Lessons from Tiran Island, a witness to our history

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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I recently spent a few days in the vicinity of Tiran Island, in the northern Red Sea at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. It is more than just an island; it is, rather, a witness to the history of the region. A witness to Arab and regional mistakes that have produced self-defeat for about a century.

On the rock of Tiran, the dreams of the Arabs were shattered. Tiran reminds me today of the wars of the Iranian regional dream that would destroy it, and Saddam’s grandiose bullying in Iraq. We also see how Turkey is now walking the same path, as did the late President Nasser in 1967.

Nasser’s most important weapon was his dazzling charisma, which was instrumental in mobilizing Arab populations from the Gulf in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. But with radio broadcasting reaching new heights, he fell into the trap of populism. Later, on May 13, 1967, he fell into a bigger trap when he threatened Israel with the closure of the Straits of Tiran in response to a flawed Soviet report.

Nasser sent one of his armed forces’ chiefs of staff, Gen. Mohammed Fawzi, to Damascus, after a Soviet intelligence officer in the Cairo Embassy told him that they had information on a huge Israeli military mobilization that presaged an attack on Syria in response to the signing of the mutual defense agreement with Egypt.

Fawzi, however, returned to Cairo and rejected the Soviet claim, telling Nasser that the intelligence images failed to show any military mobilization. Still, Nasser decided to escalate the war of words. He delivered a speech announcing the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The US, too, warned him of the danger of the move, but he responded on May 16 by expelling the UN force from Gaza. Three days later, he ordered the expulsion of a UN force stationed in Sinai and the expulsion of the Straits of Tiran observers.

Today’s Straits of Tiran are different from the straits of old. Here lies Neom, the Saudi future project, and Egypt’s Sharm El-Sheikh resort with its glittering lights. The region seems to be able to offer a different lesson, one where peace and prosperity prevail.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Furthermore, the-then Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol warned Nasser that any closure of the straits would be tantamount to a declaration of war, and that such an action violated a 1957 agreement among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Britain and the US that committed the four countries to keeping the straits open for navigation of all nations. To this, Nasser replied that the waters of the straits were not international but regional (Jordanian, Saudi and Egyptian). An American lawyer supported his claim in an article in The New York Times.

It is true that Israel became engaged in a verbal and diplomatic war, threatening and documenting what it described as breaches, and viewing the closure of the straits as a threat against it, since 90 percent of its oil imports crossed the waterway. However, in the meantime, it was preparing for war, mobilizing tens of thousands of reserves.

War of words

Israeli preparations for war were not matched by Syria and Egypt with similar measures. Only radio speeches and enthusiastic songs were to be heard, as popular enthusiasm increased tension. On May 22, Nasser announced that all ships bound for Eilat were being blocked and that the straits would be mined — a claim that turned out to be untrue.

Four days later, the Egyptian leader expelled the last remaining UN force, which was Canadian. This meant he had expelled 3,500 personnel who formed an international force protecting him from Israeli aggression.

The war of words lasted for 23 days, until Israeli forces staged an early morning attack, destroying the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian defenses, and seizing Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Israel also occupied the Tiran and Sanafir islands and deployed its forces to supervise the navigation of its ships. The two islands were returned only after Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt in 1982. Both islands were recently returned to Saudi Arabia.

I recalled these events while visiting peaceful Tiran Island, now free of military forces.

Tiran has become a haven for nesting birds and marine creatures that inhabit its beautiful coral reef. In the distance is a UN military point on the Egyptian side monitoring the area as part of the Camp David Agreement.

Today’s Straits of Tiran are different from the straits of old. Here lies Neom, the Saudi future project, and Egypt’s Sharm El-Sheikh resort with its glittering lights. The region seems to be able to offer a different lesson, one where peace and prosperity prevail.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.

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