Until Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attempted to transfer the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in April 2016, it is unlikely that few in the Middle East even thought about them. However, the story of these islands goes back decades. The islands have been under Egyptian sovereignty for hundreds of years, mainly for their geographic proximity to Egypt, giving it the ability to project military – mainly naval – power in the area and at times control trade routes.
Tiran and Sanafir are located at the entrance to the Strait of Tiran, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Tiran, with an area of about 80 square kilometres, and Sanafir, east of Tiran and with an area of 33 square kilometres, are geopolitically important since the strait is Israel’s only sea route from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Red Sea. In fact, the first time the world’s attention was drawn to these two, previously insignificant, islands came with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In World War II, Egyptian forces stationed on the islands were part of the forces allocated to protect the Suez Canal.
On 15 February 1954, at the United Nations Security Council’s 659th meeting, Israel submitted a complaint against Egypt for interfering with shipping travelling to the Israeli port of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. The Egyptian representative countered the complaint, saying that the islands form an integral part of Egyptian territory and have been under Egypt’s administration since 1906, when Egypt occupied them in attempt to delimit the frontiers between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire.
He proceeded to say that the occupation had been the subject of discussions, exchange of views and even letters between the Ottoman Empire and the Khedivial government of Egypt. At the time, the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Egypt and the principality of Hijaz (later part of Saudi Arabia), recognized Tiran and Sanafir as essential parts of Egypt.
However, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the islands did not belong to Egypt before March 1949, when Israel took control of the area around the coastal village of Umm al-Rashrash, later renamed Eilat, as part of Operation Uvda. Consequently, the uninhabited islands gained strategic significance and Egypt started erecting military installations there in December 1949, with government officials denying any intention to interfere with peaceful navigation. Yet the military installations raised alarms in Israel as Israeli-registered ships had already been denied passage through the Suez Canal, cutting the country off from all the trade routes that linked it with Asia and East Africa. In order not to escalate tensions in an already embattled region, Egypt and Saudi Arabia signed an accord and communicated its contents via an aide-memoire to the United States (US) on 28 January 1950.
The aide-memoire read: ‘[I]n doing this Egypt wanted simply to confirm its right (as well as every possible right of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) in regard to the mentioned islands which by their geographical position are at least 3 marine miles off the Egyptian side of Sinai and 4 miles approximately off the opposite side of Saudi Arabia, all this in order to forestall any attempt on or possible violation of its rights.’
By 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser had come to power in Egypt, following a military coup that deposed King Farouk. Among the first major projects on which Nasser embarked was the nationalization of the Suez Canal, which had been under British-French control since its completion in 1869 and on which Europe was heavily dependent as a cheap trade route mainly for oil from the Middle East. In response to Nasser’s nationalization, Israel invaded Egypt in October of that year and was later backed by British and French troops who occupied the canal zone, including the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, in what was known as the ‘tripartite aggression’. Under Soviet, US and United Nations pressure, Israel, Britain and France withdrew their troops and UN peacekeeping troops were deployed on the islands to address Israel’s concerns over free passage through the Strait of Tiran.
The first official claim of Saudi sovereignty over the islands came in 1957, when a letter from Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister dated 31 March 1957 was delivered to the US embassy in Jeddah in April 1957. The official statement, which addressed the status of the Gulf of Aqaba, asserted Saudi sovereignty over the islands and described the Gulf of Aqaba as closed to international navigation, since the waters at its entrance constituted ‘Saudi Arabian territorial waters’. The Americans did not object to that.
In May 1967, Nasser declared the Strait of Tiran closed to Israeli shipping, resulting in a full-fledged confrontation between the two countries and the involvement of Jordan and Syria. During what came to be known as the ‘Six Day War’, Nasser gave a public speech appealing to the UN peacekeeping troops to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and from both islands, and asserting Egypt’s unchallenged sovereignty over the Strait of Tiran.
Nevertheless, Israel won the war and occupied the islands and peninsula. It was not until more than a decade later, in the 1979 Camp David peace deal brokered between Egypt and Israel, that Cairo promised to respect freedom of shipping in Aqaba and Eilat. In 1982, and as part of the same peace agreement, Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and Tiran, and US military and security forces were deployed on the island to ensure free maritime passage through the strait.
The issue of Tiran and Sanafir did not come up again until the 1990, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued Presidential Decree Number 27, establishing Egypt’s maritime boundaries both in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The decree, which was officially posted at the UN headquarters in New York, laid out the 109 grids as coordinates by which Egypt’s territorial waters could be measured. However, instead of following the norms of international law and stipulating the highest point on the coastline, the decree stipulated the lowest point. In doing so, Egypt willingly relinquished control of the two islands to Saudi Arabia.
Twenty years later, in 2010, Saudi Arabia submitted to the UN its unilaterally presumed baseline on both the Red Sea and the Gulf, which included Tiran and Sanafir within its territorial waters, to which Egypt granted its consent on 25 March 2010.
Additionally, upon King Salman’s visit to Cairo in April 2016 to meet President al-Sisi, a treaty was signed to demarcate each country’s territorial waters in the Red Sea. This was viewed by the public as Egypt transferring sovereignty of Tiran and Sanafir to the Saudis. The announcement by the government that the islands belonged to Saudi Arabia shocked both the parliament and the people, resulting in street protests and public outrage. Some 400 people were arrested and dozens were imprisoned.
On 21 June 2016, in an unexpected turn of events, Egypt’s Administrative Court rejected the government’s decision to transfer the islands to Saudi Arabia. It was the first time the judiciary had opposed al-Sisi since he had taken office two years earlier. The Egyptian government did not back down and asked the High Administrative Court to overturn the ruling that annulled the April 2016 demarcation agreement between Riyadh and Cairo.
However, a group of Egyptian rights lawyers led by Khalid Ali, also a former presidential candidate, filed a lawsuit at the State Council, arguing that President al-Sisi, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal wrongfully relinquished Egyptian’s sovereignty over the Islands. The group argued the legality of the agreement by referring to article 151 of the Egyptian constitution, which states that all matters regarding the drawing of Egypt’s borders must be reviewed by the state’s parliament, a step al-Sisi had apparently bypassed before handing the islands to the Saudis.
On 16 January 2017, the court issued its final ruling, rejecting the government’s appeal and prompting cheers in the Cairo courtroom. As soon as the judge announced the government’s failure to provide enough evidence to show that the islands were Saudi, celebrations erupted. Ali Ayoub, one of the lawyers who co-filed the suit, told the Guardian newspaper, “The ruling is final and cannot be subject to appeal; [even] the parliament doesn’t have the right to discuss this agreement, because it’s been made null and void by a court ruling.”
The island controversy became another source of tension between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose relations have deteriorated in recent years. It is expected that the Egyptian government will now look for another way to transfer the islands to Saudi Arabia.