Sinai Bedouin 'left out of region's economic development'

By James Melik
Reporter, Business Daily, BBC World Service

image captionTourists go to Sharm el-Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula to seek year-round sunshine

The nomadic Bedouin tribes in the Sinai Peninsula say they have suffered at the hands of the Egyptian government by being marginalised and discriminated against and are angry that they have been left out of the region's economic boom.

Between 1967 and 1982, the peninsula was controlled by Israel - an outcome of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

"The root of Egyptian mistrust of the Bedouin is the belief they collaborated with Israel during that time," says Dona Stewart, author of Middle East Today: Political, Geographical and Cultural Perspectives.

"The positive view many Bedouin have of Israel, which provided significant health and education services when they occupied Sinai, fuels distrust and discrimination by Egypt," she adds.

The long-simmering conflict between the Bedouin and Egypt's central government has escalated over recent months and is unlikely to subside until long-standing economic issues have been addressed.

The lack of economic progression has provided an opportunity for fundamentalist militants to capitalise in the chaos ensuing from Arab uprisings.

In his efforts to address the deep-rooted issues, President Mohammed Mursi recently met the governor of North Sinai and agreed to facilitate procedures for local residents to own land, as well as providing an extra 700 jobs in the governorate.

Developed south

The Sinai Peninsula is the eastern desert part of Egypt that meets Gaza and Israel. In 1979, the Camp David accords made Sinai a buffer zone between Egypt and Israel.

South Sinai has become a tourist destination because of its Biblical history - Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine's Monastery, which is considered to be the oldest working Christian monastery in the world.

Furthermore, holiday resorts such as Sharm al-Sheikh on the coastal strip of the Red Sea have mushroomed.

However, that has not offered much solace to the Bedouin.

"Employers do not generally hire Bedouin, preferring to bring in Egyptians from the Nile Valley who have a better knowledge of the tourist industry and foreign languages," Ms Stewart says.

Susie Drummond, a project manager with the Makhad Trust, a UK charity that assists the Bedouin in developing a sustainable income, says: "The Bedouin are in a pretty difficult situation and it is hard for them to get jobs or make a living."

She points out that traditionally the nomadic Bedouin are unaccustomed to living in a structured day-to-day environment.

She has worked extensively with the Jebelia tribe, which is used to Westerners visiting Saint Catherine's Monastery.

They traditionally live in the dry valleys in the mountains, where they tend orchards growing fruit, nuts and vegetables.

Even though many Bedouin settled in villages after the Israeli occupation, they still maintained their orchards in the hills.

But problems arose when the water supply for those orchards decreased.

"That was partially due to climate change but there has also been a drain on the water table by the holiday resorts on coast," she says.

She adds: "Hotels now have desalination plants but the wells have dried up and need deepening."

Unsettled north

The situation in the north of the peninsula is perceived as being worse.

The northern Bedouin do not see the income generated in the south being spread around the peninsula.

image captionCatering for tourists in the Sinai desert offers limited employment to a few Bedouin

One of the main industries is the mining of minerals to make cement but, according to Ms Stewart, the Bedouin have been largely excluded.

"Major cement factories use Chinese workers," she says, which prompted Bedouin to kidnap 25 of them in January 2012, demanding that authorities free fellow tribesmen from prison.

Many Bedouin were imprisoned when the major sea resorts witnessed a series of attacks between 2004-06 that killed a total of 130 people, dealing a major blow to the tourist industry - one of the highest sources of foreign income.

There have since been attacks on pipelines in and around the northern town of El Arish, where natural gas is extracted and piped to Israel.

A few Bedouin work with camels for tourists and a few have shops, but, apart from not being able to register their land, they have also been unable to develop trade links with Egypt, Palestine, Jordan or Israel.

Smuggling has gone on for generations, but while tunnels have been used to get humanitarian and consumer goods into Gaza, weapons, drugs and fuel are also trafficked.

"Those who control the tunnel trade have access to significant cash and weapons that could sustain the fight against their grievances," Ms Stewart says.

"The new Egyptian government has a window of opportunity to address the economic and governance issues in Sinai.

"Instability will push back Egypt's recovery by shaking investor confidence, decreasing the value of the stock exchange, and reducing the still-struggling tourism industry," she adds.

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