Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Causeway controversy

The proposed King Salman Causeway linking Saudi Arabia and Egypt is raising questions, notably over the fate of the Tiran and Sanafir islands, writes Hatem Ezz Eldin

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have agreed to re-launch a major causeway project to link the two countries. The decision came during the visit of Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz to Cairo last week. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced that he wanted to call the new project the King Salman Causeway, in appreciation of the Saudi king and his economic and political support to Egypt.

The proposed causeway will not just link Egypt and Saudi Arabia but the entire Arab world to Africa and Asia. “This historic step to connect the two continents of Africa and Asia is a qualitative transformation that will increase trade between the two continents to unprecedented levels,” Al-Sisi said.

The 50-km causeway project was first proposed in 2004. The plan then was to connect Saudi Arabia with Egypt via the Gulf of Aqaba, from the Ras Hamid area in Saudi Arabia to Ras Nassrani near Sharm El-Sheikh, at a projected cost of around $4 billion.

Egypt’s Roads and Bridges Authority, then in charge of the proposed project, said the engineering and technical aspects of the project were discussed with Saudi Arabian real-estate developer the Binladin Group, which was to have carried out the construction.

Technical studies for the bridge were completed, but for unknown reasons the project came to a halt, leading to the spread of various rumours. Reports talked of external pressure on then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to shelve the project. The project’s cancellation disappointed people in both countries. After the January 2011 uprising that toppled the Mubarak regime the causeway project came back into focus.

Experts have proposed two routes for the causeway. The first would see the project start from Nabq to Tiran via a suspension bridge and then continue with the building of another bridge to Sanafir Island and a final one from Sanafir to Tabuk’s Ras Hamid, in the northwest of Saudi Arabia. The second route proposes the starting point being from Nabq to Tiran and then directly going on to Tabuk. The second route is less expensive and could be faster in terms of implementation, experts say.

The causeway is expected to be constructed within five to seven years. It will accommodate cargo trains, as well as provide a carriageway for passenger vehicles and trucks.

The ambitious causeway project aims to boost trade between the neighbouring countries, raising bilateral trade by more than 300 per cent to around $300 billion annually. It will facilitate trade between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and help Egypt revive its ailing economy, as well as attract more Saudi visitors to Egypt, especially to the North Sinai governorate.

Nearly 1.5 million Egyptians visit Saudi Arabia each year, and 750,000 Saudis head the other way. Around two million Egyptians expatriates in Saudi Arabia will also benefit from the project. It will create tens of thousands of job opportunities for Egyptian and Saudi citizens.

The causeway will also facilitate the transportation of Saudi oil to European markets. The crude oil will pass through a pipeline into Sinai and via the Suez Canal will be linked to an Egyptian pipeline. It will then be exported to the Sidi Kareer Port, west of Alexandria, and from there to Europe.

However, there are several challenges to the project, some of which are political. Israel has said that the proposed causeway poses a strategic threat to its national security as it puts the freedom of navigation to and from the Israeli port of Eilat at risk. Israeli officials are concerned that any potential closure of the Gulf of Aqaba could lead to the outbreak of a war.

The Camp David Agreement signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979 also emphasises the right of freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran. Article V of the agreement reads: “The Parties consider the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba to be international waterways open to all nations for unimpeded and non-suspendable freedom of navigation and overflight. The Parties will respect each other’s right to navigation and overflight for access to either country through the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba.”

 Israel fears that the causeway will negatively affect the passage of Israeli shipments via the only waterway to the Red Sea. Blocking the passage of the Straits of Tiran was one of Israel’s declared reasons for the 1967 War against Egypt.

The importance of the causeway project has grown now that the legal status of the Tiran and Sanafir islands has been changed, their sovereignty shifting from Egypt to Saudi Arabia with the demarcation of maritime borders signed by the two countries during King Salman’s visit.

The two islands have been administered by Egypt but were claimed by Saudi Arabia. The 31-square-mile Tiran Island is located at the entrance of the Straits of Tiran, which separate the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba. Sanafir Island covers an area of 13 square miles and lies in the Straits of Tiran, east of Tiran Island.

The two uninhabited islands are part of Sinai’s Zone C, which is a limited military zone under the terms of the Camp David Treaty. Only multinational forces and observers (MFO) and Egyptian civil police are allowed on the islands. Egypt sent troops to Tiran and Sanafir in the mid-1950s at the request of Saudi Arabia to protect them from Israeli invasion, as the Saudi marine forces were then too weak to protect the islands.

In 1967, however, Israel occupied both islands, and maintained a military presence there until 1982, when Israel troops ended their occupation under the terms of the Camp David Treaty. While there is no clear dispute between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the question of the islands’ ownership, Saudi Arabia has wanted to conclude the demarcation of its borders with Sudan, Egypt and Jordan since 2007.

The causeway project and the legal status of the Tiran and Sanafir islands have sparked widespread public debate in Egypt over recent days, despite the official announcement by the Egyptian cabinet that the two islands belong to Saudi Arabia. The cabinet said the decision is based on a 1990 presidential decree that defined Egypt’s territorial waters, which Egypt had communicated to the United Nations in the middle of that year. It also said that a committee of experts had used advanced scientific methods to support the position.

Al-Sisi supporters have attempted to prove the validity of Saudi ownership of the islands, arguing that old agreements between the country and the former Ottoman Empire did not include any identification of marine borders. Activist and opposition groups, however, have rejected the cabinet decision and insist that both islands are part of Egypt’s sovereign territory, based on geographical information and the longstanding administrative authority Egypt has had over the islands.

 A small number of protesters gathered in downtown Cairo earlier this week to demonstrate against the decision to hand the islands over to Saudi Arabia. Some consider the plan to build the causeway a way of “giving” the islands to Saudi Arabia in return for generous Saudi investments and assistance. Egyptian and Saudi officials signed dozens of agreements during the Saudi king’s visit, including a development package for Sinai and an oil deal worth $22 billion to Egypt over five years.

Each camp has circulated its views extensively on social media, and the debate has continued on television shows. Each camp has depended on historical maps, official documents and geographical studies to present its view. A historical map in the Berlin Library shows that the two islands belonged to Egyptian territory in the 19th century, while another map in the Library of Congress in Washington shows that they were historically owned by Saudi Arabia.

Despite the fact that the demarcation of the maritime borders agreement is subject to a vote in the Egyptian parliament, critics are insisting that a referendum be held according to Article 151 of the Egyptian constitution.

But the dispute is not all about politics. There are also environmental concerns. Geologists are worried that the causeway will destroy marine resources in the region, which is extremely rich in coral reefs. Some have argued that construction of the causeway could also negatively impact protected areas, including the nesting grounds of turtles and Tiran Island sea birds.

Geologists are concerned that bringing a new trading centre to the region through construction of the causeway will also put pressure on the marine environment and its resources. Both governments have said that construction modifications have been made to avoid such problems and protect the ecosystem, but no specific details of such modifications have been released.

Some observers believe that there are enough funds and enough labour to build the project but what is needed now is perseverance and trust in our capability to overcome the environmental challenges and other concerns to turn this dormant project into a reality.

It is expected that the causeway and the issue of the islands will not lead to future political disputes between the two countries. Most likely, the debate now going on in the media will come to an end when the two parties release more details about the planned construction.

The writer is a political analyst based in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

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