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Egpytian Government Votes to Hand Tiran and Sanafir Islands to Saudi Arabia

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The islands of Tiran (centre) and Sanafir (right) have been disputed territory for many years. (Google Maps)

The Egyptian government has voted to hand control of the islands of Tiran and Sanfir to Saudi Arabia.

The ownership of the islands has been the subject of disagreement between the two nations since the 1950s. Previously administered by Saudi Arabia, they were handed over to Egyptian control due to Saudi Arabia's fear of hostility from Israel. Israel took the islands during the Six-Day War of 1967 and subsequently handed them back to Egypt in 1982 as a result of the 1979 Camp David accords.

Heavily landmined during the conflict and, in the intervening years inhabited by the Multinational Force of Observers, Tiran itself has been off-limits to tourists ever since, although the Lagunas of the western fringing reef are popular mooring spots for boats and snorkel tours, often used as shelter when the sometimes rough waters of the Straits of Tiran make other locations difficult for mooring.

Saudi Arabia's interest in the islands has been renewed during the years of political instability following the January 2011 revolution, which saw incumbent president Hosni Mubarak and his government ousted.

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The island of Tiran is a familiar sight for visitors to Sharm-El-Sheikh (photo: Shutterstock)

Chief among Saudi's claims to the islands was the concept of utilising the islands to build a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, widely condemned for both environmental and political reasons, but which will, if it goes ahead, ensure the destruction of one of the best diving locations in the world.

Legal wrangling over possession of the islands has continued, with a 2016 agreement that the islands belonged to Saudi Arabia overturned by the Egyptian courts earlier this year. According to reports in the Egyptian press, the final decision to hand over the islands will be taken by a court scheduled to convene in July.

The reefs of Gordon, Thomas, Woodhouse and Jackson are favourites among scuba divers, located just north of Sharm El Sheikh in the strait between the Sinai Peninsula and the large island of Tiran. Reports are spreading that Tiran has been made 'off limits for diving and fishing' which is not accurate. Tiran has always been a protected area for fishing, but there is no current prohibition to diving at all of the regular dive sites .

The consequences of the handover - should it happen - to the region's tourism remain unknown, but the agreement will doubtless cause concern among the residents of South Sinai, particularly in the beleaguered resort of Sharm El Sheikh, which saw tourism fall dramatically after flights were banned following the downing of a Russian airliner in 2013.

Most European nations have since lifted the travel ban to Sharm, but visitors have been slow to return. As a result, the diving is widely accepted as being the best it's been for years.

 

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