A pair of senior US officials were reportedly in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for covert talks on an agreement that could boost Washington’s ties with Riyadh while also bringing the kingdom closer to normalizing relations with Israel.
US National Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and State Department energy envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for the meetings with senior Saudi officials, Axios reported, citing three current and former US officials.
On Monday, Axios reported that the Biden administration is brokering talks aimed at finalizing the transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.
In 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi ratified a treaty to hand over the islands to Saudi Arabia. The deal withstood protests and legal challenges in Egypt but was never finalized.
The two Red Sea islands figure prominently in the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement signed in 1979, which promises safe passage to Israeli civilian and military ships through the narrow waterways of the Straits of Tiran.
As part of the 1979 deal, Egypt agreed to demilitarize the islands and allow the presence of a force of multinational observers led by the US to patrol them. Their transfer to Saudi Arabia, therefore, requires a degree of Israeli buy-in in order to move forward.
The Straits of Tiran are Israel’s only water passage from Eilat to the open sea, allowing for shipping to and from Africa and Asia without requiring passage through the Suez Canal, as well as passage to and from the Suez Canal.
Nonetheless, Israel offered its principled approval for the island transfer, while conditioning it on an agreed-upon solution regarding the multinational observer force, Axios reported, citing US and Israeli sources.
The multinational squad turned into a main sticking point in the talks, as Riyadh agreed to keep the islands demilitarized while thus far rejecting such a force on its territory, the report said. Riyadh instead offered a commitment to maintaining full freedom of navigation for ships through the Straits of Tiran.
Israeli negotiators showed willingness to forgo the multinational force but asked for alternative security arrangements, according to the report.
Jerusalem is also asking that Saudi Arabia take a number of steps toward normalizing ties with the Jewish state — namely allowing additional Israeli flights to use Saudi airspace and allowing direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia so that Muslims can easily travel to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from Ben Gurion Airport.
After the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, Saudi Arabia began allowing Israeli airlines to use its airspace for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain. But Israel has not yet received such access for flights to India, Thailand and China, which are significantly longer as a result.
While Riyadh gave its blessing to client states UAE and Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel, it has refrained from taking the same step, saying it would not do so absent a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Asked about the Axios report on Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan didn’t deny it, but said Riyadh was not prepared to normalize ties with Israel at this stage.
“We have always seen normalization as the end result for a path. Normalization between the region and Israel will bring benefits but we won’t be able to reap those benefits unless we are able to address the issue of Palestine,” bin Farhan said. “The fact it remains unresolved continues to bring significant instability to the region. The priority needs to be how to push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and if it happens it will benefit the whole region.”
The US believes an agreement on the islands could also build trust between Israel and Saudi Arabia that is needed for more far-reaching steps toward normalization.
The White House is hoping to broker an agreement before US President Joe Biden’s expected trip to the region late next month. A date has not been set, and the White House has only confirmed that the president will be coming to Israel, but CNN reported last week that US officials are seeking to organize a meeting between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Washington has slowly sought to improve ties with Riyadh after Biden came down hard on the latter and its crown prince during his election campaign over the country’s human rights record and the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
But as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to rock the global energy market, the US is finding itself increasingly reliant on Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter.