Tiran and Sanafir islands: the history and geography

18-06-2017 09:09 AM

Youssef Sidhom

Youssef Sidhom


Problems on hold

In April 2016, Egypt and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement on the demarcation of the maritime border between them. Only last week, however, did the Egyptian government forward the agreement to the House of Representatives for approval. The delay served to place the agreement in the crossfire of variant political and public currents in Egypt. Some accepted that the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Tiran Strait at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba were Saudi land as in the agreement, and that as such they are being returned to their rightful owner after decades of Egyptian administration. Others, however, saw them as belonging to Egypt, and that the Egyptian administration was handing Egyptian soil to Saudi Arabia on a plate of gold in return for economic advantages. The dispute between the two sides took on hysterical proportions; those who insisted the islands were Egyptian took their case to court on grounds that the agreement was not an act of sovereignty as stipulated by the Constitution. But this was merely a dispute over ‘form’ not ‘content’. Now it is some 14 months during which the islands issue has seared on the political and public fields; the case is with the Supreme Constitutional Court, and the agreement has been referred to the House of Representatives for study and approval, as per constitutional provision.
I had tackled the topic of the Tiran and Sanafir islands in an editorial titled The islands of Tiran and Sanafir: When the media hijacks history on 24 April 2016 [http://en.wataninet.com/opinion/editorial/the-islands-of-tiran-and-sanafir-when-the-media-hijacks-history/16188/]. At the time, I wrote: “I alarmingly note that the issue of the two islands has turned into a squabble between two camps, with each camp claiming that it solely holds the monopoly on truth and patriotism … The matter can be resolved only through documents and historical and geographical facts, not through shows of emotional so-called patriotism to defend land which no one could conclusively claim belongs to us. Instead of the chaotic hysteria, should not all the possibilities have been studied? If the documents and evidence prove that the two islands are Saudi but have been under Egyptian administration for a long time for military and security reasons, should not Egypt have sufficient civilisational national integrity to return what was placed in her custody to its rightful owners once they demand it?”
On 10 June 2017, the eve of discussing the islands issue in parliament, the Cairo daily al-Ahram published an article titled “Geology confirms that Tiran and Sanafir are part of the Arabian Peninsula”. Oh, I thought, so it’s not only a matter of history but is also a geographical, geological issue. This means that even if historical documents may come in for controversy—major among these documents are those of the 1950 request by Saudi Arabia of Egypt to occupy the islands to protect them against any possible Israeli aggression—the geological facts cannot be discounted.
The al-Ahram article reports that Egyptian American space scientist Dr Farouk al-Baz addressed a message to the Speaker of the House of Representaives Ali Abdel-Aal regarding the islands of Tiran and Sanafir. Dr al-Baz’s letter confirms that space images and topographic and bathymetric maps show that Tiran and Sanafir islands are part of the Arabian continental shelf.
Dr al-Baz explains that some 60 million years ago, the Great East Africa Rift started to be open. The Red Sea, which includes the Gulf of Aqaba as its northern extension, is part of the Great East Africa Rift and was formed by the divergence of the two tectonic plates: the African Plate and the Arabian Plate. The rift is expanding at a rate of 16 millimeters per year, according to the theory of plate tectonics. However, the spreading is asymmetric, faster on the northern side than on the southern side. Since the Gulf of Aqaba is located east of the Sinai Peninsula and west of the Arabian Peninsula, the islands of Tiran and Sanafir have been very gradually moving closer to the Arabian Peninsula proving that, geologically, they are part of it.
I consider the above information decisive in the issue of the islands, especially that it comes from a scientist who is an authority in his field, and is a man far beyond any suspicion where his patriotism is concerned. I am sure it will be very useful for the House of Representatives to decide on the Egyptian Saudi agreement.
As Egyptians, we love Egypt and feel that every particle of her soil is sacred. We would gladly lay our lives for her. But there is a very fine line between holding on to every bit of our land, and seizing land which geographically lies outside our borders and, historically, was entrusted to us for specific reasons, but must now be returned to its owners. Only when we live up to the confidence placed in us and to our national integrity can we really be proud of our patriotism, honour, and nobility.

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