With the status of Tiran and Sanafir islands currently being debated in parliament, Egypt Today revisits documents from the Library of Congress that trace back sovereignty of the contested islands to Saudi Arabia.
Tiran and Sanafir between the US Department of State and the CIA
After the Camp David Accords were signed and Israeli forces started to withdraw from Sinai, the CIA at the time saw in the border situation an opportunity to manipulate the border-crossing line on the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba with the purpose of expanding Eilat harbor. This plan, built on manipulating border marker no. 91, ensured a maximized influence in the vital Gulf with its huge maritime and geopolitical significance.
After that came a tug-of-war phase until Egypt managed to file for international arbitration against Israel. A long, dreary battle was fought by 24 experts, nine of them international law veterans, that ended with Egypt being given absolute rights to and sovereignty over Taba in 1988. Egypt’s defense used hundreds of documents, maps and telegrams, accounting for 60 percent of Egypt’s claims to the city; the rest comprised practical attestation of sovereignty rights over Taba and the fact that they were never disputed before.
Among the documents used by Egypt as evidence are Israeli documents and attestations, British documents and maps, telegrams from British ambassadors, Ottoman documents, the Convention of London (1840), two Ottoman decrees issued in 1892 and 1906 and authorized by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, CIA maps, and finally maps issued in Hebrew by the CIA before and after 1976 procured by geographer Yussuf Abul Haggag and which disclosed Israel's manipulation, misleading and distortion of facts in the Taba case. Paradoxically, and the paradox here is both legal and rational, the above-mentioned documents also attest to the rights of a third party—Saudi Arabia—to Tiran and Sanafir.
Congress maps and documents of the British National Archives
Inside the Library of Congress you can sit and view the CIA-issued and Department of State-authorized map of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba and the islands contained in both. The map, which clearly refers Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, was inked in 1979 map and was preceded by five other maps dating to 1800, 1900, 1922, 1947, and 1955, all of which refer the two islands to Saudi Arabia.
On the British side, the National Archives include more than 100 documents, the oldest of which dates back to 1929, and includes correspondences of the London ambassadors in a number of countries in the region, telegrams between the British government and the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, maps and coordinates. All the documents affirm that the islands belong to KSA, and, more importantly, refer to the agreed temporary sovereignty of Egypt over them. One of these documents was a telegram sent by the General Director of the British Administration of Boundaries to the Egyptian Minister of Transportation, Hussein Serry Pasha, asking about the status of the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir on January 26, 1929, to which Serry replied saying, “Their political situation is completely ambiguous; geographically, however, they lie in the deep waters outside Egyptian borders.”
Judge on the Taba case gives his ruling on Tiran and Sanafir
In the international arbitration battle between Egypt and Israel over Taba, the Egyptian side collected hundreds of documents from various official archives around the world. Hamid Sultan, professor of international law, represented Egypt in the international commission that arbitrated the case, and which consisted of five members: three members from France, Sweden and Switzerland, in addition to the two representatives from Egypt and Israel.
The documents examined by Sultan and used in the Taba case are the same documents which he used to affirm that the islands belong to Saudi Arabia. In his book Public International Law in the Times of Peace (1972) he writes, “At the southern entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba, there is an archipelago which includes around 30 rocky islands all of which were part of Saudi Arabia and the biggest two of which are the islands of Tiran and Sanafir. The occupation of Om al-Rashrash (Eilat) by Israeli forces caused considerable damage, therefore an agreement was made with the Saudi authorities by which Egypt was allowed to place troops and garrisons on the islands.” Besides Sultan, the other experts who worked on the Taba case confirm that the two islands are Saudi, this is in addition to tens of technical and military experts, professors of law, writers, historians and geographers who attest to this fact using evidence from maps, agreements and Ottoman firmans (decrees).
Between the 1882 dispute and the Firman crisis
For centuries, Egypt fell under the rule of the Ottoman Empire after becoming an Ottoman province at the beginning of the 17th century, and so did the Hijaz and the Levant until the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, the date before which there were no disputes or border marking whatsoever. The only exception to that was the timing of Mohamed Ali’s vast expansion and his clashes with Europe. The latter resulted in the Convention of London which listed strict conditions for Egyptian expansions in the Mediterranean but did not give the slightest mention of Tiran and Sanafir as they were not considered Egyptian islands, and because the entire region was considered an Ottoman province. The situation remained quiet between Egypt and the Ottoman mother country until the beginning of the British occupation which ignited the conflict.
During the first months Egypt was under British protection, the Sublime Porte issued a firman expropriating the lands overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba from Egypt and annexing them to Palestine and Jordan, which were parts of the Ottoman Empire back then. This set off the “firman crisis” when violent conflicts erupted between London and the Ottomans. They were partially and temporarily resolved when Cevad Pasha, the Grand Vizier sent a telegram to the High Commissioner in Egypt asserting that Sinai marks the end of Egyptian territories, and that its borders end at the line from Al-Arish and Rafah to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. Borders were officially marked based on international documents and indeed included Taba but did not include Tiran and Sanafir.
