israel after a two-state solution with the Palestinians is reached.
And while the Saudi approval of Israeli overflights has been hailed a significant step, its practical implications have been limited, given that Oman has yet to follow suit, limiting the number of flights that can actually take advantage of a shorter route heading east from Israel.