Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

On returning Tiran and Sanafir

Al-Ahram Weekly looks at the official documents Egypt consulted before returning the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia

Al-Ahram Weekly

Al-Ahram Weekly has obtained photocopies of some of the documents that formed the basis for Egypt’s decision to delineate the maritime border with Saudi Arabia and recognise the islands of Sanafir and Tiran as Saudi territory.

The most significant of the documents is official correspondence from the late 1980s between the then Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al-Faisal, and the then Egyptian foreign minister, Esmat Abdel-Meguid. Dated 14 September 1988 and 6 August 1989, the letters reflect the clear belief of the Egyptian state and its decision-making institutions that Saudi claims to the islands were not in dispute. Rather, these claims were deferred due to timing and Egypt’s obligations under the 1979 peace agreement with Israel.

In Faisal’s letter to Abdel-Meguid, sent after the two men met on the sidelines of UN meetings in New York in early 1988, he references a moment “when you indicated you had no objection or reservation regarding the kingdom’s sovereignty over these two islands with the exception of that which may conflict with Egypt’s regional and international obligations, which dictate that no military forces be present on them.”

Faisal continued: “Here I wish to state to your excellency that the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not intend to create circumstances that could affect the path that our sister Egypt has drawn for its foreign policy. The entire matter is simply the return of the two islands after the reasons for loaning them have lapsed.”

Faisal explains that in 1950 Saudi Arabia agreed to put Tiran and Sanafir under Egyptian administration to strengthen Egyptian military defences in Sinai and the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, after Zionist gangs occupied the port of Umm Al-Rishrash (Eilat) on 29 March 1949, thus creating an Israeli presence in the Aqaba Gulf.

Faisal discusses the content of a letter sent by then President Hosni Mubarak to King Khalid bin Abdul-Aziz in 1402 AH/1981, delivered by Sudanese President Jaafar Al-Numeiri. According to Faisal, in that letter President Mubarak asked Saudi Arabia not to raise the matter of the two islands until the completion of the Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territory, to keep it an intra-Arab issue between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Faisal added that he believed the good ties between the two countries and between Mubarak and King Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz offered a fine opportunity for the Egyptian government to return Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia said that the aim of the request was to preserve stability in the region and the common interests of the two countries.

Faisal said he was confident that the matter would receive the further attention of the Egyptian government. In closing, Faisal asked that his letter and the response act as an agreement on the islands between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In a response to Saud Al-Faisal’s letter, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, in a February 1990 letter classified top secret and sent to then Prime Minister Atef Sidqi, says that he received a letter dated 14 September 1988 from Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, in which he reviewed the kingdom’s position on Tiran and Sanafir and asked Egypt to recognise the kingdom’s claim on the islands. Abdel-Meguid wrote that if Egypt believed that conditions required the islands to remain under Egyptian administration until such time as Saudi Arabia needed them, such a view would receive the attention and close consideration of the Saudi government.

The Egyptian minister added: “The Foreign Ministry examined the Saudi request in light of international law and in light of political circumstances and Egyptian-Israeli relations. In particular, the matter was discussed with Dr Moufid Shehab, the chair of the International Law Department at Cairo University. He agreed with several points that now I bring to your attention.

“In February 1950, Egypt occupied Tiran and Sanafir islands and notified the American and British governments of this position. It did so in light of attempts made by the Israeli authorities on the two islands, and the step was undertaken in agreement with the kingdom’s government. King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud sent a telegram to the Saudi minister-plenipotentiary in Cairo in February 1950 telling him that he wanted an Egyptian force on the islands of Tiran and Sanafir.”

Abdel-Meguid informed Prime Minister Atef Al-Sidqi that the two islands were subject to the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement and the protocols applicable in Area C. Since these agreements set some restrictions on Egyptian military presence, the Egyptian civilian police, outfitted with a light boat carrying light arms, was operating in the regional waters in the area, in addition to a multinational force deployed in the area. These treaties had to be respected and honoured.

Abdel-Meguid continued: “Indeed, Egypt itself has not attempted at any time to claim that sovereignty over these two islands has been ceded to it. At most, it has affirmed that it assumes responsibility for the defence of the islands, as stated in a speech given on 27 May 1967 to the Security Council by Egypt’s permanent delegate to the UN, Ambassador Mohamed Awad Al-Kony, which is tantamount to a UN document affirming Egypt’s recognition of the kingdom’s ownership of the two islands.”

Abdel-Meguid explained: “This is confirmed by Article 2 of the peace treaty with Israel, which when identifying Egypt’s eastern border, refers to the map appended in Annex 3. This map makes it clear that the two islands are located outside Egyptian territory and are part of Saudi territory, as evidenced by the fact that the colour given the islands differs from that given to Egyptian territory and coincides with the colour used for Saudi territory. This is proof that the peace treaty affirmed that the two islands are Saudi. Indeed, there is no reference in the peace agreement or its annexes to the Egyptian administration of the two islands.”

Esmat Abdel-Meguid recommended that Egypt affirm “the subordination of the two islands to the kingdom” and that Egypt did not in fact occupy them in 1950, “in order to strengthen bilateral relations and assist in the establishment of strategic ties that could culminate in the establishment of a bridge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia across the Gulf of Aqaba.”

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