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Marking borders in a sea of calm: The Saudi-Egyptian maritime deal

For observers standing on Tiran island, history seems insignificant compared to the geo-strategic importance of the Tiran Straits

Youssef Khazem

Published: Updated:

The Saudi-Egyptian maritime border agreement on the Red Sea Islands of Tiran and Sanafir announced in Cairo on Saturday is a case study in political history and geopolitics. It is also the latest Saudi diplomatic effort in a long and steady process to delineate the country's territorial and maritime borders.

Saudi Arabia has land borders with seven countries (Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE and Yemen) and maritime borders with ten countries (Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen on the Red Sea; and UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iran on the Arabian Gulf). The desire to settle border disputes with its neighbors has been a trademark of Saudi policy since the foundation of the Kingdom in 1932.

So far, Riyadh has managed to settle most border disputes and claims successfully and the latest deal with Cairo is seen as beneficial to both countries. An Egyptian cabinet statement confirmed on Saturday that the deal “enables both countries to benefit from the exclusive economic zone for each, with whatever resources and treasures they contain”.

A history

Historically, Egypt's maritime borders on the Red Sea, including Gulf of Aqaba and Tiran Straits, were demarcated between the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain following a dispute between them in May 1906. However, this agreement was not formally declared by both sides and when Egypt gained independence from British rule in 1922, the 1906 maritime boundary was not surveyed or documented by Egypt and Great Britain. At the time of the 1906 agreement, the Saudi coast on the Red Sea was under Ottoman rule and the Kingdom was not established yet.

Following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and its attack on Umm Rashrash in Jordan (Eilat today) in March 1949, Arab worries regarding Israel's presence on the Gulf of Aqaba led to an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Egypt whereby Egyptian forces occupied the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, located at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba. Egypt officially informed the United Kingdom and United States respectively on 30 January and 28 February 1950 of its occupation of Tiran and Sanafir and explained the nature of the occupation in an aide-memoir which stated that ”the Government of Egypt acting in full accord with the Government of Saudi Arabia has given orders to occupy effectively these two islands.....In 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...”.

The 1956 war against Egypt led to a brief occupation of the two islands by Israel which declared on November 3 its control of the Tiran Straits. However, Israel withdrew its forces a year later having successfully put pressure to ensure the political, but not legal, designation of the Gulf of Aqaba and Tiran Straits as 'international waters” to guarantee its freedom of navigation. In 1957, Saudi Arabia sent a circular to all friendly missions in Jeddah declaring its sovereignty on Tiran and Sanafir islands and the Tiran Straits. A decade later, Egyptian President Jamal Abdulnasser ordered the blocking of the Tiran Straits against Israeli navigation on 22 May 1967; and Israel retaliated two weeks later by attacking Egypt on 5 June 1967 and occupying the Tiran Straits.

In 1978, the signing of the Camp David Peace Agreement between Egypt and Israel led to an Israel'i withdrawal from the Tiran Straits four years later. Since 1982, a Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), established independently by Egypt and Israel with peacekeeping responsibilities in Sinai, has been posted on Tiran island to monitor the freedom of navigation through the straits and the Gulf of Aqaba. However, unlike the Sinai observers, the ones on Tiran are exclusively US civilians from the State Department or former US military personnel. These US observers remain posted on the island and their future presence is unclear yet.

Strategic importance

For observers standing on Tiran island, the above history seems insignificant compared to the geo-strategic importance of the Tiran Straits. In 1904, British Admiral Sir John Fisher compared straits to keys that “lock up the world” and his proclamation stands true when applied to the Tiran maritime passages controlling the only entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba and connecting it to the southern tip of the Red Sea.

These straits control navigation to and from the ports of Eilat (Israel), Aqaba (Jordan), Dahab, Taba, Nouweibeh (all Egyptian) and Haql in Saudi Arabia. However, Tiran and Sanfir are not only strategically placed but have an economic significance as well. They are touristic diving havens where beautiful coral reefs, stunning coral lagoons and colored fish flourish. The Saudi-Egyptian causeway is planned to go through the islands and it is likely that offshore oil and gas fields are found underwater in the region.

This historical deal between Egypt and Saudi Arabia has determined once and for all Saudi sovereignty and jurisdiction over these two islands. However, a few issues are yet to be determined following this agreement. Firstly, there are several mid sea Egyptian islets in the Red Sea proper which need to be decided on, including AlIkhwan, Daedalus reef (Abu El Kizan) and Jazirat Zabarjad. Secondly, the agreement did not include the entire maritime borders between Saudi Arabia and Egypt because it excluded the tripoint at Halaib triangle and Shalateen, a disputed area between Egypt and Sudan.