Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)
Let us cut a long story short. There are two islands at the northern part of the Red Sea named Sanafir and Tiran. These two islands had always been Saudi islands. The name of the two islands was very rarely mentioned in any form of media — not even the maritime-related publication. Now, both the Saudi islands are making headlines.
Sanafir and Tiran islands were never inhabited like many hundreds of islands that are under Saudi sovereignty. The two islands strategically lie at the opening of the Gulf of Aqaba, which is surrounded by four countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. The islands have a total area of 120 square kilometers. These two islands were briefly mentioned in reports during the major direct Arab-Israeli military conflicts and wars in 1956- 67 and 73. But, it was discretely discussed during the peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel in the late 1970s during the Camp David Peace Accord. So, why the two islands are now in the news all around the world?
During the 1950s, Saudi Arabia handed the control of the two islands to Egypt for many reasons. One of them was: The two islands were located in very remote areas. During the many Egyptian-Israeli conflict, the islands changed hands and later on became inhabited by few United Nations personal. During the past decades Saudi Arabia never made any noise to get the islands back for one and only reason, the islands belonged to Saudi Arabia and the fact is very known to Egypt, Israel, the United Nations and all mariners. In addition to that there was no urgent need for the Saudis to utilize the islands. Saudi Arabia had always been known for its quiet policies.
The latest visit by Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques King Salman to Egypt shed light on the islands again. It wasn’t the Saudi press that shed the light because again, it wasn’t necessary for the Saudis to claim something they already owned. Many brought the island into the light after the announcement of King Salman to build a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Minutes after the announcement, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi named the bridge after King Salman. The news confirmed the Saudi sovereignty over the islands, which are supported by many documents dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. Saudi Arabia is well known in the international area as a country that had always honored international and regional agreements and commitments regarding maritime laws and safe passages through any area controlled by Saudi Arabia.
During the heat of the Camp David Peace negotiation between the Americans, Egyptians and Israelis, the issue of the islands came to the surface when Israel agreed to pull from the Sinai Peninsula, but, the Saudis were only watching the outcome which again confirmed the Saudi sovereignty over the islands. Saudis always believe rightly that there are issues that should be left to time to get resolved.
Building a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Egypt is a historical moment and it will help connect two continents, Asia and Africa. And this connection is of strategic importance for Egypt and especially for the Sinai Peninsula and the two islands.
The bottom-line is that Saudi Arabia’s track record of handling boundaries or maritime disputes is an example that can be followed because neighbors should resort to negotiations to settle differences.
There are thousands of uninhabited or scarcely inhabited islands around the world that caused many unwanted conflicts. Now, the world is watching the escalating events in the South China Sea with massive American and Chinese military build-up because of maritime disputes between some South Asian countries.
Saudi Arabia had achieved many strategic goals in the past few days but there will always be voices that will try to overshadow these accomplishments with misinformation about the intentions of the Saudis.
At the end, Saudi Arabia is one of the leading countries that had put all of its efforts in spreading peace and stability in the area.
Written by Abdulateef Al-Mulhim. The Tale of Two Islands reprinted with permission of Arab News and Abdulateef Al-Mulhim.