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Tiran and Sanafir Islands

Egypt's constitutional court on 03 March 2018 voided contradictory lower court rulings on the controversial transfer of two islands to Saudi Arabia, state media reported. The ruling on the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Red Sea, which sparked protests in Egypt, effectively ends legal challenges to the deal, already ratified by the government. The ruling came a day before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives in Egypt for a two-day visit, the first leg of a foreign tour.

Thousands in the Egyptian capital Cairo protested President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi decision to hand over two islands to Saudi Arabia. Sisi’s government announced the uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir would be demarcated as being in Saudi waters. The move seemed to have hurt many Egyptians national pride. Saudi Arabia insists it transferred the islands temporarily to Egypt in 1950 to ward off a possible Israeli attack. Israel eventually did occupy the islands after the Suez War of 1956. It returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982, in accordance with the 1978 Camp David agreements.

A bridge over the Sea that separates Egypt and Saudi Arabia is to be established, Saudi's King Salman said in Cairo on 08 April 2016 in a press conference with President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. This bridge will give teh Saudi military direct access to Egypt, in the event of further unrest in that country.

Eilat is Israel’s only port in the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, while Aqaba is Jordan’s sole outlet there. According to the United States perception, precedents pointed to Aqaba as an international waterway; the United States could not make an exception in Aqaba just because of the Israeli situation.

The Egyptian cabinet announced in a statement on 09 April 2016 that the joint Egyptian-Saudi technical maritime border drawing had determined that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea fall within regional Saudi maritime waters. The statement said that the determination that the two islands fall within Saudi regional waters is the culmination of a six-year process of studies and eleven rounds of negotiations between the two sides. The cabinet added that the maritime border agreement with Saudi Arabia allows Egypt to use shared Red Sea waters for excavation of natural resources, which would benefit the Egyptian economy.

The agreement has been the subject of public debate since April 2016, when the Egyptian media announced that it had been approved by the government. A group of Egyptian lawyers, as plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit that same month before the State Council Administrative Court (a first instance court) challenging the legality of the agreement. In June 2016, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs by abolishing the agreement and ordered the Egyptian state to continue to exercise all acts of sovereignty over the two islands.

On December 29, 2016, the Council of Ministers of Egypt approved a maritime demarcation agreement between the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. According to the agreement, Saudi Arabia will assume control over two islands in the Red Sea that have been under the control of Egypt. Following its approval of the agreement, the Council of Ministers referred it to the Parliament for further debate. In a "final verdict", on 16 January 2017 the High Administrative Court ruled against government agreement to hand over Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. But Abu Shoqa, the head of parliament committee of legislation and constitutional affairs said Article 151 of constitution gives parliament the final say on the Red Sea island agreement. Alaa Abdel-Moneim, a leading member of the legislative and constitutional affairs committee, said the government still had the right to appeal the ruling before the Supreme Constitutional Court. "They could resort to the Constitutional Court to decide whether article 151 of the constitution applies to this deal," said Abdel Moneim.


Finnish explorer Georg August Wallin, who visited Sinai twice in the 19th century, wrote that the local tribes of Sinai used to stay at Tarin Island. Naom Pasha Shokier's book 'The Old and Modern History of Sinai,' which was published in 1916, identified the two islands as part of Sinai. Shokeir, a Lebanese-Egyptian army officer and geographer in the early 20th century, was part of the Egyptian delegation negotiating with the Ottoman Empire over the Taba crisis in 1906.

In 1937 the Egyptian government had a map that recognised both Tiran and Sanafir islands as part of the Egyptian territories, using the same colour scheme used for Sinai. according to that map the Egyptian government took the decision to send troops to both islands in January 1950. In February 1950 the Egyptian finance ministry issued an internal memo stating the island was Egyptian.

Former Egyptian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and member of the Egyptian peace talks with Israel El-Siyad El-Masry said that in 1950, when the Egyptian troops were stationed in both islands, the Saudi King Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud sent a telegram to King Farouk of Egypt endorsing the Egyptian decision to station troops in the "Saudi" Sanafir to protect the nation.

In a 1950 aide-mémoire, the Egyptian Government stated that it occupied the Islands of Tiran and Sanafir as a preventive measure against eventual attack, that the action was not taken to prevent innocent travel between the islands and the Egyptian coast of Sinai, and that the passage would remain free as in the past.

