U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to the Middle East, during which he is expected to advance the establishment of a regional framework for defending Israel and its neighbors from Iranian aggression, should not be seen as a revolutionary breakthrough. It is the next logical step in an unhurried, gradual process of rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Arab world.
The context of the defense pact is the slow but steady trickle of reports in recent months concerning a renewed American interest in engagement with its allies in the Red Sea basin. When assessed together, the reports indicate the tantalizing possibility that—due to a shared desire to confront the threat of a nuclear Iran—Israel and its neighbors in east Africa and the Middle East are heading towards new era of normalization and economic cooperation. Given that the Red Sea basin is home to some of the poorest and least-developed places in the world, Israeli involvement in the region would be a tremendous blessing.
Though most of Israel’s economy is focused on the Mediterranean basin, where Israel’s major seaports and cities are located. Israel is also a Red Sea country due to its southern port city of Eilat. Israel’s largest trading partners are Europe and North America, so Eilat has usually been something of an afterthought. However, the events of recent years have opened up exciting and previous unthinkable possibilities for growth in Eilat and beyond.
Until the 2020 Abraham Accords, the only Red Sea countries that had formal relations with Israel were Eritrea, Egypt and Jordan. Since then, the situation has changed dramatically.
First, the United Arab Emirates, though not technically a Red Sea country, has significant financial interests in the region as well as a strong military presence, particularly in connection with the ongoing war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Second, Sudan, which has hundreds of kilometers of underdeveloped Red Sea coastline, signed on to the Abraham Accords and is working to normalize relations with Israel.
Finally, Saudi Arabia, though not an official party to the Accords, has quietly agreed to support the Arab countries that are. This was made clear when the Saudis gave permission to open its airspace to commercial travel between Israel and the Gulf states.
In November 2020, shortly after the announcement of the Abraham Accords, reports surfaced that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had flown to the new Saudi city of Neom on a private jet for secret talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. While officially denied by the Saudis, the meeting and its location are significant.
Neom (translated as “new future”) is the ambitious flagship project of Bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” initiative. The initiative is intended to move Saudi Arabia from an oil-based economy towards tourism, research, innovation and sustainability. Given that this proposed economic pivot will benefit from collaboration with Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, it is not inconceivable that the Saudis are keen on partnering with Israel. The Jewish state, after all, is the Saudis’ only Red Sea neighbor with a fully developed economy, and is a technological powerhouse. Tellingly, in May 2022 The Wall Street Journal reported that Jared Kushner, son-in-law and confidant of former U.S. President Donald Trump, had raised $2 billion from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund for investment in Israeli startups.
Israeli-Arab Collaboration goes beyond a desire to enjoy access to Israeli technology. In 2021, the U.S. Defense Department moved Israel from the European Command to Central Command, meaning that the body responsible for military coordination with Israel is now the same as that responsible for America’s Arab allies. This shift was not just on paper—in November 2021, for the first time in history, the Israeli Navy participated in a U.S.-led naval exercise in the Red Sea that also included the UAE and Bahrain. Countries that don’t have formal relations with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and Pakistan, also participated. Israel’s participation in this coalition is a further indication of Israel’s integration into the international security regime in the Red Sea region.
The U.S.-led efforts to advance regional peace and security advanced a step further in April 2022, when the U.S. Navy announced what it called a “New International Naval Task Force to Enhance Red Sea Security.” An official press release said the task force would be headquartered in Bahrain and focus on “international maritime security and capacity-building efforts in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb and Gulf of Aden.”
A further hint that the U.S. is looking to bolster its influence in the Red Sea region was found in an article published on May 18, 2022 by The South China Morning Post. It reported that the U.S. Navy was looking to gain access to Somaliland’s Berbera port, located in the strategic Gulf of Aden at the entrance to the Red Sea, as an alternative to its military base in Djibouti, which is increasingly under Chinese influence.
Finally, in a recent Axios report, it was revealed that the Biden administration has recently been attempting to mediate between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on the transfer of two strategic islands in the Red Sea, at the entrance to the Gulf of Eilat, from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty. The islands, named Tiran and Sanafir, control the Straits of Tiran—a strategic sea passage to the ports of Aqaba and Eilat. The Saudis and the Egyptians claim that Saudi Arabia gave Egypt control of the islands in 1950. After they came under Israeli rule following the 1967 Six-Day War, they were demilitarized as part of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
As Tiran and Sanafir must be demilitarized and monitored by a multinational force of observers as part of the treaty, any new arrangement would require Israeli approval. Israel did not object to the move when it was announced in 2017, but the transfer was never finalized because the specific arrangements were never agreed on. Among other issues, the Saudis want to end the multinational observer force and Israel, while it does not object in principle, expects to receive alternative security arrangements in return. Additionally, according to Axios, Israel has asked Saudi Arabia to allow Israeli aircraft to use Saudi airspace to reach eastern destinations beyond the Gulf. It also wants direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for the benefit of Israel’s Muslim citizens who want to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Stabilizing the security situation in the Red Sea basin would be only the first benefit of Israel’s integration into the region. Economic opportunities are what make this new reality so exciting. Israel’s trading partners around the world have already reaped the rewards of investing in and implementing Israeli technological solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing challenges. Israel’s immediate neighbors thus stand to benefit greatly from deeper collaboration and economic integration.
Moreover, Eilat is a vibrant, modern city positioned for rapid growth in the years to come. Besides its tourism-oriented economic base, it is also quickly becoming a global leader in clean energy, water technologies, sustainability, marine biotechnology and aquaculture. What makes Eilat all the more remarkable is that it has achieved all of its success with a mere 12 kilometers of exposed coastline at its disposal. Neom, in stark contrast, is intended to encompass a staggering 26,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of Israel itself—with 460 kilometers of Red Sea coastline to work with. As for Sudan, it has not even begun to scratch the surface of the potential of its hundreds of kilometers of pristine coastline.
Change happens slowly in the Middle East, and Israel should move cautiously in the direction of cooperation and integration, with a view towards maximizing its own geopolitical position. That said, with peace and cooperation between all parties, the Red Sea can move away from being an area of global conflict and enter into a new era of commerce, prosperity and economic development. With Israel’s growing relationship with Egypt and budding ties with Sudan, normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is the final hurdle in the path toward unlocking the Red Sea basin’s virtually limitless potential.
Elie Kirshenbaum is a corporate lawyer in Tel Aviv and a member of the IDSF Research Department. The views expressed are his own.