As the Egyptian army continues to combat the insurgency in Sinai, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed a $10 billion investment deal with Saudi Arabia on March 4, 2018 to fund a new megacity called NEOM on the southern end of the peninsula. The deal requires that Egypt concede 368 square miles of Sinai land to the Gulf Nation; NEOM will be partially based on this new Saudi-owned land. In a controversial move last June, Egypt also transferred two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia in exchange for economic aid.
The new city is intended to be a green trade hub, helping Saudi Arabia to move toward more sustainable methods of energy production and consumption and allowing Egypt to bolster trade, tourism, and economic activity to a very underdeveloped part of the country. NEOM, however, also risks alienating the Sinai’s local Bedouin population.
The project comes at a time when Egypt’s tourism industry is hoping to revive itself after a long decline. Undoubtedly, Egypt’s tourist sites will face some competition not only from NEOM but also the newly planned resorts and cities on the Saudi side of Sinai. The region may also, however, benefit from an injection of development and trade. For several years now, the Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of an ongoing crisis, with military operations carried out against militant and anti-government groups operating in the area since 2011. Resort towns, like Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh, have been particularly vulnerable to insurgent attacks, with violence at these tourist hubs taking place in 2017, 2015, and 2005. Cities in northern Sinai such as Arash also remain in the crosshairs of clashes between the Egyptian military and rogue militants, cutting these areas off from vital necessities like food and medicine.
The Sinai’s Bedouins and villagers continue to suffer from these insurgencies and military operations, and their help is critical in aiding Egyptian military efforts against these groups. Despite some Bedouin assistance to the government, most tribes have remained staunchly uninvolved in Sisi’s war. As a result of past and current grievances, general distrust exists between the tribes and the military.
If the Egyptian government focuses its Sinai efforts on projects like NEOM, at the expense of the indigenous population, then these groups will likely become even more politically and economically alienated. Indeed, modernization efforts in Egypt generally have not benefited native peoples; the construction of the Aswan Dam was notorious, for example, in driving out Nubians from their lands, an event that continues to have an impact on the community today.
In creating NEOM, it is important the Egyptian government promotes inclusive economic and land policies for the area’s native peoples. Consulting with tribes and providing them with opportunities to contribute politically and economically should be a primary concern, in order to prevent the community’s further disenfranchisement. Finding this balance is key to aiding Egypt’s fight against instability and bringing economic revitalization to the Sinai region.