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Published On: Sun, Jan 1st, 2017

Egyptian Court Approves Controversial Transfer of Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia

nsnbc : The Cairo Court of Urgent Matters approved the controversial transfer of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. The Court’s ruling came after a protracted political and legal battle against the transfer of the geopolitically and strategically highly sensitive and important islands.

Tiran_Sanafir_Egypt_Red SeaThe Court supported the case brought by the administration of President Abdel Fatah-al Sisi and ruled in favor of the administration’s decision to transfer the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.

The ruling by the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters is, however, not the last word in the controversy. Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court is set to issue a final ruling on January 16, 2017.

In April 2016 the administration of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi agreed to re-transfer the two islands to Saudi Arabia. Observers noted that the decision coincided with substantial Saudi financial “aid” to Egypt. Several lawyers denounced the transfer without a referendum as unconstitutional. Police dispersed protesters and detained several activists under the country’s equally controversial “protest law”.

Also in April 2016, a functionary working with the dossier in Egypt’s Defense Ministry spoke with nsnbc on condition of anonymity. The functionary explained that considerations about Saudi Arabia’s economic help and investments in Egypt “played a role”, but that the main reasons for the decision were based on security concerns and the containment of Iranian influence in the region.

Iran has increased its influence in the region since the onset of the war in Yemen and its semi-official support of Houthi militants in Yemen. Egypt considers any development that could threaten shipping via the Red Sea and especially via the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, as an issue of “vital importance for Egypt’s security and economy”.

He added that the decision could turn out to be a two-edged sword, as Saudi Arabia, for its part, is on one hand attempting to limit Qatar’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence as well as the influence of Iran, while it with the other hand supports various branches of Al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Saudi Arabia could easily use Tiran and Sanafir for special operations and the infiltration of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula withal-Qaeda / Islamic state linked insurgents.

Later that month former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi filed a suit against President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail over handing over two disputed Islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.

More protests followed in May 2016 and authorities detained several protesters as well as members of the Journalists’ Syndicate. In mid-May 2016 the Qasr al-Nile Misdemeanor Court sentenced 51 people to two years in prison for staging demonstrations against a decision to transfer Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Later that month the sentences were canceled amidst growing protests.

In June 2016 Egypt’s Administrative Court  annulled the transfer of the disputed Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. However, the ruling didn’t end the controversy and dispute. In early August the Supreme Administrative Court postponed to August 13 a government appeal against the earlier Court ruling.

Then on September 27, 2016, a Cairo Court on Urgent Matters overruled a challenge against the Administrative Court verdict issued in June that asserted Egyptian sovereignty over the islands and declared the transfer to Saudi Arabia as unconstitutional.

A “final decision” by the  Supreme Administrative Court on January 16, 2017, may, however, not be as “final” as advertised as some opponents maintain that the transfer without a referendum is unconstitutional, and would remain unconstitutional even if the Supreme Administrative Court rules in favor of the transfer.

Geopolitical and Security Implications
Bab Al-Mandeb Strait. Southern entrance to the Suez Canal.

Bab Al-Mandeb Strait. Southern entrance to the Suez Canal.

The planned transfer also sparked international interest. The two islands of Tiran and Sanafir are located at the southern tip of the Gulf of Aqba. (see map above) 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.

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.

F/AK & CH/L – nsnbc 01.01.2017

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