Sudanese Defense Minister Abdel-Rehim Hussein acknowledged for the first time what the observers have long suspected: that Sudan has filed a complaint with the United Nations against Egypt every year since the early 1990s over the two countries’ ongoing dispute over a small area of land known as the Hala’ib Triangle. The Triangle, an approximately 8,000-square-mile region along the southeast border of Egypt and the Republic of the Sudan, is a relic of colonialism created by two separate British treaties at the turn of the century. But while the Hala’ib Triangle continues to be the subject of diplomatic disputes, it is not the only discrepancy created by these two treaties. A small region known as Bir Tawil adjacent to the Hala’ib Triangle is the world’s last piece of unclaimed territory and teaches an interesting lesson in how border irregularities become entrenched in the modern international system.
While most people are accustomed to maps depicting a straight-line border between Sudan and Egypt along the 22nd parallel, the actual disputed boundaries look something more like this.
The standard border on the 22nd parallel was established in 1899 when the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement defined “Soudan” as “all territories south of the 22nd parallel of latitude.” Following this agreement, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was jointly administered as a condominium between the United Kingdom and Egypt. Due to the complexities of this joint rule, a different set of administrative boundaries was set up by the Egyptian minister of the interior in 1902 to help facilitate the oversight of tribal lands. In order to preserve the continuity of these lands, the administrative boundary differed from the political border established three years earlier: Sudan would administer the eastern Hala’ib area north of the 22nd, while Egypt would administer a smaller section south of the parallel at Bir Tawil. The two sets of boundaries were not problematic until Sudan became independent in the middle of the 20th century.
Naturally, each country favored a boundary that gave them the greater amount of territory. The problem was that in order to lay claim to the gold and offshore oil resources of larger region of the Hala’ib Triangle, neither country could assert sovereignty over Bir Tawil. This gives Bir Tawil a unique status in the realm of international borders. Outside of Antarctica, Bir Tawil is the only piece of land that is not claimed by any nation. To complicate matters even further, de facto sovereignty of Bir Tawil fell to Egypt on the basis of the 1902 administrative boundaries despite the fact that Egypt did not recognize the area as under their national sovereignty. This administrative responsibility means that even though Egypt’s declared borders on official government maps exclude Bir Tawil, Sudanese tribesmen cannot enter the area without permission from the Egyptian government.
Ironically, the Republic of Sudan has no greater control over the territory in Hala’ib that it claims is within its sovereignty. During the last constitutional referendum, Egypt opened seven electoral stations in the Hala’ib region, yet the government of Sudan has previously had to refrain from registering voters in the region during the 2010 elections despite claims that it was constitutionally an electoral district of Sudan’s Red Sea District. The state of Egypt’s de facto governance has led the Republic of the Sudan to speak publically about its increasing frustration with status of the disputed border. Despite the continued tensions over the areas, Egypt has refused to pursue any international arbitration. So long as the Hala’ib Triangle’s sovereignty is in dispute, neither country will discuss Bir Tawil and its unacknowledged status as an administrative region of Egypt over which Egypt extends no claim of sovereignty.
The Republic of the Sudan is in a lose-lose situation. The greater strength of Egypt’s central government all but ensures Egypt’s continued de facto control over both regions even though it would willingly cede control of Bir Tawil to end the dispute. However, by continuing to push for arbitration, Sudan prevents large-scale development of Hala’ib’s natural petroleum and gold deposits by Egypt, even if the push goes largely ignored by the international community. Negotiations over the offshore oil rights have been nonexistent since Egypt forcibly annexed the Hala’ib Triangle in 1992 following the Republic of the Sudan granting those rights to a Canadian company. This status quo, in which no side can gain full advantage of the region, can only be maintained so long as the Republic of the Sudan continues to challenge Egypt’s sovereignty. And since there is no legal mechanism by which any one state can claim both Hala’ib and Bir Tawil, the tiny area is likely to continue as the world’s last no man’s land.