Egypt court clears way for Red Sea islands handover to Saudi Arabia

December 31, 2016

An Egyptian appeals court today upheld an agreement to return control of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, providing a boost for the government in a case that has prompted increasingly rare street protests.

The territorial deal, announced in April, caused public uproar among many Egyptians who said the uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir belonged to their country.

The case has become a source of tension with Saudi Arabia, which has provided billions of dollars of aid to Egypt but recently halted fuel shipments amid deteriorating relations. Egypt is also seen as siding increasingly with Riyadh’s archrival, Iran.

Last week, the Egyptian government approved the deal to hand over the islands and sent it to parliament for ratification, despite the legal dispute over the plan.

The appeals court in Cairo today upheld a verdict by a lower court that annulled a ruling by the administrative court, which had said the agreement to hand over the islands was void, judicial sources said.

The administrative court had said the agreement violated Egypt’s constitution, which prohibits giving away any part of Egyptian territory to another country.

A more senior tribunal, the higher administrative court, is due to issue a verdict on 16 January.

Tiran and Sanafir are in the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba leading to Jordan and Israel.

Saudi and Egyptian officials say the islands belong to Saudi Arabia and were only under Egyptian control because Riyadh asked Cairo to protect them in 1950.

Many Egyptians reject the government’s argument, accusing it of selling part of their homeland.

Lawyers who oppose the handover say Cairo’s sovereignty over the islands dates to a 1906 treaty, before Saudi Arabia was founded. However, Egypt itself was not an independent country, and was subordinated to the British Empire in an imposed agreement with the Turkish Ottoman Empire.