Egypt's Troubled Islands

The Politics of the Land Transfer to Saudi Arabia

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meets Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Cairo, Egypt, April 7, 2016. Saudi Press Agency / Reuters

On April 10, Egypt announced that it would transfer control of Tiran and Sanafir, two small Red Sea islands whose ownership has been disputed for decades, to Saudi Arabia, provoking a furious response across Egypt. The domestic backlash has obscured the regional and domestic realities brought to light by the transfer: Saudi Arabia’s legal claims to the islands are not unreasonable or unfounded and the Egyptian regime is in a precarious state as it tries to balance domestic passions with foreign interests. No less important is what the deal means for Israel and Saudi Arabia.  

In 1906, British-controlled Egypt occupied the islands in an effort to create favorable conditions on the ground before its eastern frontier with the Ottoman Empire was delimited later that year. Although Egypt won its formal independence in 1922, the United Kingdom reserved the right to maintain security control over its former colony, using it as a base during World War II. The United Kingdom also never formally recognized Egypt’s demarcation of its maritime boundary, which included the islands. In light of these circumstances, the legal status of the islands remained unclear until 1949. 

A sequence of events in 1949 and 1950, however, established a set of precedents that strengthened Saudi claims of sovereignty over the islands. In March 1949, Israel captured Umm al-Rashrash (later known as Eilat), a city wedged between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which faces the two islands from across the Gulf of Aqaba. Following this incident and fearing Israel’s intentions, Saudi Arabia requested that Egyptian forces occupy the islands, in an effort to deny Israeli vessels passage through the Straits of Tiran. In his authoritative book, The Middle Eastern States and the Law of the Sea, scholarAli A. el-Hakim notes that the Egyptian-Saudi agreement over the islands was communicated to other countries via an Egyptian aide-mémoire written in 1950. The document noted that “the Government of Egypt acting in full accordance with the Government of Saudi Arabia has given orders to occupy effectively these two islands. This

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