Your Comprehensive Guide to the Disputed Territories of the Arab World

Your Comprehensive Guide to the Disputed Territories of the Arab World

Although Palestine is the only land in the Arab world that most Arabs agree on labeling as an occupied territory, there are many territorial disputes in which one or more of the conflicting parties consider the land to be under occupation. The following is a list with the most important of these territories:

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The province of Ahvaz or Arabistan

Over 370,000 square kilometers stretches a territory that was historically part of Iraq but with an its autonomous administration. What some Ahvazis, including the National Assembly of Ahwaz, consider as occupation began to gradually take place in 1923, when the Shah of Iran imposed taxes on the Ahvazi population, then launched a military campaign that took over the land in April of 1925. The Ahavazi Emir then, Sheikh Khaz’al al-Kaabi, was arrested and remained in jail until his death.

Iran later redistributed the region administratively, allocating about 25,000 square kilometers to the provinces of Fares, Isfahan and Lorestan.

The economic importance of the region stems from the major oil fields of Ahvaz, Maroun, Aghajari, and Gachsaran that are located on its land. As do most Iranian gas fields.

Many political movements work on asserting the Arabism of the region, demanding an autonomous administration, or a complete independence from Iran. Such movements include Al Sa'ada Party, the Arabistan Liberation Front, the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan, the National Assembly of Ahwaz, and the Union of Ahwaz Students and Youth.

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Golan Heights

The Golan Heights, or the administrative region of Quneitra, is an area of 1860 kilometers which was part of Palestine during the Ottoman occupation, and remained so under the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In 1923, it was taken under the French Mandate, remaining within the Syrian borders until 1967 when Israel occupied 1280 square kilometers of the region, including the city of Quneitra, the governorate capital.

In 1974, after signing “the agreement on disengagement with Syria”, Israel withdrew about 60 kilometers to the west, leaving the city of Quneitra. The forces of the United Nations (UNDOF) were deployed in the territory that lies between the two countries.

In 1981, the Israeli Knesset decided to impose Israeli law and administration on Golan. In 2011, the Knesset passed another law requiring a referendum prior to any withdrawal from Golan and East Jerusalem.

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Sanjak of Alexandretta

At the present it is known as the Turkish state of Hatay. It covers an area of about 4,800 square kilometers given as a grant from France to Turkey to ensure the latter’s allegiance during World War II. According to the archived documents published by Discoversyria.com, the process gradually started by a Franco-Turkish agreement in 1937, and was cemented with 2,500 Turkish soldiers deployed the following year in the territory, under the pretext of maintaining security and protecting the Turkish minority residing there.

In June 1939, the French and Turkish agreed to annex the region to Turkey, to grant that Turkey would not intervene against France during World War II in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Several Syrian official maps still include Sanjak of Alexandretta within the Syrian borders, in addition to many maps issued by media outlets and political parties that adopt Arab and Syrian nationalist ideologies. Recently, and due to the strained relations with Turkey, some Syrian television channels have been including it in the weather bulletin.

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Sheba’a Farms

Following the withdrawal of Israeli forces on the 22nd of May 2000, three places remained occupied in southern Lebanon, which are the farms of Sheba’a, the hills of Kfarchouba, and half of the village of Ghajar. Israel said these lands are Syrian and are not included in UN Resolution 425, which provides for the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanese territory.

According to a UN report issued on the of the withdrawl, the UN received a map dated to 1966 from the Government of Lebanon putting the Sheb’aa farms within Lebanese borders. Nevertheless, the United Nations has 10 other maps issued by Lebanese government institutions, including the Ministry of Defense, proving that the area is Syrian.

On the other hand, Farouk al-Shara, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, stated in a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations in 2000 that Syria recognizes the territory as Lebanese.

However, Israel says that the farms were under Syrian administration when they were occupied in 1967, and that the Lebanese claim was "promoted by Hezbollah as an excuse to continue attacking them."

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Baqoura

It was occupied by Israel in 1950 and “on paper” was returned to Jordan after the signing of Wadi Araba Agreement in 1994, which practically gave Jordan 0.8 square kilometers out of the 6 kilometers area. The agreement stipulates that Israel recognizes Jordan's sovereignty over the Baqura area, under a special administrative system applied "temporarily" by both parties.

This "special system" guarantees the freedom of movement of landowners (Israelis) and their visitors and employees without being subject to the usual procedures and border fees. It also assures that Israelis be tried according to Israeli laws, if they are involved in a crime. These terms are to be applied for 25 years and shall be automatically renewed for the same period, unless one of the parties informs the other of its desire to terminate the agreement.

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The three Emirati islands

Prior to the declaration of independence and unification of the seven emirates in December 1971, Iran occupied three islands on the 30th of November 1971, after the withdrawal of British forces. On its website, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers The Greater and Lesser Tunb as territories of the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, and Abu Musa as a territory of Sharjah.

Although the issue has not escalated beyond the diplomatic level, Emiratis insist on keeping the issue alive, especially considering the importance of the islands as a strategic chokepoint in the Strait of Hormuz. The latest developments occurred in 2012 when former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a visit to Abu Musa Island, which the UAE and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) considered "provocative".

