Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Sinai development: From the 1980s to 2000s

Planned development of Sinai has been in progress since the late 1970s, with local communities witnessing isolated rather than steady progress, writes Ahmed Shams

Al-Ahram Weekly

Travelling through the Sinai Peninsula after the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel on 26 March 1979, one would cross temporary withdrawal lines. The land was changing hands. The Israeli-occupied Sinai was being handed back to Egypt.

Al-Arish, Abu Zeneima, Wadi Feiran/Abu Rudies, El-Tur and St Catherine are cities and towns across Sinai that saw the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the western half of the Peninsula over a period of nine months.

Back in Cairo, another agreement was in place. The Egyptian government, represented by the Ministry of Economy and Economic Cooperation (MEEC), signed an agreement with USAID for $5 million in 1979 to conduct the “Sinai Planning Studies” (known as the “National Plan for the Development of Sinai”).

The timing, development status and hoped-for quality were stressed in a letter directed by MEEC to the USAID on 16 June 1979: “The Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt, now being in a position to include the Sinai Peninsula in its national development efforts, is planning to initiate the investigation of proposed social and economic development projects and activities in this long neglected region. The studies of the proposed projects should be of professional quality to be considered for financing by international and bilateral financial institutions.”


THE 1980S: HOW IT ALL STARTED: This agreement marked the start of the involvement of international agencies and institutions in the environmental, social and economic development of the “long-neglected” Sinai Peninsula (a common phrase still in use in Egypt). This new phase was set aside from the involvement of foreign companies in oil and mineral mining businesses since the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By the time of the agreement, the land was dotted with economic pockets: limited agriculture and fishing along the Mediterranean, oilfields and mines along the Gulf of Suez, and 18 Israeli settlements in the eastern half of the peninsula, where some were involved in the new mass tourism market along the Gulf of Aqaba between 1967 and 1982. In addition, local Egyptian Bedouin communities were living on the coast and inland, practicing different types of traditional and labour activities.

What is striking about the Sinai Planning Studies is the obvious gap between their strategic nature and the missing details necessary to implement the studies at the local level. It might be argued that the main purpose of the project was to indicate where to allocate investment, as mentioned in the MEEC letter.

But there is no strong indication that local details were well considered before the partial implementation of 176 recommended projects. In other words, the success of local development projects depended totally on local authorities (South and North Sinai governorates) and investors. Local implementation was also aided by international pilot projects and temporary consultants, where and when relevant.

While the Sinai Planning Studies laid the strategic foundation, the Sinai Development Authority emerged to follow up on local community development plans and mediate between international agencies and funding institutions, local government and investors (plus NGOs).

The aim of the studies was to establish infrastructure that could accommodate a population “beyond one million” and create 313,500 employment opportunities by the end of phase III in 2000 (Sinai’s current population is 550,000). It was a very modest strategic goal, given the rapidly increasing population in Egypt and size of Sinai.

While it might be argued that this was strategically the right figure for the Sinai’s capacity, it was not the strategically right decision for what became an overpopulated Nile Valley.


THE 1990S, 2000S AND THE FUTURE: The 1990s witnessed concentrated economic booms with expanding tourism and oil and gas activities in South Sinai, and with the construction of El-Salam Canal (for agriculture) in North Sinai.

The Support for Environmental Assessment and Management Programme was the 2003-2004 strategic update of the Sinai Planning Studies for South Sinai. North Sinai governorate did not have similar programme.

The European Commission took the international strategic lead in South Sinai, with discontinuous phases up to five years each. Successes were led by the environment sector, as Egypt did not have a nature protection programme before the 1980s.

For various reason, some of the projects, including the St Catherine (Katharina) Natural Protectorate, were underfinanced by the end of the EU funding period, after the 1996-2001 phase.

The European Commission’s decision to fund local small- and medium-sized enterprises and NGOs marked a new era. It followed infrastructure projects under the South Sinai Regional Development Programme, in 2006-2010. The impact and sustainability of the adopted measures is still being tested on the ground.

The future of the Sinai Peninsula lies in Egyptian hands. Although high in potential, the strategic planning of international agencies and institutions has several timing, funding and consultancy limitations.

Most local communities have witnessed isolated periods of progress, rather than steady development levels. The success of development projects depends on the ability of Egyptian authorities, both central and local, to conduct, mediate, follow-up on and adapt studies for local implementation.

This requires qualified and specialised local authorities that are able to contribute to planning studies and transform them into programmes for the continuous benefit of local communities, Egyptian Bedouins and the Nile Valley.

The writer teaches at Durham University.

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