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Will new Red Sea airport spark development on Egypt-Sudan border?

With the opening of a new international airport in the Red Sea, residents of the disputed Halayeb and Shalateen region are hoping the government will step up development efforts.
This picture shows a view of Aswan from the Old Cataract Hotel overlooking the Nile River in the southern city of Aswan, Egypt, Jan. 3, 2021.

CAIRO — For the first time since its inauguration in January 2020, the Red Sea’s Berenice International Airport received the first passenger aircraft June 7. With 60 passengers on board, the flight was welcomed with a water salute, a universal welcoming ritual involving spraying water over the first airplane that lands at a new airport.

According to Egypt’s Aviation Ministry, the airport aims to boost inbound tourism given that the area is rich in tourist attractions and has a unique coastline. 

Officials and observers believe the airport is a positive development for the Red Sea area, which is rich in minerals and lies close to the Halayeb and Shalateen triangle, on the border between Egypt and Sudan.

Rakha Ahmed Hassan, member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, told Al-Monitor that the opening of the airport is a promising start for a broader development in the area, which could resolve the dispute between Cairo and Khartoum over the Halayeb and Shalateen region on an economic basis.

The airport is located in the far southeast of Egypt on the Red Sea shore, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Shalateen.

During a TV interview June 7, Mohamed Said Mahrous, chairman of the governmental Egyptian Holding Company for Airports and Air Navigation, said that the Red Sea area did not have an airport for civil aviation before the opening of the Berenice International Airport.

Mahrous noted that the airport was well designed and mentioned by the Aeronautical Information Publication bulletin. It facilitates access to Marsa Alam city, which is known for its picturesque beaches, he said, adding that the airport also paves the way for building a number of tourist villages in the Berenice area.

Nour Ali, a parliamentarian from the Halayeb and Shalateen region, praised the airport’s opening, which would consolidate Halayeb and Shalateen into the Egyptian territory and lead to a development boom in the area, he said.

Ali told Al-Monitor, “We [in Halayeb and Shalateen] were neglected before the revolution in January 2011. There were no government services and we relied on the assistance provided by the Egyptian armed forces. We started to feel that development [efforts are made] when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took office.”

The people residing in the strategic Halayeb and Shalateen triangle suffered from the government’s decadeslong neglect. But the economic importance of the region was revealed with the excavation of minerals, such as manganese and gold, after works at the Sukari gold mine resumed in 2010. In early 2013, the government adopted a development plan for the disputed area.

In 2014, the government turned the village of Halayeb into a city separated from Shalateen to support development efforts in the area. In 2015, Sisi pledged to develop the area during a meeting with tribal leaders in Halayeb and Shalateen

Ali said, “The situation is a lot different compared to the past decades, and the government is now providing us with all the support, and we are expecting more.”

The government established service projects and housing units for the people, including an automated slaughterhouse and a port, Ali added.

The government continued to send medical and food convoys to the area, and organized training courses targeting the youth, as part of an expanded program launched in 2019 to promote the sense of belonging to the homeland among the youth in the border governorates.

Tareq Shalabi, head of the Tourism Investors Association in Marsa Alam, believes the airport consists of a real leap in the area.

He told Al-Monitor that the presence of such an airport will boost economic activities such as searching for minerals and gold, and that the airport would promote tourism and market foreign companies and charter flights.

In November 2020, the Egyptian government awarded gold exploration blocks to 11 Egyptian and international companies.

Many interesting attractions are found in the area such as Wadi el-Gemal, one of the most famous eco-friendly resorts in the world. Also, the area is close to Luxor and Aswan.

In order to encourage movement at the airport, the Aviation Ministry granted companies and aircraft landing at the Berenice airport a 75% discount on landing and parking fees.

Riham Abu Bakr, founder of Rahalah Organization for Sustainable Development in the desert areas, which has been organizing tourist trips to Halayeb and Shalateen since 2015, told Al-Monitor, “It was a dream to have an airport in that area, because the road trip would take 17 hours and is extremely exhausting.”

She said that security permits were needed to enter the area where services were poor, but the situation has changed gradually in the past few years.

Abu Bakr noted that the airport will prompt the government to maintain the road network, and will attract tourists to the area with unique sceneries. That will generate revenues for the people, she said.

She believes that foreign tourists would soon flock to the Halayeb and Shalateen region, which used to be limited to Egyptians who hold security permits, due to the historical conflict between Sudan and Egypt.

Sudan has claimed sovereignty over the Halayeb and Shalateen triangle since 1958, while Cairo considers it part of the Egyptian territory and rejected international arbitration to resolve the dispute.

The Carnegie Middle East Center warned in January, “For as long as the Halayeb triangle dispute remains unresolved, the potential for more serious conflict between Egypt and Sudan will remain.” It called on Cairo and Khartoum to “reexamine their border policy to prevent further escalation.”

Hassan said that calm is currently prevailing in the Halayeb and Shalateen area, given the growing cooperation and common challenges facing Egypt and Sudan, such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis.

On April 9, the head of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, said at a press conference during a visit to Doha that his country “has a good understanding of the Halayeb region with Egypt. We do not want it to be a thorn in the side of the two countries’ relations.”

Hassan noted that Egypt proposed turning the Halayeb and Shalateen triangle into a joint economic zone while preserving the rights of sovereignty and borderline, and that the Egyptian and Sudanese sides lead development efforts to achieve common interests.

According to Hassan, this vision is logical for resolving the issue, as it previously happened in the border areas between Laredo and Tijuana, in Mexico and the United States. However, Khartoum has not yet decided on the Egyptian proposal.

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