Where are the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, and why are they so hotly contested?

There have been new developments in Egyptian-Saudi relations with regards to the ownership of two Red Sea Islands, Tiran and Sanafir, located at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. Ownership of the islands gives one control of the entry and exit of the eastern arm of the Red Sea, leading to the port of Aqaba, which is a very popular tourist terminal for passengers and automobiles coming from across the shore in Egypt. The Gulf of Aqaba, where Jordan and Israel also maintain important ports, is of major importance for international commerce given it serves as a connecting point for the African and Asian continents. The importance of this passage is also evidenced by Egypt’s 1967 blockading of the Strait of Tiran, which helped trigger the Arab-Israeli/Six Day War.

The appeals court in Cairo has just upheld a decision by the lower Egyptian administrative court demanding the two uninhabited Red Sea Islands be transferred from Egyptian to Saudi control. There is no dispute between the two ruling regimes’ about the islands’ ownership, which Egypt has been protecting since 1950 at Riyadh’s request. In 1950 Saudi King Abdul-Aziz al Saud authorized the transfer of the islands to King Farouk’s regime with the aim of better protecting the islands against a possible Israeli attack. Saudi Arabia did not at the time possess the capabilities required to defend the islands against such an attack, which they were worried would occur following Israel’s successful defeating of Arab forces in the 1948 war in Palestine. Israel did manage to occupy the Islands in 1967 but then evacuated them in 1982 in accordance with a peace treaty it signed with Egypt. This court decision follows years of discussions between the two countries about their maritime borders.

Most Egyptian officials appear to be happy with the decision bearing in mind the Saudi Kingdom has provided Egypt with a large amount of aid and has heavily invested in the country in the last few years. Relations between the two countries only appear to be getting stronger with the Saudi Kingdom providing billions of dollars for the funding of a causeway connecting Sharm el-Sheikh and Saudi Arabia, helping to supply Egypt’s long-term energy needs. Internationally, the deal to return the Red Sea Islands to Saudi control seems to be well-received given there are no international agreements including the Camp David Accords which forbids Egypt from transferring this land back to Saudi Arabia. The transferring of the land also paves the way for the constructing of a bridge linking Saudi Arabia to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

It should however be noted that whilst the deal has been supported by Egyptian parliament there are others in Egypt who have opposed the deal, interpreting the court order to be a violation of Egyptian sovereignty. Central to their argument is that Egypt had a claim to the islands predating the founding of the modern Saudi state. Some Egyptians have accused the government of ‘selling off their islands’.