Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Tiran-Sanafir: Redrawing maps and regional roles

Egypt officially cedes two islands to Saudi Arabia, unleashing fierce legal, historical and political debates, Amira Howeidy reports

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Al-Ahram Weekly

This week Egyptians were reminded of two Red Sea islands, rich with rare and ancient coral reefs the moment they were being handed to Saudi Arabia.

The two islands — Tiran and Sanafir — lie in the narrow sea passage between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, separating the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea. And now, according to a 9 April statement issued by the cabinet, they fall squarely within Saudi maritime waters.

According to the statement, the decision to cede the islands to Saudi Arabia came after a six-year process of studies and 11 rounds of negotiations. The decision, which must be presented to the House of Representatives for ratification, was announced during a five-day visit by the Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz who signed 20 agreements with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Under one of them Riyadh will provide Egypt with petroleum supplies over the next five years to the tune of $23 billion, which Egypt will be able to pay for over 15 years and at a preferential interest rate of just two per cent.

Few Egyptians will have visited the islands which lie 6km from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. But for those who remember Tiran and Sanafir from their sixth grade textbooks, the islands were always Egyptian. Others — and they are many — who have never heard of them may have followed the storm the news provoked on social media where an abundance of historical maps, dating from the 19th century, have been posted. The maps, which all place the islands under Egyptian administration or sovereignty, are probably enough to convince them of their Egyptianness.

The Foreign Ministry has released its own series of documents supporting the government’s decision by showing that Tiran and Sanafir are indeed Saudi Arabia’s. Most of the 14 documents are official telegrams and letters which refer to Egypt’s occupation of the two islands —with Saudi Arabia’s blessing — in 1950. The occupation was a response to Israel’s 1949 seizure of the Egyptian-Palestinian border town and port of Um Al-Rashrash, now the Israeli port of Eilat, on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba.

The documents include a 1990 presidential decree demarcating maritime boundaries which the Foreign Ministry says do not include the two islands, and a letter dating from 1988, from Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister addressed to his Egyptian counterpart Esmat Abdel-Meguid, requesting they resolve the issue of the islands which has been pending since 1950. In response, Abdel-Meguid accepts Saudi sovereignty but says he is also bound by the security arrangements of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, which includes the two islands.

The peace agreement places Tiran and Sanafir in Area C, restricting the Egyptian security presence to a lightly armed police force. The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), a peacekeeping force established in 1981 to supervise the implementation of the security provisions and monitor navigation through the Straits of Tiran, has a manned outpost on Tiran.

For the past four days much airtime has been devoted to discussing the documents that supposedly prove Saudi Arabia’s right to the islands while the barrage of maps circulating on social media, where advocates of Egypt’s historical rights to Tiran and Sanafir have been very active, have been ignored. One of them, showing Egypt’s borders at the height of Mohamed Ali’s (1805-1848) empire, which extended to Mecca and Medina — modern Saudi Arabia was only created in 1932 — naturally includes the islands. A map of Sinai drawn during Napolean Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt (1798-1801) also includes them. Another document, a 1982 official decree by Egypt’s interior minister, stipulates the formation of an Egyptian police unit on Tiran affiliated with South Sinai’s police station.

The debate shows no signs of waning. Calls have been made to protest against what critics say is the government’s giving up of Egyptian land in return for Saudi aid on Friday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“The public was kept in the dark and therefore has little knowledge of the island’s legal status,” says Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed, a professor of political science in Cairo University. The timing of the announcement during King Salman’s visit was interpreted as the act of a debtor, even though the islands belong to Saudi Arabia, he adds.

The public “should have been prepared”, says Al-Sayed. “It doesn’t help that this has happened at a time when confidence in the government is waning because of a host of other issues.”

For those old enough to remember, Tiran is associated with Egypt’s worst military defeat in modern history by Israel. In the run-up to the 1967 war, when Egypt and Israel had both declared public mobilisations, president Gamal Abdel-Nasser blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships on 22 May and declared that if Israel wants to go to war “we’re ready”.

On 5 June Israel attacked Egypt, destroying the bulk of its air force. By 10 June Israel had occupied Sinai, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Almost six decades on and Saudi sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir marks another touchstone in Arab national security. Saudi Arabia, and not Egypt, now controls the entry to the Gulf of Aqaba where Israel’s Eilat, Jordan’s Aqaba and Egypt’s Nuweiba ports are.

Riyadh, which doesn’t have official relations with Israel, has now become a party to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement which it publicly boycotted for decades. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Israel was notified of the Egyptian-Saudi maritime agreement two weeks before it was made public and did not oppose it as long as the security arrangement in the straits of Tiran, as fixed by the peace treaty, are honoured.

During his Cairo visit Saudi Foreign Minister Abdullah Al-Jubair said Riyadh was committed to honouring the arrangement. He denied opening direct communication channels with Israel. And while Israeli officials have been quoted saying the new reality does not require amendments to the treaty, the logistics remain vague.

Observers say putting it on paper will be tough. “It will probably require a Saudi-Egyptian-US agreement that Saudi will do nothing to impact freedom of navigation, will not station military forces on the islands, and will permit MFO access to them,” says Zack Gold, non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East. “That can be done without signature by Israelis, which Saudi Arabia doesn’t want, and Israel/MFO can complain to Egypt/US if Saudi violates.”

But who will defend the islands at the event of a war with Israel, Egyptian TV host Lamis El-Hadidi asked Al-Jubair. "This is a hypothetical question," he replied, "I hope the thinking focuses on establishing a Palestinian state, not war."

As it continues to assume the mantle of regional leader, Riyadh has been taking measures to confront Iran’s expanding influence which it views as an existential threat.

“Saudi Arabia seems to have reached the conclusion that American engagement for its security [in the region] is not what it was in the past,” said Mansour Almarzoqi, a Paris-based researcher on Saudi politics. As a consequence Riyadh is developing its maritime defence capabilities, which necessitated fixing its maritime borders.

Tiran and Sanafir fall within this strategy, but the new arrangements could also herald the emergence of new alliances.

“Sooner or later Saudi Arabia will enter into a direct agreement with Israel,” which also fears Iran’s regional expansion, says Said Okasha, an expert on Israeli affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Saudi Arabia has transformed itself into “a confronting state”, he added.

Debate on the island’s ownership eclipsed otherwise compelling concerns for the already suffering tourism industry in Sharm El-Sheikh. During his visit the Saudi monarch announced that his country will build a bridge linking Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“We’re terribly concerned,” says Hisham Gabr, head of the Chamber of Diving and Watersports in Sharm El-Sheikh and an authority on the city and its coral reef ecosystem. He described a state of panic among Sharm El-Sheikh’s tourism professionals from the likely consequences of the Egyptian-Saudi maritime agreement and the bridge.

“We’re completely in the dark about how it will affect us. We don’t know where our territorial waters end now. Will Tiran be off limits?”

According to Gabr, 80 per cent of diving spots are in the Straits of Tiran, and the island itself is an important destination.

He says any bridge supported by piers in the water will damage coral reefs which are extremely sensitive to pollution and sediments. “And the distance between Tiran and Sharm El-Sheikh is 6 km, longer than the span of any existing suspended bridge.”

Because the objective of the bridge is to increase trade it will transform Sharm El-Sheikh from a resort that offers snorkelling and sunbathing to a commercial hub attracting a very different clientele, says Gabr. The city is already reeling from last October’s Russian aircraft crash, and hotel occupancy rates have fallen to 20 per cent.

“We demand to be informed of the details of this agreement and the bridge project,” he said. “Our life investments are at stake.”

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