An Egyptian Constitutional Court case and protests in Egypt and Maldives are the results of a Saudi Arabian initiative to acquire islands near and far from the radical Wahhabist-ruled kingdom. Last year, the Egyptian government agreed to transfer to the Saudis sovereignty over the Egyptian islands of Tiran and Sanafir, located at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. The move came after an official visit of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to Cairo. Observers believe the deal was a result of a large infusion of Saudi cash—estimated to be billions of dollars—into Egypt in order to bolster a sagging economy.
Although Israel has long desired to occupy the uninhabited islands, its government reportedly agreed to the Egyptian deal to cede the islands to the Saudis. Israeli acquiescence was necessary since the transfer of the islands impacted the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Israel briefly occupied the islands during the 1956 Suez crisis.
After the announcement of the deal on April 8, 2016, Egyptians took to the streets to protest the transfer.
The Constitutional Court of Egypt later ruled the transfer of the two islands to be unconstitutional and the deal was annulled. The government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi appealed the decision and it remains tied up in an appeals battle between the government and the court. Cairo has sought to re-write its own history by claiming Tiran and Sanafir have always been Saudi. The government has even altered atlases used by schools to show the islands as Saudi.
Another trip abroad by King Salman, this time to Maldives in the Indian Ocean, has sparked a row over reported Saudi plans to purchase the atoll of Faafu for $10 billion, thrice the annual gross domestic product of Maldives. Faafu is made up of 28 coral islands, inhabited by 4000 people. Maldivian observers believe that the Saudis are taking advantage of a 2015 lifting of a Maldivian government ban on the foreign purchase of Maldivian real estate.
Although the Maldivian government denies it is selling Faafu to the Saudis, it admitted that a $10 billion “mega project” for Faafu is in the works. A protest by Faafu islanders against the Saudi deal took place on the main island of Biledhdhoo. Protest leaders and two local journalists were reportedly detained and questioned by the police. The Saudis clearly despise a free press. Last February, the Saudi embassy in Malé, the capital, was caught handing out envelopes of cash, said to be “gifts,” to local journalists. In Indonesia, the Saudi Information Minister who was traveling with Salman, told his Indonesian counterpart that he was puzzled by the existence of a free press in predominantly Muslim Indonesia. A free press in Sunni-ruled countries is anathema to the archaic and backward policies and beliefs of the Wahhabists.
The Maldives United Opposition (MUO), claimed from exile in Colombo, Sri Lanka, that the Maldivian government of President Abdulla Yameen agreed to the deal prior to Salman’s upcoming visit to Maldives. Although Maldives is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, the population, with its unique and tolerant island culture, is far from the radical Wahhabist strain. The MUO and opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) fear that the sale of Faafu to the Saudis will increase Wahhabist influence in the island nation. Maldives is already the highest per capita source of jihadist recruits for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Residents of the predominantly Hindu island of Bali were concerned about Salman and his 1000-strong entourage’s month-long stay on their island at the luxurious St. Regis Bali Resort. Indonesia has recently been plagued by Saudi-inspired Islamist protests against Christians and ethnic Chinese, in particular the ethnic Chinese Christian Governor of Jakarta Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. The Saudi-backed Islamists have accused the governor of “blasphemy” against Islam. An attempt by the Saudis to acquire real estate on Bali will result in protests by the Hindu majority and Christian minority.
Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal bin Abdel Aziz al Saud has a significant stake in the Raffles Hotel in the island of Praslinin in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. He also owns a Four Seasons hotel in the south of the main Seychelles island of Mahé.
The Donald Trump administration has remained peculiarly silent as Saudi Arabia seeks to expand its influence as demonstrated by King Salman’s royal trek to Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, China, Japan, and Maldives.
The Saudis are not the only Arabian peninsula potentates to express interest in controlling islands. The President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Nahayan, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, have taken a keen interest in the Yemeni-controlled island of Socotra in the strategic Gulf of Aden. Long sought by the Pentagon for a U.S. military base, the island hosted a Soviet naval base and signals intelligence facility during the Cold War. The UAE has built a city on the island called
“Zayed Residential City 1.”
In October 2015, UAE forces took control of the Yemeni island of Perim in the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait between the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The island had been under the control of Yemeni Houthi rebel forces battling a Saudi puppet government for control of Yemen. The Houthis are allied with Iran. Control of Perim and Socotra, along with a planned UAE naval base in Berbera in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, gives the UAE a massive presence in one of the most strategic waterways in the world. The UAE president is also building a massive vacation palace on Mahé island in the Seychelles, at what was once a U.S. Air Force listening station in the village of La Misere.
Previously published in the Wayne Madsen Report.
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Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist and nationally-distributed columnist. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).