On the 10th of March 2019, the Egyptian, South Valley Egyptian Petroleum Holding Co offered ten gas and oil exploration blocks for sale in the Red Sea through a tender, set to close for bids on the 1st August. Several of the blocks offered are located within the boundaries of the contested Hala’ib Triangle. Simultaneously, the head of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) in Sudan has just completed his first visits abroad to Egypt and the UAE, the two states most invested in the Hala’ib Triangle. Both of which have offered their support for the TMC.
The dispute is rooted in the former colonial administration of the area. When the United Kingdom administrated the area, it set the political boundary between the two states at 22°N latitude under the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement for Sudan in 1899 which ensured Egyptian claim to the Hala’ib Triangle. In 1902, the British drew a new administrative border between the two which gave Egypt a piece of land known as Bir Tawil and Sudan the Hala’ib Triangle.
When Sudan acquired its independence in 1956 the dispute over the land began as Egypt considered the 1899 agreement the legitimate border while Sudan considered the 1902 border as the legitimate border. In 1958, the Sudanese attempted to hold local elections in the area in which Egypt responded by deploying troops to the area. After that incident, and despite general hostility, the two administrated the area jointly until 1992.
In 1992 Sudan granted oil exploration concessions to Canada’s International Petroleum Co. off the coast of the region without consulting Egypt on the matter. The move exacerbated hostilities and eventually led to a failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt responded by expelling all Sudanese officials stationed in the area and reinforcing its own grip. This led to negotiations in 1998 which eventually led to the Sudanese withdrawal from the area in 2000. Despite this withdrawal, al-Bashir stated on several more recent occasions that Sudan had not ceded control over the area to Egypt and referred to their renewed complaints to the Security Council and stated that Hala’ib is Sudanese and forever will be Sudanese.
El-Sisi’s Ambition and al-Bashir’s Downfall
Development and infrastructure are a strategy used to increasingly legitimize or reinforce claims over contested territory all over the world. In 2017, Egypt allocated $60 million for the development and reconstruction of the Hala’ib Triangle. Which not only indicates a step towards reinforcing their grip on the land but a direction of Egyptian policy under el-Sisi. At the same time, United Arab Emirates (UAE) entities invested in mining in the area were cooperating with mining companies controlled by the Egyptian army. While Egyptian state-owned companies are not allowed to invest in the region, it seemed to be a cooperation between the UAE and Egypt or elements of the two. UAE companies were granted the concessions while Egypt provided security and stability, and in return cooperated on the mining. The Hala’ib Triangle is particularly rich in manganese, which is essential to iron and steel production which are industries Egypt is heavily invested in while UAE has a large and growing steel demand.
In December 2018, Sudanese protestscalling for the resignation of al-Bashir and the transition to a civil government began. In the following months, al-Bashir stated he had no intentions to resign, which intensified the protests which prompted al-Bashir to declare a state of emergency. Within the next month, it became known that Egypt had opened for bids on ten blocks for oil and gas exploration in the Red Sea, four of which in contested territory.
Sudan summoned Egypt’s ambassador to Khartoum after it learned of the four blocks, calling it illegal. Sudan further warned companies considering bidding and asked Egypt to cancel the tender procedure.
Meanwhile, protests continued and intensified Khartoum which led to the ousting of al-Bashir on 11 April by the hands of the military. Power was eventually transitioned to Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, the head of the TMC. Recently, negotiations between the council and protesters stagnated and protesters voiced their demand of the immediate transfer of power to civilians again. Meanwhile the TMC’s reluctance to transfer power becoming clearer.
Matching el-Sisi’s and the TMC’s Ambitions
The TMC is attempting to solidify its role as the head of state and in order to do so, it will need allies. Egypt and the UAE are two regional powerhouses who could assist the TMC, but what can TMC offer in return? According to reports, Egypt demanded the handover of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and information of 405 people linked to the group. This demand was endorsed by the UAE and is aligned with both Egypt and UAE’s ambition in Libya and North Africa – to limit the Brotherhood. The second demand was to ensure no escalation or provocation takes place in Hala’ib, also endorsed by the UAE. In return, Egypt would commit to providing unlimited political, economic, and security support for the TMC and seek to keep power in their hands.
Al-Burhan’s visit to Cairo on 25 May and Abu Dhabi on 26 May along with Egypt’s TMC support in the African Union (AU) and UAE’s economic pledge to aid Sudan’s economy indicates that agreements have been reached. Thus, the tender procedure for oil exploration in the Hala’ib can serve as an indicator of what takes place behind the scenes; As long as the TMC continue to look the other way in regard to Hala’ib it is likely they are meeting Egypt’s demands to better their chances of holding on to power, meanwhile, el-Sisi’s grip over Hala’ib will grow stronger.
Image: Kristina Kasputiene / Pixabay (link)