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Peacekeepers to leave strategic Red Sea island by year's end: White House

The future status of the Red Sea's Tiran (foreground) and Sanafir (background) islands factor into an incipient relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia
— Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) (AFP)

A multinational peacekeeping force will leave a strategic Red Sea island by the end of the year, the White House said Friday, potentially boosting opportunities for future contact between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

"International peacekeepers, including US troops, will leave Tiran island in the Red Sea where they've been for over 40 years," US President Joe Biden said in remarks during his visit to Saudi Arabia, while a separate White House fact sheet specified the timeline.

The move appeared to be a precursor to formally transferring control of Tiran and another island, Sanafir, to Riyadh, a move analysts say could spur communication between Israel and Saudi Arabia as they chart a possible path towards formal bilateral relations.

The two islands –- both barren and uninhabited –- have been a source of conflict in the past thanks to their key location at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, on which Jordan's only seaport and Israel's Eilat harbour are located.

Egypt ceded the islands, located east of its resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh, in 2016 to Saudi Arabia, which wants to develop them for tourism.

But the deal requires Israel's green light, at a time when the Jewish state and Saudi Arabia have no formal ties.

A senior Israeli official said late Thursday that Israel would have "no objection" to greenlighting Egypt handing over the islands to Saudi Arabia as a step towards any normalisation of ties between Riyadh and the Jewish state.

The issue is set to be on the agenda Saturday when Biden meets Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at a summit in Jeddah.

Tiran -- which hosts a small airport for the peacekeepers -- measures about 61 square kilometres (24 square miles), while Sanafir, to the east, is only about half that size.

The islands were under Egyptian sovereignty from 1950, but were invaded by Israeli troops during the 1956 Suez Crisis that came after Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the canal that is key to trade between Europe and Asia.

Nasser's 1967 closure of the Strait of Tiran, which cut off maritime access to Eilat and Aqaba, precipitated the Six Day War, after which Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula and the two small islands.

In 1979, the landmark Camp David peace agreement provided for Egypt to recover the territories.

As part of the Sinai's demilitarisation, Cairo was not allowed to station troops on the islands, where only peacekeepers were based.

- Final hurdle -

A Cairo-Riyadh agreement in 2016 ceded the islands to Saudi Arabia in a controversial decision that sparked nationalist protests in Egypt, which were quickly stifled.

Critics accused Sisi of giving up the islands in return for Saudi aid and investment largesse.

The government argued the islands were originally Saudi but leased to Egypt in the 1950s.

Egyptian courts handed down a series of contradictory rulings before the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the handover.

But because the issue is governed by the Camp David agreement, the status of the islands has yet to be finalised, requiring Israel to ratify the transfer of sovereignty.

It is this final hurdle that Biden could negotiate with Israeli, Saudi and Egyptian leaders this week, observers say.

The Israeli press has reported that Riyadh has pledged to keep the islands demilitarised, and to allow Israeli vessels to keep traversing the strait.

Further fuelling hopes of a deal, Saudi Arabia has vowed to honour "all existing commitments" concerning the islands, the White House said Friday.

Saudi officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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