Saudi Arabia claimed Egyptian-administered islands of Tiran and Sanafir. A note from the Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry, dated 31 March 1957 but delivered to the Embassy in Jidda on April 8. The note, which was considered an official Saudi statement on the status of the Gulf of Aqaba, asserted Saudi Arabian sovereignty over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, and described the Gulf as closed to international navigation, as the waters at the entrance constituted “Saudi Arabian territorial waters”. The note also maintained that any attempt to declare the straits to have an international status would be an act in derogation of Saudi sovereignty and a threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity.

On 17 May 1967 President Nasser issued a decision to close the Straits of Tiran and Sanafir in the face of Israeli navigation. When Egypt blocked the Strait of Tiran, the move prompted Israel to launch a Middle East war. In its 1979 peace deal with Israel, Cairo promised to respect freedom of shipping in Aqaba and Eilat, a commitment that Saudi Arabia says it will uphold when it takes over the islands.

The Saudis were concerned by what they regard as Israel’s expansionist designs, citing Israel’s refusal to evacuate Tiran Island as proof of Israeli aggressive intentions. After controlling the Tiran Strait and being allowed to pass through the Suez Canal, Israel's main problem regarding the Red Sea normally lay in the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

A confidential letter sent in 1990 by Egypt's foreign minister Esmat Abdel-Magid to late minister Atef Sadik, read that Saudi Arabia confidentially demanded twice, in 1988 and 1989, to take over the two islands that Egypt "occupied" in 1950. The letter added that according to the research conducted by the ministry, the two islands were determined to be outside Egyptian territory and accordingly they should return to Saudi Arabia.

Despite the fact that Egypt had agreed at some point in history to a Saudi request to oversee and protect the Islands of Tiran and Sanafir, the islands remained all along under Saudi sovereignty. The lengthy period of Egyptian guardianship over the two islands gave some people the wrong impression that the Islands were Egyptian.

Dozens of Egyptian public figures, including Nasserist politician Hamdeen Sabahi and leftist lawyer Khaled Ali, issued a statement on Tuesday rejecting the recent Saudi-Egyptian deal which leaves the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir within Saudi regional waters. "The two islands are considered an Egyptian property and the constitution, which was approved by Egyptians, prevents any authority from ceding any parts of Egyptian territory," the statement read.

While Article 151 of the Egyptian constitution prohibits the signing of any deals that forfeit national territory and mandates referendums in specific cases involving territorial sovereignty, it does not, however, stipulate that a referendum is required for the redrawing of maritime borders, as is the case in the Egyptian-Saudi agreement.

Some 400 people were arrested, dozens were sentenced to prison, protesting the transfer. However, later an appeals court in Cairo overturned this ruling and the protesters were released.

Egypt's Administrative Court on 21 June 2016 rejected the government’s decision to hand over control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. While the verdict is not final, it could deal a blow to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi's government. Critics argue the islands will be given to Saudi Arabia as a payoff, something the government has denied. The government said it would appeal the court's verdict. "The government is studying the reasons for the ruling and will ... challenge it at the higher administrative court of the State Council and request that ... it be cancelled," Magdy al-Agaty, minister of legal and parliamentary affairs, said.

A group of Egyptian rights lawyers filed the lawsuit with Egypt’s Administrative Court at the State Council arguing that President Sisi, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Al had wrongfully relinquished Egypt’s rights over the two islands. Led by Khaled Ali, a lawyer and former presidential hopeful, they argued the border demarcation agreement was illegal, citing article 151 of the Egyptian constitution, which states that all matters regarding the drawing of Egypt’s borders must be reviewed by the parliament.

The Egyptian constitution also states that a national referendum is required before any changes to the state’s borders can be finalised. One of the lawyers who co-filed the lawsuit, Malek Adly, has been detained since late April over under of “spreading false rumors and inciting protests against the agreement,” AhramOnline reported.


Ras Mohamed, Tiran and Sanafir Islands (27°40'N, 34°15'E) are positions commanding the Straits of Tiran, the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba. One of seven declared natural protectorates established in 1983 (Decree 1068) at the extreme southern extension of South Sinai in the Red Sea. The Strait of Tiran (28°00'N., 34°27'E.) is obstructed by a chain of reefs. These reefs, with several large drying boulders on them, are awash at LW during the summer.

