Maritime boundaries in the Red Sea

Summary: most of the maritime boundaries in the Red Sea have been delimited through negotiations or arbitration. The main current dispute is between Egypt and Sudan.  

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for this posting. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

In our posts of 25 July and 1 August, we looked respectively at the maritime boundaries of the Arab states in the Mediterranean and those of the Gulf. In this post, we consider the maritime boundaries of the Arab states with coastlines on the Red Sea.

The Red Sea (source: Wikipedia)

The Red Sea is part of a rift valley extending northwards into the Jordan Valley and southwards into the Great African Rift. As befits a geological rift, the Red Sea is a relatively narrow body of water, averaging only 280 kms across with a maximum width of 360 kms.

Economically, the Red Sea’s greatest significance is as a waterway. Indeed, it is one of the world’s most important waterways. (We looked at the Bab al-Mandab and the Suez Canal, the choke-points at the southern and northern ends of the Red Sea, and the traffic which passes through them, in our posts of 16 February and 1 March.) Given the right of innocent passage through other states’ territorial seas for which the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provides, the location of maritime boundaries does not affect the use of the Red Sea for commercial navigation.

There are oil, gas and mineral deposits under the Red Sea. The proven oil and gas reserves are, however, very small in comparison to those in the Persian Gulf or eastern Mediterranean. The mineral deposits appear to have considerable potential but so far have only been exploited on a small scale. The depth of the Red Sea (on average 490 metres, compared to 50 metres for the Gulf) makes the commercial extraction of oil, gas and minerals a challenging prospect.

Eight states have coastlines on the Red Sea. Five of these are Arab: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. A sixth state, Djibouti, is a member of the Arab League and regards Arabic as one of its official languages but hardly qualifies as an Arab country, given that Arabic is the mother tongue of only one in 10 Djiboutians. The other two states on the Red Sea, Eritrea and Israel, are more clearly non-Arab (although the latter has a higher proportion of native speakers of Arabic than Djibouti). Jordan and Israel have only very short coastlines on the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba (around 20 and 10 kms respectively), one of the two Gulfs at the northern end of the Sea. (The other is the Gulf of Suez.)

A number of agreements delimit coastal states’ jurisdiction in the Red Sea. In 1974, Saudi Arabia and Sudan signed an agreement on a “joint development zone” to enable them to exploit sea-bed resources in the area of the sea which lies between them. The agreement is unusual in that the zone is not defined by geographical coordinates but rather by the depth of the sea-bed, namely, where it is greater than 1,000 metres. At the same time, the agreement does not define the northern and southern limits of the zone.

More conventional agreements delimiting maritime boundaries have been signed by Israel and Jordan (in 1996), by Yemen and Saudi Arabia (the 2000 treaty, which covered both land and sea boundaries) and by Jordan and Saudi Arabia (in 2007) .

Yemen and Eritrea have also settled the dispute between them over their mutual maritime boundary but did so not by bilateral negotiations but rather by resorting to arbitration. In 1998, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague allocated sovereignty over the various groups of islands lying between Yemen and Eritrea to one or other of the two countries. The following year, the PCA delimited the maritime boundary between them using the principle of equidistance from the respective coasts. However, it provided for traditional fishing by Eritreans to continue in Yemeni waters and for each country to inform the other in the event of the discovery of oil, gas or other minerals in deposits that straddled the boundary.

The main dispute over maritime boundaries in the Red Sea is that between Egypt and Sudan. It is directly connected to the dispute between the two countries over the Hala’ib Triangle, a sparsely-inhabited territory controlled by Egypt but claimed by Sudan since it gained independence in 1956. Where the land boundary meets the sea, a matter yet to be resolved, naturally affects the location of the maritime boundary. Paradoxically, the dispute, hitherto largely dormant, was re-ignited by the settlement of another question of sovereignty in the Red Sea, that concerning the uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir which lie at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In 2016, Egypt ceded sovereignty over the islands to Saudi Arabia. (The transfer of the islands was highly controversial within Egypt and was met with widespread protests.) The agreement delimited the maritime boundaries between the two countries more generally, in the process using coordinates that implicitly recognised Egypt’s claim to the Hala’ib Triangle. Sudan registered its objection at the UN, a move followed by Egypt’s rejection of Sudan’s claim.

Egypt and Sudan have sought to contain the dispute over the Triangle – and hence over their boundary in the Red Sea – as well as the other bones of contention between them (including Sudan’s developing relations with Turkey and Qatar and its siding with Ethiopia over the latter’s Grand Renaissance Dam). President Sisi of Egypt visited Khartoum in July with the objective of overcoming bilateral difficulties. It is clear from his statement after his meeting with President Bashir of Sudan that his objective was only partly achieved. However, his continuing efforts (he said he would visit Sudan again in October) will be made easier by the fact that, to date, no significant economic resources have been discovered in the Triangle or beneath adjacent areas of the sea.

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