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Najran, Jizan, and Asir

On a total area of 223,000 square kilometers, three disputed areas stand: Najran with 130,000 km, Jizan 13,000 km, and Assir with 80,000 km. They’ve officially become Saudi territories following the Treaty of Taif in 1934, that marked the end of the Yemeni-Saudi war. It stipulated that the city of Hodeidah and areas of the Yemeni coast controlled by Saudi Arabia return to Yemen, in exchange for Jizan, Najran and Asir.

The issue resurfaced with the fall of the The Mutawakkilite Kingdom in Yemen which had signed the agreement, and the subsequent establishment of the Republic of Yemen with Ali Abdullah Saleh as president. The political and occasional military tension ended after a new Saudi-Yemeni treaty was signed in Jeddah on the 12th of June, 2000. With the demarcation of borders, the treaty thus ensured the Yemeni recognition of the Saudi authority over the three provinces.

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Tiran and Sanafir

The Egyptian military regime has recently put the two islands under Saudi sovereignty. According to a statement issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the 11th of April, 2016, “the failure of Saudi Arabia to exercise sovereignty over the island since 1950 does not negate that they belong to Saudi territories."

The Egyptian government's current position is opposed by many Egyptians, who took to the streets in demonstrations protesting the demarcation agreement signed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with King Salman bin Abdul Aziz on the 7th of April, 2016.

In spite of the fact that several judicial decisions in Egypt have halted the transfer deal, Saudi Arabia did not wait on Egypt to resolve this legal dispute, as its General Commission for Survey issued new maps last April marking the islands as Saudi territory.

The town of Shalateen in Hala'ib Triangle The town of Shalateen in Hala'ib Triangle

Hala'ib Triangle

The Hala'ib Triangle area is about 20,500 square kilometers and consists mainly of three major towns, Hala'ib (which became a city in February 2014), Abu Ramad, and Shalateen. The dispute between Egypt and Sudan dates back to the period when Egypt was a de facto protectorate of Britain. In 1899, Egypt and Britain signed an agreement stating that the Hala'ib Triangle is part of Egyptian territory. In 1902, Britain amended these borders placing the area under Sudanese sovereignty for being "closer to Khartoum than to Cairo."

The dispute over Hala'ib developed into a political crisis between the two countries in 1992 when Sudan was granted oil exploration concessions in the sea off the triangle. The dispute escalated, leading to the deployment of Egyptian forces in the area in 1995 to ensure Egyptian control.

The issue has recently drawn attention after Hala'ib and Shalateen were declared as electoral constituencies in both Sudan and Egypt in 2014, and thus became a constituency in two countries in less than a year.

Finally, with the signing of the agreement delineating the maritime border between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Sudan raised the issue once again, demanding that Egypt would either negotiate "as it has done with Saudi Arabia" or instead resort to international arbitration.

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Ceuta, Melilla, and the Moroccan islands

The city of Melilla was occupied by Spain in 1497. As for the city of Ceuta, it became part of Spanish territories in 1580 when the latter annexed Portugal, that was in control of the city since 1415.

Spain continued to occupy the two cities due to their strategic location. They are at the entrance to the Mediterranean, especially Ceuta, as it forms the southern tip of the Strait of Gibraltar, opposite to the Spanish side of the strait that is subject to British sovereignty until this day. The Moroccan government continues to demand the return of the two cities to their territory.

The Chafarinas Islands (Aicha, Edo, Asni), the island of Alboran and the islands of Alhucemas  (Alhucemas , de Mar, de Tierra) and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera (Badis) were also taken under Spanish territories.

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Western Sahara

The former Madrid Agreement on the withdrawal of Spain from Western Sahara in 1975 provides for a joint Moroccan-Mauritanian administration over Western Sahara. However, POLISARIO (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro) declared the independence of the region unilaterally under the name the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on the 27th of February, 1976 and formed its first government headed by Mohamed Amin Ahmed.

Despite support from the International Court of Justice for the Polisarios’ claim, a guerrilla war between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front took place until a ceasefire was signed in 1991.

Today, most of Western Sahara is under Moroccan control, with the Polisario in control of the southern parts adjacent to Mauritania, which withdrew from the conflict early on. The Moroccan government calls the Polisario-controlled area a "buffer zone."

The Sahrawi Republic currently has limited international recognition, but is considered a full member of the African Union. For 33 years, Morocco had boycotted the African Union in protest of the membership of the Sahrawis, only returning to meetings this year.

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Ogaden

This region was first annexed to Ethiopia in the late 19th century and was recognized as part of Ethiopia in 1896 following the Addis Ababa Treaty, which ended the Italian-Ethiopian war and led to the independence of Ethiopia.

The Somali claim to the territory is based on the fact that most of its population is of Somali Muslims. The region is particularly important due to its large area of about 330,000 square kilometers, as well as the large oil reserve in which it is believed to be located.

There were several attempts to retrieve Ogaden. First of which was the Italian attempt in 1936 during World War II, when the region was under of British authority, followed by a war from 1964 to 1967, during which the United States supported Ethiopia, while the Soviet Union supported Somalia. Another war took place in 1977 and 1978 .

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