Bridge over troubled waters gets go-ahead
Richard Beeston, Diplomatic Editor The Times (UK) May 4, 2007
Saudi Arabia and Egypt are putting the final touches to an ambitious
transcontinental project to span the Gulf of Aqaba, creating a direct link
between Africa and Arabia.
King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, is expected to lay the foundation stone
for the causeway when he visits the northern province of Tabuk next week.
The project, which has been discussed for the past 20 years but never acted
on, would involve the construction of two bridges across the Tiran Strait
spanning a total distance of about 15 miles (25km).
The first, from the Saudi mainland at Ras el-Sheikh Humayd, would cross to
Tiran island. The second, more challenging leg, would span the wider and
deeper mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba and join the Sinai Peninsula at Sharm
el-Sheikh. A consortium of Saudi, Kuwaiti and Egyptian partners is involved
in the project, which would cost GBP1.5 billion and could be completed by
For Egyptians, the prospect of being able to travel overland to Saudi Arabia
is particularly welcome. The tens of thousands who travel for work or on the
haj pilgrimage to Mecca rely on a ferry service. Last year 1,000 people were
killed when an overcrowded ferry sank in the Red Sea. Since then the service
has been reduced.
"The causeway has been the dream of most Egyptians since it was first
proposed," Ali Mahmoud, an Egyptian journalist working in Saudi Arabia, told
the Saudi-based Arab News. "It will have a great socio-economic and
political impact on the region. [It] will benefit many countries in the Gulf
and Africa and bring about a dramatic change in transportation between the
two continents." The only land link between Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula
is via Israel, which most Arab states do not recognise.
The bridge would also enable Saudi tourists to flock to Sharm el-Sheikh, the
relaxed Egyptian beach resort, a favourite of European holidaymakers. The
Saudis have been inspired by the success of the causeway to Bahrain, which
was completed in 1986. Nevertheless, there are still some formidable
obstacles to overcome before the project can be begun.
The Gulf of Aqaba is home to unspoilt coral reefs and some of the best scuba
diving waters in the world. Any big construction project in the area could
seriously damage the delicate maritime environment. Shipping could also pose
a problem. The bridge would cut across a busy channel through which
commercial shipping passes to Eilat, in Israel, and Aqaba, in Jordan.
Israel may have strong objections to the causeway if it were not satisfied
that the security of its ships could be guaranteed by the Saudis and
Egyptians. Saudi Arabia still does not have any formal ties with the Jewish
State. Attempts by Egypt to ban Israeli shipping from the Gulf of Aqaba were
one of the reasons for the outbreak of the Six-Day War 40 years ago.