Nobody’s land

Bir Tawil is a wedge of land between Egypt and Sudan. Neither wants to claim Bir Tawil: it is one of the only unclaimed territories in the world.

Political Regions of Sudan – Cmglee, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bir Tawil sits right on the border between the southern part of Egypt and the northern part of Sudan. It’s just over two thousand square kilometres of hot Nubian desert, some two hundred kilometres away from the shores of the Red Sea. There’s some grazing land for local Bedouin and a little peak and some valleys and and not a lot else. And, for political reasons, neither Egypt nor Sudan wants to claim it.

This quandary begins, as so many do, with the British Empire. Egypt became a de facto protectorate of Britain in 1882, when British troops crushed the Egyptian and Sudanese forces in the Anglo-Egyptian War. Egypt technically remained an Ottoman vassal state, but Britain really had all the power. From 1899, Sudan was officially under joint British and Egyptian control (a so-called “condominium” arrangement), but again, the British were the ones in charge.

Britain, in this position of authority over both Egypt and Sudan, did what they often do: draw up some arbitrary and capricious borders. The 1899 “agreement” between them and Egypt defined Sudan as the area south of the 22nd parallel of latitude. But then, three years later, they created an administrative border that wriggled a bit around that latitude. This one was supposed to take into account the political affiliations of the tribes in the border region.

The two borders differed in two key areas. The Halaib Triangle (the green part of the map above) is big, populated, and abuts the Red Sea. Under the 1899 border, it should be part of Egypt because it’s north of the 22nd parallel. Under the 1902 border, it should be part of Sudan because that’s how the administrative divide was drawn. Bir Tawil (the white part of the map above) is the exact opposite. It is below the 22nd parallel, so according to the 1899 border it should be part of Sudan… but the 1902 border puts it in Egypt instead.

Here’s the thing: both Egypt and Sudan want control of the Halaib Triangle. Egypt has it if the 1899 border holds; Sudan if the 1902 border is the one. So of course Egypt wants the 1899 border, and Sudan the 1902 border. But that would cede the poorer, less strategically important Bir Tawil to the other side.

The result: neither Egypt nor Sudan wants to claim Bir Tawil, because doing so would mean they couldn’t claim the Halaib Triangle. If Egypt has Bir Tawil, Sudan has the Halaib Triangle. If Sudan has Bir Tawil, Egypt has the Halaib Triangle. Bir Tawil has become something exceptionally rare: a slice of land that nobody wants.

The legal term for this is “terra nullius,” nobody’s land. Bir Tawil seems to be the only populated area on the planet that no state wants. And until the impasse over the Halaib Triangle is resolved, it will probably remain that way.

2 Replies to “Nobody’s land”

  1. (retweeted by mimi smartypants! I am in awe, paragon. I mean, I was in awe before, but this takes it to another, geekier level!)

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