Geo-Joint: The Hala’ib Triangle and the Land Nobody Wants

The Hala’ib Triangle has coastline that both nations want—the little Bir Tawil region below the 22nd parallel is shunned by all.

Some of the inhospitable landscape of the Hala’ib Triangle.

International borders often separate territory of great value and strategic importance between countries. Other times, they just run across vast stretches of wasteland. That doesn’t mean the lines aren’t still argued over. As with so many border disputes, the problem can start when an outside power sticks its nose into local business and declares an arbitrary boundary. Though all this could be said of a number of locations, today we’ll have a look at the oddments of the border between Egypt and Sudan. That border started out to be one of the easiest to define (at least on paper), as it followed the 22nd parallel through sand, rocky dry hills, and low mountains in the Libyan and Nubian Deserts. The British drew this line to separate Egypt from the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, as it was then known, in an 1899 treaty. The straight line was expedient, and who could care about a border in such forgotten territory? Well, as it turned out, the sparse population of the region did care, and so three years later, the map was amended to take into account the local sensitivities. In a small carve-out called Wadi Halfa Salient, just above of the borderline, Sudan was awarded a strip of land. It runs on either side of the Nile River for about 15 miles north of the parallel. A larger chunk of land to the east of that went to Egypt. This area, the Bir Tawil Triangle, had been grazing land for Egyptian herders who wanted to maintain access. Lastly, the largest parcel was penciled in going significantly north of the original border, and ceded to Sudan—the area known as the Hala’ib Triangle.

Of the three deviations from the straight line, the first, the Wadi Halfa Salient, is probably the most legally settled. Sudan was originally awarded this bit of land because villages there were easier to approach from the south. Though Egypt does assert that it still owns the land, the matter of ownership has become somewhat moot. When the Egyptians completed the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River in 1970, the waters of Lake Nasser and Lake Nubia backed up into the valley and submerged nearly all of the Wadi Halfa Salient. Sudan probably retains some fishing rights in that part of the lake, but their citizens have little room to settle there. As for the central bit along the border, the Bir Tawil Triangle that Egypt collected, it is an area of less than 800 square miles and now little sought after by either nation.

A U.S. Army map from 1960 showing the Bir Tawil “Triangle” as belonging to the United Arab Republic, a temporary union of Egypt and Syria. Nearly 60 years later, Egypt still doesn’t want it.

The piece that continues to be a focus of desire is the Hala’ib Triangle, probably because it includes a section of Red Sea shoreline as part of its nearly 8,000 square miles. When Britain awarded it to Sudan it was because the local inhabitants were Sudanese tribesmen. At the time, Britain really ran things in both countries, so there was no controversy until Sudan won its independence from Britain in 1956 and assumed it should be in control of the land by way of the 1902 border adjustment. For a time, the region was run jointly. However, Egypt has always cited the 1899 map, and as a matter of reality has largely administered affairs in the Hala’ib Triangle for nearly three decades. Since 2000 it has been the sole power there. At the same time, Cairo disregards its 1902 rights to the smaller Bir Tawil Triangle, lest it interfere with its claim on Hala’ib. Sudan would have no problem ceding the tiny landlocked Bir Tawil if it could lay hands on the larger parcel north of the parallel, but as noted, Egypt is not interested. It has been said that the Bir Tawil Triangle is the only chunk of land on Earth that nobody wants. The prized Hala’ib Triangle maintains its desirability due to its coastal access and attendant fishing resources, and also for its mining potential. National pride, no doubt, also plays a part in the dispute.

Both Egypt and Sudan make attempts to woo international support to their side of the cause, and each is constantly protesting political moves made by the other. It doesn’t help that they live in a testy part of the world where multi-national chess games go on over water rights, sovereignty, and who is an ally of whom. Neighboring Ethiopia is building a dam that will no doubt affect Egypt’s water supplies. Sudan supports Ethiopia’s right to construct, annoying Egypt, which has actually threatened violence toward Ethiopia. Sudan has recently made agreements with Turkey, not so far to the north, to temporarily take over a Red Sea island for redevelopment as a transit point for pilgrims en route to Mecca. Egypt isn’t happy about that. Cairo signed a pact with Saudi Arabia that both gave Egyptian Red Sea islands to them, and gained Saudi recognition of Egypt’s right to rule the Hala’ib Triangle, riling Sudan. Alliances involving Eritrea, Yemen, the UAE, Qatar, and others keep the political pot boiling. Who knows what clever accord might lead to wider support of either one’s case to own the disputed parcel? The game goes on and the plot thickens—the quest for geographical superiority is a never-ending pursuit.

All right, you’re making plans to go claim the unwanted Bir Tawil Triangle in your name, but while you’re in the neighborhood, why not visit the southern Nile Valley?  National Geographic has a beautiful wall map of the area, available from with a click.




caption: The Hala’ib Triangle has coastline that both nations want—the little Bir Tawil region below the 22nd parallel is shunned by all.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Plamen —Потребител:Пакко (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)

caption: Some of the inhospitable landscape of the Hala’ib Triangle.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Usamaghazali (CC0 Public domain)

caption: A U.S. Army map from 1960 showing the Bir Tawil “Triangle” as belonging to the United Arab Republic, a temporary union of Egypt and Syria. Nearly 60 years later, Egypt still doesn’t want it.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Army Map Service, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army (Public domain) 

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