Tiran & Sanafir- Egyptian or Saudi land? The debate rages on…
On April 9, 2016, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi announced that two Egyptian islands–Tiran and Sanafir–were located inside the Saudi Arabian territorial waters and, therefore, they belonged to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This announcement triggered waves of anger among Egyptians and remains a hot topic on the Egyptian streets and social media. Lawyers took the issue to the Supreme Constitutional Court and the courts sided with the lawyers: they believe that the islands belong to Egypt according to historical documents. Unhappy with such a verdict, El-Sisi took the issue to the Parliament and in June 2017 they decided that the islands belong to Saudi Arabia. The case continues to go back and forth in Egypt, but it is important to look at the historical context and to understand the strategic importance of the islands in Egyptian and Saudi politics.
Culturally, territorial integrity is important in Egypt because it is believed that the borders of the country have not changed much in the thousands of years of Egyptian civilization. In addition, agriculture has played an important part in its history and the thought of selling or losing land is considered shameful. There is popular phrase in Egyptian Arabic (al-ard ka al-`ird) which roughly translates to “the land is like a man’s honour,” meaning that the thought of losing land is akin to shaming the family. This phrase has been used quite frequently in opposition to President El-Sisi’s command to give back the island to Saudi Arabia.
El-Sisi claims there are maps dating back to 1897 indicating that both islands were owned by the tribes that inhabited present day Saudi Arabia whose country was established in 1932. The Egyptian courts argued differently. “The Court also argued that according to a 1906 maritime treaty between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, the islands are Egyptian.” Geographically, the small islands of Tiran and Sanafir are located in the Gulf of Aqaba between the coast of the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabian Peninsula. Tiran is approximately 80 square kilometres and is about six kilometres from the coast southern Sinai coast. Sanafir is 33 square kilometres is about 2.5 kilometres from the Sinai coast. These islands are uninhabited by citizens of either country, but there is a light Egyptian police and military presence in addition to United Nations peacekeeping forces as a result of Camp David Accords signed between Egypt and Israel, which also stipulates that no heavily armed forces are permitted.
So why is El-Sisi arguing that the islands belong to Saudi Arabia? During the times of colonial expansion by Great Britain in the Middle East as a result of the ailing Ottoman Empire, agreements between Arab leaders eventually landed control of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir within the realm of the nascent Saudi Kingdom. When the war of independence and expansion by the State of Israel began in the late 1940s, Saudi King Abd Al-Aziz Al-Saud asked for assistance in protection of the islands by then-Egyptian King Faruq since there was a fear that Israel may continue to expand its influence further into Gulf like they did when they took control of the Port of Eilat. After Egypt took control of the islands in 1950 at the request of Saudi Arabia, they immediately sent their forces to the islands. They also closed the Straits of Tiran which led to the start of the war of 1967 between Egypt and Israel. Israel occupied the two islands twice: in 1956 during the Suez Crisis and again in 1967 during the Six Day War. Both islands were returned to Egypt in 1979 as part of the Camp David Accords. In 1982, the Egyptian government declared both islands as nature reserves to only be used by tourists for diving in the area.
Strategically, Saudi Arabia is very interested in re-obtaining the islands due to its efforts to increase its influence in the region. In 2012, the Saudi-owned oil company Aramco discovered oil reserves off the coast of the Duba Port. By controlling Tiran and Sanafir, they aim to set up shop to begin drilling. In addition, they are concerned about the security of the city of Tabuk. Finally, by controlling Tiran and Sanafir, Saudi Arabia can gain control of access to and from the Gulf of Aqaba.
While the debate continues in the Egyptian courts, the Egyptian street remains concerned about losing territory while President El-Sisi focuses on the importance of returning the islands to their rightful owners. Many Egyptians believe that there was a deal between El-Sisi and the Saudi King Salman in 2015 that focused on the transfer of the islands. Time will tell where the issue ends up.