By Keiichi Honma / Yomiuri Shimbun Cairo Bureau ChiefCAIRO — There is a region that is involved in a territorial dispute that has attracted scant international attention. It is an area called the Halayeb triangle, over which Egypt and Sudan have competing claims. Facing the Red Sea, the region stretches over about 20,000 square kilometers.
Sudan has claimed sovereignty over the area since the country’s independence in 1956 from Britain and Egypt, as the border had been drawn ambiguously during the years of British rule. It did not, however, become a major issue because most of its land is a desert under the scorching sun.
In 1995, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sent forces to the Halayeb region — claiming that Sudan was involved in an attempted assassination of him — and put the region under Egypt’s control. This resulted in clashes with Sudanese forces.
Even so, after the inauguration in Egypt of then President Mohammed Morsi, calls to solve the dispute through dialogue gained momentum.
Nevertheless, a sense of disappointment is now being felt in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
Mohy Zein, a renowned Sudanese writer and an expert on Halayeb, laments the belated response to the dispute, adding that there have been a number of chances in the past 60 years to discuss how to jointly manage the land.
He says so because Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration announced last year that there are 18 potential gold mine sites in and around the region. The quantity of gold underground there is estimated to rank among the largest in the world, and preparations for mining operations are under way.
Since the start of this year, Sudan has called on Egypt to hold direct talks about the territory, suggesting that Sudan would take the matter to the International Court of Justice and limit water flows of the Nile River unless Egypt accepts the demand.
And yet, Egypt appears in no mood to back down. From July, it began constructing ports and infrastructure along Halayeb’s coastal areas.
Hassan Mikki, a professor of Middle Eastern relations at the International University of Africa in Khartoum, says that Sudan, as a whole, is nowadays showing little interest in the Halayeb issue. This may be because the Sudanese side has no measures available in the face of Egyptian offensive moves. Conditions are such that people hardly gather in protests calling for retaking Halayeb, according to Mikki.
Oil breaks up land
It is often said in the Middle East that oil breaks up land.
It means that if the economic value of a territory rises due to natural resources, disputes could escalate, and the land could be divided. According to an Algerian expert, the Middle East has a total of 17 ongoing major territorial disputes, over 80 percent of which are attributed to economic interests.
In the Persian Gulf, oil reserves lie around three islands over which Iran and the United Arab Emirates have competing territorial claims. Mineral resources exist in a disputed area between Morocco and Algeria.
Behind some of the world’s territorial disputes — which are said to exceed 100 — lie not only resources, but also ethnicity, religion and historical issues. In this sense, solutions cannot be uniform.
Looking at the northern territories issue — in which Japan and Russia aim to implement “joint economic activities” — from the Middle East, I cannot help associating it with Halayeb.
I think that Russia would become even more reluctant to hand over the territories if the joint economic activities help develop tourism and fisheries and boost their economic values.
Japan needs to be extremely careful about joint business or negotiations with Russia, so as not to end up regretting its belated response after such a situation occurs.
The anniversary of the end of World War II is approaching. This year also marks the 70th year since residents of the four islands in the northern territories off Hokkaido were expelled.