Documentary Studies in Arabian Geopolitics:
The Red Sea Region: Sovereignty, Boundaries and Conflict, 1839–1967

ISBN: (13) 978-1-84097-230-6   Extent: 6 volumes, 5,000 pages
Editor: Dr Stephen Smith   Published: 2008
Paper: Acid free paper
Binding: Library bindings with gilt finish
See sample pages: not available 


The Arabian Geopolitics series was originally conceived to provide comprehensive historical documentary contexts to contemporary geopolitical challenges in the region. If the predominant concentration on the Gulf can be explained by the contemporary or recent geographical focus of territorial contestation, it is refreshing to introduce a new title that concentrates further west on the Red Sea, a region that is as much East African as it is Arabian. Dr Steven Smith’s meticulously assembled collection is the product of both long planning and considerable research.
 The Red Sea Region: Sovereignty, Boundaries and Conflict, 1839–1967 collects together nearly 5,000 pages of British government papers in six volumes documenting the political and territorial changes within and between states bordering the Red Sea, or linked with it, including islands and European colonies.
The documents selected range across the following countries or territories: Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, French Somaliland, the Somali coast (later British and Italian Somaliland, and from 1960 Somalia), Ottoman Arabia, the British Mandate of Palestine, Israel, Transjordan renamed Jordan in 1949), the Kingdom of Hijaz, Asir, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Aden Protectorate and Aden.


From the Editor's Preface

 The Red Sea Region: Sovereignty, Boundaries and Conflict, 1839–1967 collects together nearly 5,000 pages of British government papers in six volumes documenting the political and territorial changes within and between states bordering the Red Sea, or linked with it, including islands and European colonies. Interstate and civil conflict, often, though not invariably, the result of such changes, is also well to the fore, with some attention to port development and oil concessions – except in the Gulf of Suez, there was no exploitation of coastal or seabed oil reserves before 1967, and has been none subsequently. The dates chosen inevitably reflect the British provenance of the records, corresponding as they do with Britain’s acquisition of Aden in 1839 and departure from it in 1967, a period that saw the development and then the recession of European influence in the Red Sea. Britain had briefly occupied Perim Island in 1799 in response to the French invasion of Egypt the year before, but her permanent presence in the region followed the arrival of the steamship in the 1830s and the consequent need for a coaling station at Aden on the shipping route from India to Suez. The European presence was not finally extinguished until 1977, when the Afars and Issas, the former French Somaliland, gained independence from France.


Arrangement of material is chronological, both generally by volume and under separate country or subject headings in individual volumes. Emphasis has been laid on maritime aspects of sovereignty and control, and this is most obvious in relation to the Red Sea islands, the Suez Canal and the international straits of Tiran and Bab el Mandeb. Given space limitations and the wide geographical scope selection criteria have been necessarily rigorous, and no attempt has been made to include every significant issue or event in all territories, or to select every available document. For example, the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia in 1952 has been omitted, and the same applies to Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea ten years later, even though they were instrumental in providing Ethiopia with a Red Sea coastline. Likewise, it has not been possible to balance coverage equally between the different states.

Major themes running through the documents:

  • The defence and/or status of the Suez Canal, 1869–1957
  • Italian expansionism in north east Africa and the Yemen, 1882–1940
  • Yemeni claims to the Aden Protectorate, 1919–1967
  • Undefined sovereignty of certain Red Sea islands, 1923–1967
  • Israeli access through the Gulf of Aqaba and Straits of Tiran, 1950–1967.


Volume 1: 1839–1892
Ottoman Influence, European Encroachments and the Suez Canal

 History of Turkish sovereignty claims to the Arabian Red Sea coast, and of Egyptian claims to the African littoral from Suez to the Indian Ocean, up to 1874. British occupation of Aden and in 1857 of Perim Island, permitting British control of the Straits of Bab el Mandeb. The origins and development of French and Italian colonial territories on the African shore, and the reassertion of Turkish sovereignty over the Yemen. Protectorate agreements between Britain and the north Somali tribes following the withdrawal of Egypt from the Somali coast in 1884. The inception of the Suez Canal, British opposition to the project from 1859 to 1865, the purchase of the Khedive of Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal Company by the British government, and the negotiations culminating in the Constantinople Convention of 1888, regulating international use of the Canal.

 Volume 2: 1892–1920

Erosion and Collapse of Ottoman Sovereignty, Consolidation of the European Presence, and the Rise of Nationalism in Egypt and Arabia

 Inauguration of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in the Sudan in 1899 and subsequent boundary alterations in the Nile valley and Halaib triangle areas. Italian agreements with Ethiopia and Britain relating to the frontiers of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, 1900 to 1908. Turkish attempts to move the Sinai border with Egypt westwards, 1892 to 1906. Delimitation of the Aden Protectorate boundary between 1903 and 1914. Formal abolition of Turkish suzerainty over Egypt by the British assumption of a protectorate after the outbreak of the First World War, British occupation of Kamaran Island, the Arab revolt of 1916–18 and the emergence of Yemen and the Hijaz from the debris of the Ottoman Empire. The Egyptian nationalist uprising of 1919, marking the beginning of sustained opposition to the British presence in Egypt.

