Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

No controversy on Tiran and Sanafir

Hussein Haridy recalls his personal involvement in events that led Egypt, in the early 1990s, to officially recognise Saudi sovereignty over two Red Sea islands

The Egyptian delegation had arrived in Tunis in the second half of February 1990, headed by the late Esmat Abdel-Meguid, the then deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, to take part in an Arab ministerial commission to discuss the return of the headquarters of the Arab League to its permanent seat in Cairo. Ten years earlier, the Arab countries, in a protest at the signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, had decided to move the League’s headquarters to Tunisia.

A decade later, Egypt was back in the Arab fold and the Arabs were looking for a more stable and secure future after the ravages of the war between Iraq and Iran.

The decision to move the Arab League back to Cairo had been adopted without opposition.

While preparing to fly back to Cairo, I received a phone call from Abdel-Meguid telling me to get ready to leave on the private plane of the late prince Saud Al-Faisal, the former Saudi foreign minister, to Riyadh to hold a scheduled meeting of the joint Egyptian-Saudi Ministerial Commission headed by the foreign ministers of the two countries. Originally, we were to fly to Cairo on a commercial airliner and onwards to the Saudi capital. At the time, I was the officer in charge of Arab affairs in the cabinet of the foreign minister.

We boarded the private plane of prince Saud in an unforgettable royal flight en route to Riyadh. I remember feeling very shy in the presence of two great personalities of the two strongest Arab and regional powers in the Arab world and the Middle East back then.

The atmosphere was quite friendly; the well-known, I would rather say legendary, Arab hospitality was on display throughout the trip, and the princely demeanour of our cherished host was unmistakable. I had been one of the great admirers of prince Saud Al-Faisal, and accompanying him on his private jet was a dream that I couldn’t have imagined.

As you would imagine, I was a silent witness to the friendly conversations that took place in the air, that ranged far and wide on Arab affairs and the topics that would be discussed in the context of the joint ministerial commission between the two countries, one of which was Tiran and Sanafir.

Prince Saud, in his characteristic low voice, broached the topic diplomatically, telling Abdel-Meguid that the Saudi government had the intention of bringing it up, officially, in the meetings of the commission, and would kindly request that the Egyptian government acknowledge the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia over the two islands sitting at the southern entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba. I remember prince Saud congratulating Egypt, and Abdel-Meguid personally, on recovering Taba from the Israelis a few years earlier.

Abdel Meguid had agreed to raising the issue officially and made it clear that the Egyptian government would act accordingly.

After this once-in-a-lifetime princely flight, that had taken almost five hours, we landed in Riyadh in the evening.

The following day, the joint Egyptian-Ministerial Commission convened officially, and after the opening remarks of the two distinguished foreign ministers, the agenda of the meeting was adopted and the question of sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir was admitted, in addition to the construction of a land bridge over the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba to link the Machrak and Magreb of the geographically-divided Arab world by a land route. The then Egyptian minister of transport, Suleiman Metwalli, was present.

During discussion of the issue of Tiran and Sanafir, prince Saud had gone over the historical background of the status of the two islands and that the Saudi government kindly requested official Egyptian acknowledgement, and in writing, of Saudi sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir.

Abdel-Meguid had agreed to address an official letter from the Egyptian government to its Saudi counterpart to this effect. Also, the commission officially agreed to the land bridge linking Saudi Arabia with Sinai, Egypt, in a landmark decision that still needs to be implemented.

Upon our return to Cairo, I was instructed to follow up the work of the joint commission with governmental agencies and departments. The office of former president Hosni Mubarak was duly notified of the main conclusions of the commission, with special emphasis on the question of acknowledging Saudi sovereignty over the two islands.

Once presidential approval was received, the Egyptian foreign minister addressed an official letter to his Saudi counterpart stating that the Egyptian government recognised Saudi sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir.

It was just plain and simple, in accordance with established facts between two major Arab powers, that didn’t run counter to historical realities and was based on previous thorough work by inter-agency cooperation and coordination within the Egyptian government.

I decided to write my personal and professional experience in dealing with the question of Tiran and Sanafir after the tumultuous debates that engulfed Egypt recently on this issue, with the hope that my written testimony would contribute in distinguishing facts from political fiction.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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