CAIRO — Egypt’s oldest secular university on Monday granted King Salman of Saudi Arabia an honorary doctorate for his “unique services” to Arabs and Muslims, the final function in a five-day visit clouded by opposition to Cairo’s intention to hand over control of two Red Sea islands to Riyadh.
In its citation, Cairo University said Salman was a “global and pivotal figure with massive influence in the Arab and International arenas” and praised his support for Egypt and the university.
Monday’s ceremony came a day after Salman, who ascended the throne in January last year, addressed the Egyptian parliament. The Saudi and Egyptian governments have also signed more than a dozen accords and memoranda that involved billions of dollars in Saudi aid and investment to Egypt.
One of the accords concerned Egypt’s intention to hand over control of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Arabia. Activists took to the social media to voice their opposition to the deal, saying it was tantamount to a sell-off in return for aid.
Egypt’s government has gone to great lengths to counter the allegations, contending that Riyadh in 1950 asked Egypt to take charge of the islands’ security because it feared an attack by Israel. Officials have cited diplomatic correspondence dating back decades that shows Cairo acknowledging Saudi ownership of the islands.
“Egypt has not surrendered a single square inch of its territory under any condition,” the top state newspaper Al-Ahram said in its Monday editorial. “But it will be unreasonable to deny our brothers their right to holding on to their own territory when all documents prove their ownership.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said Cairo had never claimed sovereignty over the two islands. “Egyptian presence on the two islands does not mean we have sovereignty over them,” he told a TV interviewer late Sunday.
The decision to hand them back to the Saudis, he said, was taken by a panel of Egyptian experts, including officials from the foreign and defense ministries as well the country’s top intelligence agency.
The two islands control entry to the Gulf of Aqaba and the ports of Eilat and Aqaba in Israel and Jordan, respectively. Tiran is the closest of the two to Egypt’s coast, lying about 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Israel captured the islands in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war but returned them to Egypt after the two nations signed a peace treaty in 1979.
Under the terms of the treaty, Egypt cannot station military forces on the islands and is committed to ensuring free navigation in the narrow shipping lane that runs between Tiran and Egypt’s Sinai coast. One of the main causes behind the 1967 war was the decision by Egypt’s nationalist President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to close that lane, thus denying Israel its only access to the Red Sea.
Tiran was declared a natural protectorate after Israel handed it back to Egypt. It has since become a popular diving destination.
“Saudi Arabia will honor all of Egypt’s legal and international commitments in regard to the two islands,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Egyptian editors in comments published Monday.
Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel and it was not immediately clear how or who relayed Riyadh’s commitment to the Israelis. The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the Egyptian-Saudi deal.