Ras Mohamed is a peninsula of raised petrified coral reef that has cracked and filled with sea water. It features a sea water channel with tropical formation of mangrove trees and shrubs; an inland salt water pool; a series of volcanic cracks filled with sea water and populated by rare and interesting plants and animals, especially crustaceans; a canyon with the ruins of a Roman citadel, surrounded by a multitude of coral reefs and colorful reef fish.

Tiran Island is the largest island at the opening of the Gulf of Aqaba. Sandy beaches, which provide nesting grounds for marine turtles, are nearly completely fringed with coral reefs. Ospreys, spoonbills and the rare sooty falcon are among other birds species which breed on the island, which rises up to the 509 meter peak at Gebel Tiran. Sanafir Island lying to the east of Tiran is smaller, lower in elevation and completely surrounded by coral reefs.

Jazirat Tiran (27°56'N., 34°33'E.), rising to a height of 524m close within its SW point, has a sloping sandy beach along its E side for a distance of about 2.5 miles NW from Champlain Point (27°55'N., 34°37'E.). The remainder of the island is a low sandy plain, with some hills in places. Several well defined coral rocks lie close offshore on the coastal reef within 0.8 mile farther N. A coral reef, with a least depth of 0.3m, lies about 1 mile E of Champlain Point, and several detached shoals, with depths of 2.7 to 8.8m, lie within 2 miles of this point.

The NW coast of Jazirat Tiran between Chisholm Point, about 2 miles WNW of the above 524m peak, and Johnson Point, the NW extremity of the island, is fringed by reefs and backed by low, undercut, coral cliffs. Two conspicuous hills, 94m and 47m high, lie about 0.5 mile apart, about midway between these two points. Johnson Point, consisting of sand and dead coral, is low and flat. Two small sandy beaches S of Johnson Point are conspicuous when seen from S and generally afford good landing.

Anchorage can be taken about 0.3 mile offshore, in 22m, sand and coral, good holding ground, with a conspicuous hump, about 1 mile WSW of Champlain Point, bearing 342°, and the S edge of Jazirat Tiran bearing 268°. Anchorage can be taken off the E side of Jazirat Tiran. Care should be taken to avoid the reefs and rocks between Jazirat Tiran and Jazirat Sanafir. Approaching through the channel between Champlain Point and the coral reef E is not recommended during N winds.

In August many years ago, a vessel anchoring off Champlain Point experienced a N gale, which came up suddenly at night. These gales are reported to occur frequently during the night in this locality. It was reported in December, many years ago, that the tidal currents in the passage E of Jazirat Tiran set N during the rising tide and S during the falling tide.

Jazirat Sanafir (27°56'N., 34°43'E.) lies about 2 miles E of Jazirat Tiran. Numerous broken peaked limestone hills rise on the E part of the island, with the highest being near the SE extremity of the island.

From the Yemeni boundary northward, the Red Sea coast is fringed virtually continuously with "islands" and "shoals" as far as the Gulf of Aqaba. U.S. charts show many of the shoals to contain "rocks awash" or "sunken rocks" which might qualify, with the lower Saudi datum, as "islands." In the Strait of Tiran, the Saudi islands of Tiran and Sanafir are within 12 nautical miles of the coast and each other (as well as other adjacent islands). Straight baselines could presumably be drawn about them. In contrast, the Gulf of Aqaba is virtually without islands.

The Tiran Area extends from the mainland coast north of Duba to the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, and is noted for the wide variety of different biotopes and reef types, forming unique reef complexes with high zoogeographic significance. These reef complexes support a high species diversity including Red Sea endemic corals, presently undescribed coral species and species with restricted distributions otherwise rare or absent in the Red Sea.

Island fringing reefs are commonly developed in the Tiran area and from Duba - Al-Wajh Bank - Umluj. ‘Reticulate’ patch reefs (‘labyrinths / mazes’, composed of interconnected networks of reef matrix separated by sand, and forming intricate reticulate patterns, are particularly well developed in shallow waters (< 10 m depth) of the Tiran area and southern Al-Wajh Bank. Pinnacles (individual corals and coral ‘bommies’ surrounded by sand) are present in shallow waters (< 10 m depth), particularly in the Al-Wajh Bank and Tiran areas.

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Page last modified: 07-03-2018 18:40:09 ZULU