World | Middle East

April 11, 2016

Egypt Gives Saudi Arabia 2 Islands in a Show of Gratitude

Since King Salman of Saudi Arabia arrived in Cairo on Thursday for a five-day visit, the leader of the oil-rich kingdom has lavished his Egyptian allies with promises of aid and investment.

But this time, instead of writing a blank check with little more than a polite “thank you” to show for it, King Salman will return home Monday with something more substantial in return: two islands in a strategic corner of the Red Sea.

Egypt’s cabinet announced on Saturday that it was transferring sovereignty of Tiran and Sanafir, arid and uninhabited islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, to Saudi Arabia. The cabinet tried to suggest that the transfer, pending approval from Parliament, merely returned Saudi Arabia’s own territory.

Saudi Arabia transferred Tiran and Sanafir to Egyptian control in 1950 amid concerns that Israel might seize them.

The announcement elicited vivid protests from Egyptians who have for decades considered the islands to be Egyptian land. And it set off a debate over whether President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had made a humiliating concession to a wealthy ally.

In a flood of social media posts, critics called Mr. Sisi “Awaad,” referring to a character in an old Egyptian song who had sold his land — a shameful act in the eyes of rural Egyptians. “The island is for a billion, the pyramids are for two, and they come with two gift statues on top,” the satirist Bassem Youssef wrote on Twitter.

A small demonstration erupted in Tahrir Square, the site of the 2011 protests that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. At least five people were arrested there on Sunday, an Interior Ministry official said.

“Whatever the legal situation, the optics of this move are terrible,” said Samer Shehata, an associate professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, referring to the transfer of the two islands.

“Here you have Salman coming to Egypt, pledging billions of dollars in aid and investment, and in exchange these islands are handed over,” Professor Shehata said. “It seems to many Egyptians that the president is selling land for Saudi riyals.”

Mr. Sisi has faced unusually sharp criticism recently for his handling of the struggling economy and the death of an Italian graduate student, Giulio Regeni. As censure of the islands deal grew, supporters of Mr. Sisi came to the president’s defense, chiding Egyptians for lamenting the fate of islands few had ever visited.

“All of a sudden, everyone is acting as if they were vacationing there, when none had gone anywhere near it,” the television presenter Amr Adeeb said in an impatient outburst on his show, “Al Qahera Al Youm.”

King Salman’s visit has dominated life in Cairo for days, exacerbating the city’s notoriously snarled traffic as he attended meetings at the presidential palace and visited the ancient Al Azhar mosque. Egyptian and Saudi officials signed at least 15 agreements during the king’s visit, including a development package for Sinai and an oil deal worth $22 billion to Egypt over five years, state news media reported.

The transfer of the two islands, which are less than five miles from the coastlines of both countries, was the product of a six-year negotiation over maritime boundaries, officials said. The islands’ value is mostly strategic, and they have been unoccupied except for a handful of soldiers, usually American, stationed on Tiran as part of the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

Political analysts said it was surprising that Mr. Sisi had agreed to transfer the islands, given sensitivities in Egypt to surrendering land to foreigners. Critics accused President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 of plotting to give part of Sinai to the Palestinian group Hamas.

After Mr. Sisi came to power that year in a military takeover, he introduced a clause in the Constitution that explicitly prohibited ceding Egyptian territory.

“The irony of the post-2013 regime ceding Tiran to Saudi Arabia after having inserted this clause will not be lost on those with any political memory of the controversies of Morsi’s year in office,” Nathan Brown, a scholar at George Washington University, said in an email.

For Mr. Sisi, losing the islands might be worth it for the potential diplomatic gains. Since 2013, Saudi Arabia has propped up Egypt’s ailing economy by injecting at least $12 billion into Egyptian coffers.

Tensions between the countries have grown in recent months, with Saudi Arabia angered by Egypt’s reluctance to follow its aggressive military policies in Yemen and Syria.

“At the end of the day, this is not a hugely important concession for Egypt,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. “But it does show that Sisi sees the Saudi relationship as a fence that needs mending.”

Text by The New York Times
 

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