Red Sea bridge back on the drawing board

Linking Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the bridge would boost trade, pilgrimages, but threaten coral reefs.

egyptian boat red sea 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
egyptian boat red sea 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The on-again, off-again bridge linking Egypt to Saudi Arabia via the Straits of Tiran has come back to life with reports saying the plans for the three-billion-dollar causeway are being been dusted off.
First proposed in the late-1980s, the bridge would connect Africa and Asia and span about 50 kilometers (31 miles) where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aqaba. The bridge would be a boon to regional trade, tourism and pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, but it also threatens an area rich in wildlife and a precious marine environment.
The mammoth project would run along the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula and near Sharm el-Sheikh would head out toward the Tiran Island and then over to Saudi Arabia’s Ras Hamid area in the Tabuk region on a series of suspension bridges, the Arab News reported.
Egyptian officials have welcomed the reported revival of an agreement with Saudi Arabia to start construction of the bridge by next year. The Saudi Arabian Daily Al Watan initially reported last week that Saudi Ministry of Transportation sources had said the agreement was revived and the causeway would be named after King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.
Ahram Online reported that Egyptian General Fouad Abdel Aziz, chairman of the Arab Road Association, has been put in charge of overseeing the project’s implementation and that work would begin in 2013.
But on Sunday, the Saudi Transportation Ministry issued a statement clarifying that there was no agreement and no official from the ministry had indeed made any statement on the bridge.
Nevertheless, Hussain Omran, the chairman of the Egyptian Ministry of Commerce’s foreign trade department chimed in that the revival of the project was “proof of the Kingdom’s keenness to further consolidate the brotherly and historic ties between the two countries,” the Arab News reported.  He added that the causeway would increase trade between the two countries by more than 300% from the present $4.2 billion annually to more than $13 billion in two years.
Egyptians also see the bridge as a boon not only to trade but travel, too, by encouraging more Saudis to visit. Hisham Zazoua, senior assistant to the Egyptian Minister of Tourism, said it could increase Saudi tourists from the present 300,000 to 1.2 million who would take the 20-minute drive.
“The causeway will encourage Saudi families to go to Egypt in their own private cars thus increasing the number of Saudi tourists more than fourfold,” Zazoua was quoted as saying.
But the sheer size of the project is bound to leave a harmful footprint on the coral reefs, nesting grounds of turtles and sea birds in the region, not to mention long-term implications on fisheries and the sea floor.
In the past, proposals to build artificial islands and bridges in the region were criticized for their potential environmental damage to the coastline and marine life. A spokesman for The Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSGA) said they had not yet been asked to conduct an environment impact study for the planned bridge.  
“We have heard about this only from the media, but we have not been informed of it officially. I’m sure if it is going to happen then we will be asked to do an impact study, but so far we haven’t done any,” an official at PERSGA told The Media Line.
Still, any bridge would also serve as a triumphal link that would connect North Africa with a direct road to Arab states, which has been cut since the establishment of Israel in 1948. The causeway would also supplement the sometimes perilous ferry crossings across the Red Sea. Over 1,400 Egyptian passengers, some pilgrims returning from Mecca, died when a ferry sank in high seas in 2006.
The bridge is expected to increase the number of pilgrims and tolls collected from them are expected to help cover its $3 billion price tag.
The strategic value of the bridge is also important for other countries in the Mediterranean, like Turkey, which will be able to ship its products to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries via Egypt instead of volatile Syria.