Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Sinai development syndrome

Today’s uneven pattern of development in Sinai is attributable to a conventional and partitioned approach to knowledge of the Peninsula, writes Ahmed Shams

Al-Ahram Weekly

When it comes to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, there is little agreement and much argument among scholars and policy-makers. Disagreements come to the fore as regional struggles develop.

Sinai is well known to academics as being simultaneously positioned as a buffer zone and peace front in the Middle East, and as a world-renowned tourist destination. These stereotypes have been responsible for Sinai’s setbacks as well as its successes.

They might have been produced over 150 years ago, and the words of Frederick Whitmore Holland of the Palestine Exploration Fund, uttered in 1869, still reflect the dilemma of development in Sinai and its reliance on a conventional approach to knowledge-making.

“There are many people, I believe, who have concluded that the Peninsula of Sinai must already have been a well-explored country, since so many travellers have visited it,” Holland commented.

“But owing to various local causes there is probably no other country in which travellers have been led to carry out more fully their ovine propensity to follow exactly in each other’s steps.”

Holland’s statement holds true to a great extent for today’s scholars, profit and nonprofit organisations, and tourists alike. Yes, we know more than ever about Sinai, but most of our information is sourced from the same conventional axes of knowledge and follow the same geography of movement, old and new, based on caravan routes and main roads.

The question of accessibility is typical of all remote areas, but Sinai is exceptional in this regard. There have been many scholars (over 200-plus years) and tourists (over more than 40 years) who have visited the territory, yet with few exceptions they have been reluctant to leave the well-worn routes and travel inland to document their studies and experiences.

Today’s uneven pattern of development in the Sinai Peninsula is directly attributable to such a repetitive and partitioned approach to knowledge.

In economic terms, Sinai is described as being divided into three belts, all delineated by boundaries that represent the conventional axes of knowledge. There is a northern agricultural zone, a southwestern mining and oil zone, and a southeastern tourism zone. A fourth, the western industrial and logistics zone along the Suez Canal, has also been outlined in Egypt’s strategic plans as a leading investment in the New Suez Canal project.

Consecutive governments in Egypt have partially implemented their plans for local community development in Sinai along these same axes of economic potential and knowledge.

So what is strategically wrong about a national focus on zones that are defined by their economic potential and informed by a certain kind of received wisdom? The southern and northern geographies of Sinai give us two clear examples of successes that have led to more successes and setbacks, and to deep setbacks with very few successes, respectively.

 There is no doubt that consecutive governments in Egypt have succeeded in establishing Sinai as a world-famous tourist destination along the Gulf of Aqaba since 1987, and as a glorious coastline offering a glamorous yet affordable tourist paradise for urban respite, led by Sharm El-Sheikh in the southeastern tourism zone.

They have also successfully exploited natural resources along the Gulf of Suez in the southwestern mining and oil zone. However, these same governments have not succeeded in establishing permanent communities within both zones, as planned since 1979-1985.

 The strategic setback here is that these highly concentrated and geographically unbalanced successes have, without questioning their efficiency, acted as social and economic attraction points for migration. This has led to the depopulation of inland communities while leaving other communities without tangible development or the ability to migrate to the new economic zones due to a lack of basic skills and education.

Despite this, communities in southern Sinai are relatively well off when compared to their neighbours in the north. This area, where two thirds of the Peninsula’s population (roughly half a million people) live, particularly in the eastern section, has been left with far fewer options compared to the south, as little has come out of the agricultural plans in the northern agricultural zone, apart from the absence of a sustained attempt to develop the zone’s tourist potential.

No major permanent communities have been established, and this, in addition to the absence of social and economic attraction points, has left the population subject to crossborder national and international concerns. Following Sinai’s conventional axes of knowledge and development, with all their successes and setbacks, has thus led to inland depopulation and security concerns.

NOT A CONTINUOUS PROCESS: Two main causes lie behind today’s knowledge production on Sinai, which has led to a conventional approach towards the peninsula’s development in terms of previous international incentives and support.

First, there has been a lack of permanently based specialists from different backgrounds who have been given the opportunity to study and update information gathered along the conventional axes of knowledge and to identify fresh and unconventional perspectives.

