Egypt never intended to give Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia
When the issue of transferring Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia was raised in Egypt, the comment “Awad sold his land” was heard. The reference to a popular 1960s operetta on Egyptian radio encapsulated how the average Egyptian citizen viewed this complex issue. In any other country, Awad could freely sell his land and buy another plot without drawing a single comment but not in Egypt.
For thousands of years, Egyptians have had a special bond with their land. The country’s unique geography has a lot to do with that. Egypt is basically a vast desert split in the middle by narrow strips of fertile green land on either side of the Nile. The fate of Egyptians has long been intimately tied to those green strips. Every Egyptian knows that straying far from the Nile valley spells doom.
The livelihood of Egyptians for years depended on farming so land became sacred. No Egyptian farmer would sell his land no matter the price offered. Selling one’s land would bring dishonour. These same values extend to the country. National territory is a matter of national pride.
The Egyptian government made a grave mistake by even considering ceding Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. Any official sitting behind a desk in Cairo knows that just mentioning the idea would create a crisis for any regime and at any time.
Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak experienced first-hand the neurosis of Egyptian people when it comes to touching their land and its resources. The agreement he struck regarding supplying Israel with Egyptian natural gas left a deep gash in people’s pride. The public had sent him repeated warnings over the years but he was unable to grasp the intricacies of the deeply rooted bond between Egyptians and their land. As a consequence, he lost any legitimacy with the Egyptian people and was eventually pushed aside.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been more careful in dealing with Egyptian national pride. From the beginning, he knew the issue of the islands would represent a direct threat to his legitimacy. Nobody knows why he decided to tackle the affair in the first place.
The fateful Arab alliance between Saudi Arabia and Egypt should have been incentive enough to have the Saudi side predict the red lines its Egyptian ally cannot cross. One simply cannot ask anyone to risk destabilising a large society suffering from a succession of acute crises over Tiran and Sanafir, especially when the issue has been dormant for a long time.
The secret to the success of any agreement lies in having each partner understand the red lines constraining the other. The crisis over the islands was made worse by the presence of another red line. Surrendering the islands to Saudi Arabia would have dealt a deadly blow to the historical Egyptian authority over the area.
Tiran and Sanafir control the strait separating the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea leading to the Israeli port of Eilat. The strait is 100% Egyptian. Surrendering the islands to Saudi Arabia would turn it into an international passageway and Saudi Arabia would automatically become a party to the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel.
The Egyptian side would rather avoid that outcome. Since the peace accords of 1979, Egyptian foreign policy worked very hard to make the country the only legitimate interlocutor in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bringing in another party in negotiations with Israel about the Palestinian cause would be a direct blow to Egypt’s historical role and influence in the region.
The Egyptian regime risked a lot by accepting Saudi financial aid. Just talk about surrendering Egyptian soil would have been very costly. Any other price for that aid would have been acceptable, or at least negotiable, to the Egyptian side.
Saudi-Egyptian relations will persevere because neither side can afford the cost of having them deteriorate. The episode of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir can be taken as a stage on which both partners were discovering the limitations of each other’s concessionary power. Closing the chapter on the issue marks the end of the exploratory stage and heralds the beginning of a more mature stage in negotiations.