 Volume 3: 1920–1935

Post-War Instability and European Rivalry

 The effect of the Treaty of Lausanne on the Red Sea lighthouse islands and Kamaran, revoking Turkish sovereignty and leaving their future to be settled by the parties concerned, who were never defined. The Wahhabi conquest of the Hijaz, 1925, laying the foundation of Saudi Arabia, and the beginning of the Saudi claim to Aqaba, assigned to Transjordan by Britain in 1925. Containment of Anglo-Italian rivalry along the Arabian Red Sea coast through the Rome Understanding, 1927, undermined by the gradual incorporation of Asir and the Farasan Islands into the territories ruled by King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (Ibn Saud) between 1920 and 1930. Establishment of limited Italian jurisdiction over Jebel Zukur and Great Hanish Islands in the early 1930s. Britain’s decision to transfer control of Aden from India to the Colonial Office, taken in 1933 though not implemented until 1937, and stabilisation of the Aden Protectorate frontier by the Anglo-Yemeni Treaty of San’a, 1934.

 Volume 4: 1935–1945

The Italo-Ethiopian Crisis and the Second World War

 Defeat of Ethiopia by Italy and its absorption into Italian East Africa, 1935–36, facilitating Egyptian acceptance of the 1936 Treaty of Alliance with Britain, whereby Britain conceded full independence to Egypt in return for the right to garrison the Suez Canal Zone for twenty years. The Anglo-Italian Agreement on the Middle East, 1938, confirming the Rome Understanding and extending mutual acceptance of existing territorial arrangements to Saudi Arabia and the Yemen. Dispute between Britain and the Yemen over the ownership of Shabwa in the Eastern Aden Protectorate, 1938–40. Development of British policy towards the liberated Italian colonies, the grant of self-rule to Ethiopia in 1942 and British retention of the Ogaden. Britain’s political and military plans for the Suez Canal, 1944–45, premised on permanent British responsibility for its defence on the United Nations’ behalf. British reactions to the formation of the Arab League.

 Volume 5: 1945–1957

The Waning of British Predominance

 The independence of Transjordan, 1946 and Saudi acquiescence in her continued retention of Aqaba. British jurisdiction over Kamaran, decided in 1947 but delayed until 1949. End of the British Mandate in Palestine, the creation of Israel and British  opposition to Israeli possession of the Negev. Egyptian occupation of Tiran and Sanafir Islands, 1950. Freezing of the Aden Protectorate boundary as it then existed, in the modus vivendi agreement of 1951. Egyptian abrogation of the 1936 treaty, seizure of power in Egypt by the Free Officers’ Movement under Nasser, and abolition of the Egyptian monarchy, 1951–53. Negotiation of the Suez Canal Zone Base Agreement of 1954, heralding the British withdrawal from Egypt, and the beginning of Soviet bloc penetration, 1955–56. Nationalisation of the Suez Canal, the Suez crisis, subsequent Anglo-French collusion with Israel and joint military action against Egypt, 1956. Formulation of the Yemeni claim to Kamaran, and the Saudi claim to Tiran and Sanafir, the latter connected with the reopening of the Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Aqaba to Israel, 1956–57, and its enforcement by the United Nations.

Volume 6: 1957–1967
The Triumph of Nationalism

 The U. N. Convention on the Territorial Sea, 1958, codifying international law on access to international straits. Origins and development of the British sponsored Federation of South Arabia, and the prospective inclusion of Aden, 1958–62. Activation of the Halaib triangle dispute between Egypt and Sudan, 1958. Situation in the Horn of Africa on the eve of the end of colonial rule and the independence of Somalia, 1960. Revolution, civil war and Egyptian intervention in the Yemen, 1962–1966. The British decision to withdraw from Aden, 1965–66. Conclusion of the Jordan-Saudi Arabia Boundary Agreement, 1965, confirming Jordanian sovereignty over Aqaba and extending her Red Sea coastline. Collapse of the Federation of South Arabia, British withdrawal and succession by the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen, 1967. Failure to internationalise Perim, termination of British sovereignty over the island and of jurisdiction in Kamaran, and their incorporation in South Yemen. The Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran, outbreak of the Six Day War, Israeli conquest of the Jordanian West Bank and Sinai, 1967. Long term closure of the Suez Canal in response to Israeli consolidation along its eastern edge.

On Western-Style Democracy

Extract from Seyyid Ahmad Abdulillah ad-Darwish, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Federation of South Arabia, to the Rt. Hon. Harold Wilson, Prime Minister, Britain, via the High Commissioner, Aden, 26 June 1965
“… We fully understand the wish of your Government to spread the principles of Western democracy in our country. But we reaffirm to you that it is our wish to see the Islamic Arab principles applied in our country. This is because the implementation of Western democratic principles quickly in our country will only bring disaster upon us if you insist on forcing our steps… It is absolutely unrealistic for anyone to think that it is possible to achieve a full democratic government based on universal adult suffrage and to depend on a party system on the Western style before 1968. To attempt to reach a quick transition before 1968 can only lead to bloodshed and chaos. Therefore we ask Her Majesty’s Government not to close their eyes to practical considerations but to base their policy on real fact and not on a mere idealist dream...”


On the impasse of the closure of the Suez Canal

Extract from Foreign Office submission by D. J. Speares, 24 June 1967
“…The more that Western users, and particularly the United States and Britain, demand at the United Nations or elsewhere, the reopening of the canal, the more convinced the United Arab Republic will become:
(a) that the closure, like the denial of Arab oil to British and American companies is an effective weapon; and
(b) that she has only to persist in the closure long enough and the West will put pressure on the Israelis to force them to withdraw.
At the same time the publicity which demands for action to reopen the canal attract in the Arab world must tend to enhance Nasser’s image as an effective champion of the Arabs against the West. They could, at the same time, make it more difficult for him to justify to extremist Arab opinion a re-opening of the Canal which may fairly soon be forced upon him by other factors.