With only a few exceptions, development projects attached to Sinai have been implemented as “instant events”, rather than as part of a continuous process and as events that might compromise a given research study, project, national or international fund, or publication. They have often lacked proper follow-up or audits by implementing or grant-making organisations, whether national or international.

Accordingly, the vast majority of those working in Sinai have had only a passing interest in the peninsula, rather than a continuous one, and have mostly delivered their expertise along conventional axes of knowledge and development. The latter have been widely represented in consultancy processes, which, while necessary, have been carried out at the expense of permanently based and specialised governance.

Another linked feature has been the national struggle to balance the need for development investments and governance decentralisation in Sinai as long overdue matters, on the one hand, with security threats to a vast and largely unpopulated area as a consequence of previous and continuing crossborder matters, on the other.

Sinai played a key role in warfare in the Middle East before it became a peace front between Egypt and Israel. This has also encouraged post-war Egyptian governments to focus on centralised governance.

From war and peace in the Middle East, we come to the second most widely covered issue related to Sinai that is seen on a daily basis in Egypt on news and talk shows, blogs and social networks across the political spectrum.

In the field of popular media and culture the production of a series of widespread stereotypes about Sinai can be seen, describing it using generally negative ideas and emphasising security matters, giving the impression of a nearly total setback in the area. The media coverage of Egyptian military operations against terrorists in the remote northeast of Sinai is the most obvious current example of this sort.

The authors of this kind of knowledge find wide platforms to present all sorts of political theories that are harmful enough to turn potential investment funds, directly or indirectly, towards political and security stabilisation rather than towards continuous development.

Moreover, these arguments, presented through distant knowledge about Sinai that is pretending to be local, are becoming increasingly popular. Their authors often follow a similar pattern, starting with a particular historical period and/or a particular historical event that provides a favourable argumentative position for conclusions that are less reasonable or have a weaker scientific or evidence-based rationale.

Unfortunately, this approach appeals to the national and international public and continues to hinder efforts towards lasting improvements in the region, both in terms of security and in terms of achieving more long-term development goals.

AN INLAND RESEARCH CENTRE: Today, the most common conclusion among the Egyptian public and private media regarding Sinai is the call for a balance between Sinai’s development and security concerns, accompanied by statements about serious steps towards long-delayed national targets.

The idea of a research-based field unit in the Sinai Peninsula for development purposes, as argued for in this article, dates back to the 1930s and 1940s and has even been implemented in northeast Sinai by consecutive governments in the form of experimental farms and laboratories.

There has also been a temporary field-research school in south-central Sinai since the 1970s, while the permanent and currently underfunded National Parks Programme, established in the 1980s in south Sinai, has also hosted national and international scholars carrying out research.

However, these initiatives have been sporadic and have mostly operated along conventional axes of knowledge and development. Today, the region, especially inland (the desert and mountain areas), still lacks a research centre that would be able to host permanent specialists and facilitate the reaching of long-term development and research targets by providing a space for study, analysis, monitoring and advanced record-keeping and databases.

Such an inland research centre in Sinai would answer national and international concerns and correct widespread misconceptions and unconstructive mass media and project approaches towards the inland desert and mountain areas of the peninsula.

It would offer a chance to create in-depth perspectives on Sinai and establish and implement a locally based model for the development of remote desert and mountain areas across the peninsula through its main offices and regional headquarters (in the initial phase) and by involving and empowering local people.

It would be able to build upon and move away from conventional axes of knowledge and development to create and expand unconventional ones. It would be a multi- and intra-disciplinary establishment, well linked to both national and international research institutions and supporting the social and economic stabilisation of remote inland local communities on a research basis, in addition to allowing their better integration on conventional ax

It would offer extensive research facilities and a library and development database, in addition to providing visiting scholars with accommodation and logistical advice, targeting an initially moderate investment with high-impact targets.

Such a research centre would be a challenging and highly demanding, yet ultimately sustainable, project of interest to both the national and international community. Given the urgency and importance of the region, it would act as a vital platform to help change and challenge conventional images of the desert and mountain areas of the Sinai Peninsula and resolve their development dilemmas.


The writer teaches at Durham University in the UK and is an editorial board member at the Canadian Centre of Science and Education and a former researcher at the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies and the EURAC-AlpEnv Institute for Alpine Environment.

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