Saudi Arabian forces have replaced Egyptian troops on Tiran Island, marking the first step in the handover over of two Red Sea islands ceded to the Gulf kingdom in a 2016 border agreement, according to a Western diplomatic source.
The deployment of Saudi forces is intended to remedy the unclear legal position of Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) personnel on the island, the diplomat, whose home country is involved with the MFO in Sinai, told Mada Masr in late January, speaking on condition of anonymity. MFO forces were stationed on Tiran to implement the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. However, since Egypt transferred sovereignty of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi as part of a controversial maritime border agreement, the island is no longer subject to the treaty.
Prior to the stationing of Saudi troops, another Western diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Mada Masr that there appeared to be three solutions to the murky legal position of MFO troops on Tiran Island. Either MFO and Egyptian forces would depart the island altogether, they would remain with Saudi approval or the 1979 treaty would be amended with a legal addendum allowing for the stationing of Saudi forces alongside MFO, which is the scenario that appears to be coming into effect.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman announced the first planned Saudi project on the two Red Sea islands in October of last year. The project, an economic zone that will span over 26,000 square kilometers on both islands, is also set to include a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and is scheduled for completion in 2025.
The initial agreement to cede the islands, signed in April 2016, was followed by a legal contest that opened onto several fronts. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified the agreement in June 2017, however, two conflicting verdicts regarding the handover remain. The Supreme Constitutional Court is set to deliberate on March 3 between the Supreme Administrative Court’s January 2016 ruling, which stated the islands were Egyptian and that the agreement was null, and a ruling issued by the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters in favor of the agreement in April that year.