A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cecil Rhodes, Please Call Your Office: Virginia Man Wants to be King of Bir Tawil (and I Explain Why No One Claims Bir Tawil)

You probably thought the colonial scramble for Africa was over, didn't you? Think again: "Abingdon Man Claims African Land to Make Good on Promise to Daughter." 

Abingdon is in extreme southwest Virginia. Apparently he has promised his daughter she'll be a princess some day, so he wants to be king of something, and has settled on Bir Tawil, on the Egypt-Sudan border. More on the location momentarily. Meanwhile, he has a flag and wants to name it "North Sudan." Sheila Carapico of the University of Richmond told the newspapers that it's unlikely he could get Egypt and Sudan to agree, which is an understatement. They've had some experience with foreign colonial rule. I'm sure Mr. Heaton loves his daughter, but the colonial era doesn't need reviving.

It does, however, provide me with an excuse to explain why neither Egypt nor Sudan claims Bir Tawil. And that requires me to discuss the dispute over the Hala'ib Triangle.

I was going to say it is the flip-side of the dispute over the Hala'ib Triangle, but then I realized that those too young to remember 45-RPM vinyl records won't know what a flip-side is, and then when I searched this blog in order to link to previous posts about Hala'ib, I discovered I've apparently never done a post about it. The fact that both Egypt and Sudan dispute control of the Hala'ib Triangle is the reason neither one of them claims Bir Tawil, which  I guess could be called the Bir Tawil trapezoid. So the rest of this post will deal with both enclaves.

Anyway, you will recall that after that thing with the Mahdi and Gordon of Khartoum, Sudan was made subject to an Anglo-Egyptian condominium known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The 1899 agreement that set up the condominium drew the international boundary between Egypt and Sudan along the 22nd parallel of latitude. Since Britain was effectively running Egypt, the condominium had its limits.

In 1902, as an administrative convenience, Britain drew an "Administrative Boundary" separate from the international boundary. An area along the Red Sea coast north of 22°N was used as grazing land by the Beja of northeastern Sudan; a smaller enclave south of the line was used for grazing by the Ababda subtribe of Beja living on the Egyptian side. It made perfect sense, so long as the sun never set on the British Empire.

The area north of the line came to be known as the Hala'ib Triangle, after its most important town, or the "Sudan Government Administration Area"; the smaller enclave is Bir Tawil.

When Sudan became independent in 1956, it asserted the 1902 Administrative Boundary should be its northern boundary. Egypt claimed the international boundary, the 22nd parallel. The Wikipedia map at left illustrates the claims. The locations are clear in his Google Earth image:

The enclaves are not created equal. Hala'ib is 20,580 square kilometers; Bir Tawil only 2,060. Hala'ib has several towns and trading centers, road access to both Egypt and Sudan,, a coast on the Red Sea, and suspicions of possible offshore oil.

Bir Tawil has this:

Or, as shown in Google  Maps:

You may be thinking: but wait, countries have boundary disputes over lots of desert areas, mountaintops, glaciers and so on.

True, but the conflicting claims to Hala'ib mean that if Egypt is right and Hala'ib is Egyptian, then everything south of the international boundary is Sudanese, and Hala'ib is Egyptian. But if the Administrative boundary is used, Hala'ib is Sudnese and Bir Tawil is Egyptian. Neither side can claim Bir Tawil without losing its claim to the far more important Hala'ib Triangle.

Thus Bir Tawil is technically a terra nullius. a rare case of land territory no one claims. (But as Sheila Carapico notes in the newspaper article above, that doesn't mean it's Mr. Heaton's for the taking. The tribesmen who use it as grazing land have Egyptian or Sudanese citizenship, and have a stronger claim to it as their tribal property.)

Hala'ib remains a matter of dispute. Until the 1990s Egypt generally tolerated Sudan's continuing administration but never dropped its claim. When Sudan began negotiating offshore oil rights, Egypt sent troops to occupy the Triangle. There were tense moments in the 1990s when both countries had troops there. Sudan's withdrew in 2000; though Sudan continues to pursue its claim. Egypt administers the province as part of its Red Sea Governorate, from the Egyptian town of Shalateen on the Triangle's border. In both countries the issue continues to be an irritant in their relations.

UPDATE: And do check out Diana Buja's link about working in the Hala'ib Triangle.

Below, a more detailed map of Bir Tawil, Mr. Heaton's putative Kingdom:


Paul Mutter said...

Not exactly Cape to Cairo, is it?

dianabuja said...

Hi Mike; actually, we did work in this area and also north of it during my days of managing a project in the Red Sea Hills/related. Neither the Sudanese nor the Egyptians seemed to mind our working there; the area boasts some of the most interesting flora and fauna of the region and I believe may now be linked into UNESCO, but don't know which country (Egypt or Sudan) may be supporting this. Here's a recent blog I did on the area - http://dianabuja.wordpress.com/2011/05/21/coffee-customs-in-eastern-sudan-and-egypt-the-beja-tribes/

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Diana: thankd. The blog now includes a link to your post.