Egyptian Court Upholds Ban on Transfer of Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia
Christof Lehmann (nsnbc) : The Cairo Administrative Court, on Tuesday, upheld the ban on the transfer of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia and rejected to administration’s motion to overturn the ruling. The two Red Sea islands are of immense global geostrategic significance and crucial to security in the region.
In April 2016 the administration of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi announced its plan to transfer Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia and that Cabinet ministers had signed bilateral plans on how to delineate Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s maritime borders. The Cabinet noted that pen was put to paper after six years of negotiations and deliberations. The announcement in April came shortly after it had been announced that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman had US dollar 21.5 billion in loans and investments.
Former presidential candidate Khaled Ali along with lawyers Malek Adly and Tarek Al-Awady filed a complaint against the handover of the islands after gathering thousands of signatures for a petition. The planned transfer sparked protests on April 15 and 25.
Hundreds of protesters were arrested. 152 of them were sentenced to two to five years of imprisonment, fines totaling 4.7 million EGP. Other persons were picked up from their homes. A Court later acquitted 22 protesters. Adly was also arrested over charges of “spreading rumors that would disrupt public security” and “harming national unity,” among other charges, and was not released.
In June the Administrative Court ruled that the transfer was unconstitutional and annulled it. The Court stressed that it is prohibited to change the status of Tiran and Sanafir or change maritime borders “in any form or procedure for the benefit of any other country.” The administration appealed the ruling in June within hours.
Small Islands of Great Importance for Regional and Global Security
The ruling on Tuesday more or less exhausts the administration’s possibilities to legally transfer the two Red Sea islands and to change the maritime borders between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The transfer of the small and uninhabited islands would have consequences for regional and for global security. The islands are uninhabited but Tiran has an air field. The islands enable control of the only access from the Gulf of Aqba to the Red Sea.
While Egypt risks providing Saudi Arabia, a country that is notorious for sponsoring terrorism with a base that according to many Egyptians is too close for comfort to key Egyptian tourist locations.
The transfer would also enable Saudi Arabia “and its allies” to use the islands as springboard project military air and maritime power to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and the southern entrance of the Suez Canal. The transfer to Saudi Arabia would, in other words, imply a cohort of potential risk factors that would force Egypt’s military to reconsider regional security and defense strategies.
Egypt would, on the other hand, also reap certain benefits from the transfer. Control over the islands could help Saudi Arabia assert greater control over the seas south of Yemen and the coveted entrance to the Persian / Arab Gulf. This development is especially significant for Saudi Arabia against Iranian supported Shi’ite Houthi in Yemen. While western, Iranian and even Russian media mainly report about “Saudi air strikes”, little is being reported about consistent Houthi incursions into Saudi territory, Iran’s support of Houthi with “military advisers” and Iranian weapons shipments to Yemen.
Another widely omitted factor is that Houthi incursions into Saudi Arabia tend to focus on regions where a pipeline project could establish an alternative to Gulf-Arab states export of hydrocarbons via the volatile Persian / Arab Gulf.
Egypt, for its part, is neither interested in the spread of Saudi-backed Wahhabi / Takfiri insurgents not in an increased Iranian presence in the region. Egyptian – Iranian relations are more or less as ambivalent as Egyptian – Saudi relations. Egypt has, however, stressed that any development that could provide Houthi fighters (read Iranian proxies) the possibility to project military power to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait as an existential threat to Egypt’s national security.
Egyptian military planners and security experts will not have forgotten the words of Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei who described the developments in Libya and Egypt during the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011 as “a revolution” and Tehran’s criticism of the people-powered military coup that ended the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood linked Mohamed Morsi in Egypt.
Considering that the Persian Gulf (Arab Gulf) continues to function as “the” world’s most important waterway for the transport of hydrocarbons from the Middle East, and considering the Suez Canal is one of the four most important waterways with regard to the global economy, the developments on the sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir are being closely monitored by those who are aware over their potential military significance.
CH/L – nsnbc 08.11.2016