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

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