We do not know in what manner Saudi Arabia – which has thousands of islands in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf whose exact location it does not know – would have been affected had it postponed its demand for sovereignty over these two islands for a few more years
by Abdelbari Atwan – www.raialyoum.com
On Monday, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court fired a ‘lethal bullet’ at the agreement that upholds Saudi sovereignty over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the gateway to the Gulf of Aqaba. It did so by issuing a unanimous and final verdict that the agreement is null and void, and that the two islands fall under Egyptian sovereignty. This effectively slams the door in the face of any attempt at mediation to restore relations to normalcy. It also places President ‘Abdelfattah as-Sissi in confrontation with the people– or broad sectors of them– should he try to ignore this judicial verdict that enjoys wide-scale support.
We will not seek to join the current legal dispute between supporters of this verdict, who are the majority, and those opposed to it who are in a minority. Each camp has its own point of view and the documents to support it and contradict its opponents’ positions. All that we can say is that the Saudi and Egyptian governments have implicated themselves in a legal and political predicament, displaying an unprecedented strategic ‘short-sightedness’ that reveals a mis-assessment of the situation by opening this thorny file at this specific point in time without taking into consideration the consequences of moving down this dangerous slippery slope.
We do not know in what manner Saudi Arabia – which has thousands of islands in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf whose exact location it does not know – would have been affected had it postponed its demand for sovereignty over these two islands for a few more years. Even if it turns out that it truly has sovereignty over them, they are uninhabited islands that contain no gold. They were under Israeli occupation for decades and have no touristic value. And the same goes for Egypt, in one way or another, but this does not mean that we dismiss its right to demand sovereignty over the two islands or any other islands. We support postponing the issue instead of allowing the two countries relations towards further tension.
Saudi Arabia is currently fighting a bloody war of attrition in Yemen, and another in Syria. It sees Iran as an existential threat. At the same time, it is facing domestic terrorism and a financial and economic crisis that has forced it to adopt austerity measures that have begun to stir popular anxiety and widespread criticism. Is this the right moment to enter a political and legal crisis with the largest Arab country without which it cannot confront each and every one of these crises?
President Sissi conceded these islands because he is in a financially critical situation and wants the Saudi billions to salvage his country’s collapsed economy, and hence his rule. In other words, he is hostage to financial need. This is why he disregarded the element that goes by the name ‘the Egyptian people’ and ignored their extreme sensitivity towards conceding any Egyptian soil, even if in favor of a sister-state such as Saudi Arabia that has offered loans and financial grants to the order of fifty billion dollars.
The warning that the Saudi authorities issued to the Egyptian president, threatening to take strict punitive measures against him and his government if he does not make up his mind and hand over the two islands (giving him three weeks to do so according to some reports) was somewhat hasty. In fact, it was not appropriate at all as a mistimed act of escalation.
The pressures exerted on the Egyptian authorities, comprising a Gulf alliance that has agreed to cease any financial backing to it as long as it fails to comply with Saudi preconditions, and the decision to halt the monthly 700-thousand-ton oil grant, may not only turn the Egyptian street against Saudi Arabia, but against most of the Gulf states. It may drive President Sissi to throw himself into Iran and its camp’s lap, whereas Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states stand in the opposite camp in the direct or proxy political and military wars that are raging on more than one front today.
A few days ago, the Egyptian government sent Oil Minister Ahmad al-Mulla to Iraq. He returned carrying a grant of two million oil barrels each month. This will do more than counterweigh the Saudi grant, and with much easier conditions. In addition, he signed an agreement to refine Iraqi oil in Egyptian refineries so as to meet Baghdad’s needs of basic products such as petrol and fuel oil.
There are a number of likely scenarios after this verdict has been issued:
– First, the Egyptian government may uphold the Supreme Administrative Court’s decision and cancel the agreement, clinging to its sovereignty over the two islands, and bearing the consequences.
– Second, it may oppose this verdict and cast doubt on it, heading to Parliament to endorse it on the grounds that it believes that Parliament is the body that is constitutionally authorized to deal with such agreements and treaties. What makes this option likely is the statement issued by the ‘Support Egypt Coalition’ – which is the majority bloc in Parliament – that said that this verdict does not alter the fact that ‘it is Parliament that has the authority to rule on international treaties and agreements …and it will not relinquish this right.’
– Third, President Sissi may continue to procrastinate in an attempt to gain time, while seeking Gulf mediation to mend relations with Saudi Arabia, or reduce its pressures and warnings at least.
– Fourth, the two countries may decide to get wise and rational and freeze their disagreements over the islands at present.
It is difficult to say which of these four scenarios is the most likely. But we prefer the last since we are aware of the dangers that may ensue from any of the other three for both countries and the region as a whole.
For us, the two islands are neither Egyptian nor Saudi, but Arab. It makes little difference to us under whose sovereignty they are so long as they remain Arab. We did not wish for matters between these two sisterly countries to reach this sorry state.
“But if it proves impossible to reach a settlement that is acceptable to both sides, what is wrong with heading to the International Court of Justice and bringing the disagreement before it as Qatar and Bahrain did when they disagreed over the island of Hawar