The proverb, "Good fences make good neighbours" is apt for state borders whose demarcation should be a cause for celebration rather than dispute. I say this after the re-drawing of the maritime border between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As I understand it, this is the final border established by the Saudis, who have made laborious endeavours to draw the kingdom's frontiers in a region whose people had no knowledge of borders and are unused to them.
The Saudi keenness to draw the borders started early by virtue of the fact that the kingdom was a modern state whose early foundations were laid down by the young King Abd Al-Aziz Al-Saud upon his entry into Riyadh, the city of his ancestors, in 1902. From then on, the borders of the country took shape through war, politics and diplomacy. This was long before the Arabian Peninsula, its tribes and its tribal leaders knew anything about the "world of Westphalia". Perhaps no one ever heard of this term, which is still unfamiliar in our region, except for the British politicians who contributed to the creation of our world despite us. Westphalia refers to the most important transformation that took place in Europe in the middle of the sixteenth century as countries shifted to the concepts of recognised borders, national sovereignty and non-intervention.
Such concepts were not obvious in the Arabian Peninsula in the early years of the 20th century. Yet, they were clear to the mind of young Abd Al-Aziz, even though he never studied them at any college. Nonetheless, he fought for them, not with his neighbours and the British colonisers who deputised for them in the negotiations, but also among his own followers within the tribes that succumbed to his authority. The demarcation of borders between Iraq and Najd was one of the reasons that some of them rebelled. They just could not comprehend that there should be borders in this terrain of which they had knowledge and across which they travelled in pursuit of its water, just as their ancestors had done for thousands of years. Suddenly, they were told that those areas north of the line that they could see were no longer available to them.
Several issues impacted on the process of delineating the borders of the nascent kingdom. The first was history. Abd Al-Aziz's state was an extension of two Saudi states. The first extended east and west. This in itself was an argument resorted to by the Saudi negotiator. He was not always successful. The balance of power changed, particularly with the arrival of the British. Nevertheless, King Abd Al-Aziz used his good relationship with the leaders of the Gulf in order to reach preliminary understandings that were later transformed into international agreements by his sons, the kings and the princes, who worked towards their implementation one after the other. The very first of these agreements was signed with Bahrain in Riyadh in 1958.The Jeddah agreement was signed in 1974 with the United Arab Emirates. In 1991, an agreement was signed with Oman at Hafr Al-Batin followed in 1992 by an agreement signed in Madinah between the Saudis and Qatar. By the end of the 20th century the last of these agreements was signed — with Kuwait in 2000 — according to which a no-man's land was divided between the two countries. The interesting paradox is that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak acted as a mediator and helped bring about the deal. Perhaps the coincidental fact that each agreement was signed in a different part of the kingdom symbolises, in a manner that was not planned by anyone, the close ties among the Gulf States. Although borders now exist among these states, their populations, including those in urban centres, follow the traditions of their ancestors by being able to move to any Saudi or Gulf city by virtue of the Gulf Cooperation Council agreements that guarantee citizens the right to travel, live and work where they like.
After signing the border agreement with the founder of the United Arab Emirates, the late Shaikh Zayed Al-Nahyan, the then Saudi monarch Faisal Bin Abd Al-Aziz was quoted as saying, "The borders of Abu Dhabi end here in Jeddah." Such an attitude remedied any problem that emerged afterwards when drawing the borders and translating them into a reality across the sands that cover huge oil reserves. What is more important, though, is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia treated all of these agreements seriously, registering them speedily with the Arab League and the United Nations so as to be binding on all parties concerned. In this way, the Saudi government succeeded in averting serious problems caused by the oil companies who are anxious to maximise their gains in the territories in which they enjoy drilling concessions.
The kingdom was also keen on seizing the right political moments in order to demarcate its borders for it exists in the midst of non-democratic regimes that follow the whims of the leader, especially in the case of the two neighbouring republics of Yemen and Iraq. The Saudi shrewdness paid dividends. The borders with Iraq were the most complex by virtue of the competitive relationship between the two countries, from when it was the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq all the way to Saddam's Ba'athist state. An agreement was concluded at the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 and the documents were deposited with the United Nations soon afterwards.
Reaching an agreement with Yemen was not that simple. The first border was drawn after the war of 1934 followed by the Ta'if Agreement. Henceforth, relations entered a complex phase up to the 1962 revolution and the rise to power of the communists in South Yemen. Then came unity and the issue of the borders was one of the tools used by now deposed President Ali Abdullah Salih, whose policy consisted of blackmail and deceit. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia used the services of its friends there in order to settle the issue by means of a binding agreement in 2003.
The Saudis not only established their borders with their immediate neighbours but also with those across the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. There are agreements that determine the maritime borders with Iran and Sudan. The former served both Riyadh and Tehran by protecting them from the likelihood of a conflict over gas or oil wells, given the tension due to Iran's hostile expansionist policy.
Such Saudi interest explains the kingdom's keenness to determine its borders with Egypt, because it wants to maintain excellent relations with Cairo. The lack of a border agreement has the potential to cause disputes even among brothers. Despite the validity of this logic, though, some people are raising a booby trap of a question: why have the islands of Tiran and Sanafir been taken back now, given that they were entrusted to Egypt three-quarters of a century ago?
There are four reasons for this. First, the time is right. The relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is at its best. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi possesses the popularity and the necessary power to get this done. The second is that Riyadh is today the most important power in the region and it is time for it to bear its responsibility for this sensitive region in which Israel enjoys what it does not deserve in terms of power and influence. The third is the project to build the King Salman Bridge that will transform the region's economy and geography. It is better for the islands to return to Saudi sovereignty, for the kingdom is capable of protecting the project and getting it completed. The last pertains to what I started this article with, namely that good and clear borders make good neighbours. No one knows precisely what gas or oil reserves the Gulf of Aqaba contains and this may become a bone of contention in the future if there is no clear, established border.
The exact line of the border between Egypt and Saudi Arabia has not been revealed yet, but past experience of such matters shows that the Saudis will not leave any details out of the formal agreement. Look at the last agreement according to which the Saudi-Jordan border was amended, for example. It was initially set out by the British. In 1965, Saudi Arabia ceded several kilometres of its own coast in favour of Jordan so as to allow the expansion of the Hashemite Kingdom's only sea port to the south of Aqaba. It also ceded a sizable area of land at Wadi Al-Sarhan. The agreement included a binding clause that requires the sharing of resources if any are discovered in the future in the areas ceded between the two countries.
Perhaps a similar clause exists in the Saudi Arabia-Egypt agreement in consideration of future possibilities. In any case, such border agreements do indeed make for good fences and thus good neighbours.
Translated from Alhayat.com, 16 April, 2016
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.