What’s in an island?
Photo: Heba Afifiy

On April 24, tensions were rising in the streets of Cairo and other governorates and protests had been announced against ceding sovereignty of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.

But over in Neama Bay, the center of resort city Sharm el-Sheikh, lines of tour providers were handing out flyers advertising the trips they offer to passersby as loud music from cafés along the street mingled in a noisy mess.

Overlooking the Red Sea, Sharm el-Sheikh is the tourism capital of South Sinai and Egypt’s gateway to the islands that have dominated public debate since April 9. The trip to Tiran is still featured in all the tour providers’ flyers, a day excursion by boat with several stops for diving and snorkeling near the island.

The signing of a new maritime border agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on April 9, whereby the islands under Egypt’s sovereignty are to be handed over to Saudi Arabia, created a popular uproar and triggered the biggest protests since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power.

After the decision, news circulated that trips to the islands from Egypt were stopped. A grim image was drawn of trip providers in Sharm el-Sheikh lamenting their impending doom.

Ahmed Ezz, owner of the Sharm el-Sheikh’s Sedny Safari trip provider, doesn’t seem to sweat it though. His response to how the loss of the islands might affect his business is a relaxed one: “There’s nothing wider than the sea.”

Ezz, like several other people in the Sharm el-Sheikh tourism industry that Mada Masr talked to, is hopeful that business will continue as usual even after the transfer of the islands’ sovereignty. Worst comes to worst, he says, tourists will easily be channeled to the more popular diving area of Ras Mohamed.

In and of themselves, the islands are irrelevant to tourism because their uninhabited, bare desert surfaces are of little interest to travelers. Since the signing of the Camp David peace accords with Israel in 1978, only Multinational Forces and Observers are stationed in Tiran, ensuring that marine navigation and access to the Gulf of Aqaba are not obstructed. Further toward Saudi Arabia, Sanafir is not heavily featured in Sharm el-Sheikh tourism programs.  The most prominent tourist activity involving the islands is the Tiran day trip.

Tiran and Sanafir.jpg

Tiran and Sanafir

As demonstrated in this map in one of the tourism offices in the city, most dive spots fall on Egypt’s side of the island. Only six spots would be threatened by the handover because they fall on the Saudi Arabia side: Laguna, Jackson, Gordon, Woodhouse, Thomas and Kormoran.

Tour operators are waiting for the exact coordinates of the new borders to discover whether Egypt will lose access to them.

Leaving the dock on the morning of April 24 were five boats fully loaded with 30 people all heading toward Tiran. After an hour the boats docked by the island and people jumped into the sea for snorkeling and diving. Like so many areas in the Red Sea, the place has a rich marine life. Some of the creatures divers hope to spot in the area include the eagle ray, napoleon fish and small sharks.

Docked fewer than 100 meters from the island, the guides on board were not too worried about their prospects. There had been no official communication to tour providers from police or any authorities to change their regular trips. Tour providers also told Mada Masr that it would be possible to take a speedboat and land on the island itself  just like they have always done, discreetly because security permits are required.

Tourists on Sanafir island in 2006, courtesy Sedny Safari

Maged Rabia, head of the Kararsha tribe in Sinai and owner of a Sharm el-Sheikh café, explains that another sector will sustain the most damage from the decision. Despite the declaration of the Ras Mohamed, Tiran and Sanafir area as a natural protectorate since 1996, fishermen still camp on the island and depend on it for their livelihoods, so its loss would be devastating for them. Born in Sharm el-Sheikh, Rabia says fishing trips to Tiran were a staple of his childhood.

While Egypt may end up maintaining sovereignty over the most important diving spots in the area after the handover, Hesham Gabr — the chairman of the Chamber of Diving and Water Sports and founder of Sinai Reef for Environment and Community Development — has significant fears regarding the possible ramifications of the recent agreement on marine life not only around the islands, but along the whole coast of Sharm el-Sheikh.

The extent of the damages can’t yet be determined, as the details of the agreement have not been disclosed — but they could be catastrophic, Gabr said in an interview on the privately owned satellite channel ONtv in April.

During King Salman bin Abdul Aziz’s recent visit to Cairo, the two countries agreed to build a bridge connecting Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which would go through the Red Sea. According to the proposed trajectory, the bridge’s foundation would go into the bottom of the sea in protected areas, says Gabr, and could potentially damage coral reefs across the whole coast of Sharm el-Sheikh — starting from Ras Mohamed and extending all the way to Tiran island. This would effectively annihilate marine life in the entire area, he claims.

Turning the city into a gateway for commercial activity, as is intended with the construction of the bridge, would change its appealing touristic nature, Gabr warns, declaring that “Sharm el-Sheikh as we know it will end.”

Gabr also says that it’s important to know the guarantees and commitments on the Saudi side to ensure that the activities they perform on their territory once the islands are handed over won’t harm protected areas on the Egyptian side. For example, Gabr says that if reports that Saudi Arabia is intending to excavate for gas and petrol around the islands are true, this activity would have dire effects on the nearby coral and marine life.

In a quick survey of how others who live in the city and don’t directly work with the islands feel about the decision, apathy was the most dominant reaction.

The economy of the city, which used to buzz with tourists, has taken a strong blow in the last five years as the tourism industry in Egypt dramatically declined. The decline was accelerated by the fatal crash of a Russian passenger plane near Sharm el-Sheikh in October, which is suspected to be linked to a criminal act.

“I want tourism to return,” says Wael, owner of a supermarket in Neama Bay. “The islands will do us no good.”

Note: This article was edited for content on May 2, 2016.


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