At a later stage, an Ottoman firman was issued in 1892, which emphasized the old and new maps’ designation of Tiran and Sanafir as parts of Al-Hijaz. Shortly after, the conflict rose again, particularly when the Ottoman Empire was working on the construction of a railroad connecting Ma’an to Al-Aqaba. According to technical studies, this mandated that the border to be moved. An Ottoman military force took over Taba in January 1906. A British force then quickly moved and ended the Turkish presence.
But the military step was not enough for Britain. It even sent a warning to the Ottoman government via an official note to the Sublime Porte’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. A Turkish-Egyptian committee was to be formed to create a border demarcation map to separate between Al-Hijaz, Al-Quds and the Sinai Peninsula, with the attendance of Ahmed Minzafur Bey and Major Mohammed Faheem Bey as representatives of the Sultanate and Emir Ibrahim Fathy and Admiral R.C.R. Owen as representatives of the Khedive. Both parties agreed to demarcate the borders in October 1906.
The agreement restated that the border extends from Al-Arish to the entrance of Al-Aqaba to the South and did not mention Tiran and Sanafir. This confirms that the conflict was about Taba and Al-Aqaba, not the two islands, as their issue was settled nearly a quarter of a century before, at the time of the 1882 conflict. The 1906 Agreement is heavily cited by those contesting the two islands being Saudi, but they ignore the agreement that the border demarcation was based on the second time and the older document with a legally binding consequence. They also overlook the fact that the 1906 decrees never mention the two islands and being silent about them cannot be considered an approval of a new status, as opposed to a previous agreement between the same parties 24 years earlier.
Maps of Egypt and documents issued by Egyptian officials and governments
Those who believe that Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian cite Saudi textbooks which do not include them. This is exactly what Egypt faced in the Taba case, as Israel presented a map from our curricula showing Taba outside Egyptian territories. The court did not count on them and asserted its approval of original Egyptian maps.
It is ironic that on the list of maps and documents there is a map issued by the Egyptian government in 1949 with the tourist attractions and diving sites in Egyptian waters that does not include the islands. This is in addition to a long list of decrees, certificates and correspondences which are proof of approving the limits of the borders, with subsequent direct rights and obligations of the state. This includes Egypt serving a notice to the USA on January 30, 1950 and to Britain on February 28 that it is occupying Tiran and Sanafir to secure their interests and face Israeli threats. Egypt then said that it would guarantee smooth navigation at the Straits of Tiran and that Egypt would be ready to evacuate them once the situation is stable. This is what the Egyptian Permanent Representative at the Security Council said on May 26, 1967 in a session titled “Never did Egypt at any time in the past claim sovereignty over the islands. Egypt only asserted that it is in charge of defending them.”
Previously, Dr. Mohammed Al-Qoni, Ambassador of Egypt at the United Nations said, “The United Arab Republic had no intention whatsoever of annexing Sanafir and Tiran, and it shall not do so in the future. In 1981, Gaafar Nimeiry, President of Sudan, delivered a message from former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to King Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud asking him not to bring up the issue of the islands until Israel withdrew from Egyptian territories. In 1989, the Kingdom issued a document designating Tiran and Sanafir as part of its territories and Egypt neither made a comment nor an objection. This was followed by Presidential decision No. 27 of 1990 designating Egyptian border points to demarcate regional waters and the exclusive economic zone and notify the UN of them. The decision excluded the islands from Egyptian regional water. In 2003, Mubarak, speaking at the Arab Kings and Presidents Summit, pledged to return the islands to the Kingdom.
In 1988, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs exchanged several correspondences with then-Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Essmat Abdul-Magid, who championed the battle for Taba. The messages included Saudi requests for Egypt to return Tiran and Sanafir since the reason Egypt had control over them ceased to exist. According to Abdul-Magid’s “top secret” report to the Cabinet, the minister asserted that after studying the issue, he was convinced the islands are Saudi, and recommended returning them.
It is strange that some cite the fact that Tiran and Sanafir are closer to Egyptian borders than Saudi borders as proof that the islands are Egyptian. Though there is less than a mile of difference between the two distances, this alone does not entail, based on international law and previous conflicts. For example, in a Qatari-Bahraini conflict in 2001, the International Court of Justice ruled that Manama has sovereignty over Hawar Island though it is closer to Qatar. Also, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that Hanish Island belonged to Yemen, though it was closer to Eritrea.
Because distance does not entail rights, presence does not entail sovereignty. Egyptian presence on the islands since the Egyptian-Saudi agreement in December 1949 or Saudi absence from them does not entail a hierarchy of sovereignty. Sovereignty is based on history, documents, recognition from neighboring countries and not having conflicts with them. Occupation, peaceful or forced, does not entail any sovereignty over any region. Absence from a region also does not take away sovereignty, or else Egypt would not have sovereignty over the Western Desert for lack of Egyptian presence on it.
According to the frameworks governing it, no document or map denies Saudi sovereignty over the islands. Documents, maps and an Egyptian acknowledgment of this exist, though. Also, the proofs which returned Taba to Egypt and saved it from loss are exactly those which confirm Tiran and Sanafir being out of Egyptian waters and that they belong to the Kingdom, based on both history and actual events.