A Fictional Country Is Reigniting Real Territorial Fears
The Kingdom of the Yellow Mountain is just the latest in a long string of claimants to ungoverned territory between Egypt and Sudan.
There’s a brand-new Arab country in town.
There’s a brand-new Arab country in town.
Well, not exactly in town. It does not have any towns quite yet, or a real territory, for that matter. It does however have a (seemingly unknown) king, a prime minister, a full set of honorific orders, a handful of social media accounts, and even a “Vision 2030,” to rival that other kingdom, Saudi Arabia. Say hello to the Kingdom of the Yellow Mountain, or Al-Jabal al-Asfar.
Announced just this month, it is already igniting passions and fueling running commentary, and not just for the oddity of the story—a new country purporting to set up shop on unclaimed land between Egypt and Sudan is certainly more than enough to get the attention of social media users—but also because it seems to be striking a very sensitive nerve.
The supposed kingdom has declared its primary raison d’être to be alleviating the suffering of refugees the world over. It offers citizenship to stateless people worldwide, a worthy cause, but one that has kicked up controversy. Some tweets have inquired—mockingly or seriously—how to join the new country. Others have angrily suggested that the territory is part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s supposed “Deal of the Century” between the Israelis and Palestinians and aims to absorb Palestinians away from their homeland. Still others believe that it is a way to “congregate the Arab Sunnis who have lost their homes in Syria and Iraq, to the benefit of the Shiite majority” or that it will be the culmination of a “Sunni-Shiite war in the Gulf, with Sunni refugees escaping to the kingdom” in a global doomsday scenario. Theories run as far as the imagination will go.
The new Kingdom of the Yellow Mountain—population: zero—claims the arid area of Bir Tawil, a full 800 square miles on the Egyptian-Sudanese border, as its territory. Bir Tawil is, by the hazards of colonial mapping and the absurdities of competing territorial claims, terra nullius: land unclaimed by any legitimate country, falling beyond each country’s map and recognized border. The only other places classified as terra nullius on earth are pockets along the Croatian-Serbian border. And there, too, a few so-called countries have been declared by creative and entrepreneurial politicians.
The sands of Bir Tawil are no strangers to adventurers staking a claim. In December 2014, a Russian amateur radio operator named Dmitry Zhikharev claimed ownership, naming the territory “the Kingdom of Middle Earth.” Jeremiah Heaton, an American farmer with a messianic bent—the first coat of arms he used for his self-proclaimed country depicted a saint slaying a dragon and bore inscriptions in English and Georgian—and solid business acumen, also traveled to Bir Tawil and planted a flag there, he claims, in June 2014. He declared himself “king of North Sudan” and set up a website selling citizenships and knighthoods to his imaginary country, along with cryptocurrency and even street naming rights. He also, apparently, sold the rights of the story to Disney. Similarly, in November 2017, an Indian programmer, Suyash Dixit, drove to Bir Tawil to plant his own homemade flag in the arid territory and bask in Indian media attention.
All three have accused one another of lying about making the trip, rightly pointing out that the Egyptian authorities would be unlikely to let random foreigners stroll along their southern border. One of them nonetheless still found it fitting to angrily tweet at about the latest claims, in one misspelled message calling the Yellow Mountain’s figurehead a “metally unhealthy person.”
The Kingdom of the Yellow Mountain may rest on much-claimed land, but it is seemingly the first Arab fantasy country, and it has been hard at work developing an online presence that goes beyond a self-timer photo with a flag. Indeed, this project looks significantly more professionally designed, and its figurehead doesn’t seem like a hothead who would drive across the desert and evade border patrols. Nadera Nassif, the prime minister-designate and the only public figure so far, lists herself on social media profiles as the president of an education company aimed at establishing schools, the co-owner of an eponymous insurance and real estate agency, and the co-owner of a high school in Lebanon. Her degrees include an undergraduate degree from the University of Baghdad and a doctorate from an online university. Her companies appear to be based in Michigan.
Nassif’s kingdom also has a YouTube account and several official Twitter accounts that retweet one another. Its websites are slowly being populated with facts about the country. At least one of the websites, incidentally, can be identified to be using a Saudi Arabian webhost, an unlikely choice for anyone who isn’t based there.
According to a video on the YouTube account, the people behind this project are “a number of Arabs who have felt the call of responsibility toward the Arab nation as well as human rights and Islamic principles, toward resolving crises that had dispossessed thousands, and denied them their simplest, human rights.” (Palestinian refugees seem not to be the target of this pledge. The video also stresses support of United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 of 1948, which enshrined the right of return of Palestinian refugees.)
There’s been no reaction from the Egyptian or the Sudanese governments—in line with their stoicism in the face of previous flag-planting attempts—but the story is showing no sign of ending. In fact, most recently, it has even been picked up in more serious outlets. Some commentators, perhaps unaware of the history of such territorial claims over this geographic oddity, have privately expressed concerns that the kingdom might be a more sinister endeavor to undermine Egyptian and Sudanese sovereignty—or at the very least unnerve the countries through a protracted legal dispute of sorts.
But Bir Tawil isn’t so much an unclaimed territory as is it the contraposition of a much bigger struggle between Egypt and Sudan over the adjacent Halayeb and Shalateen Triangle, an area 10 times the size of Bir Tawil; the disentanglement of Bir Tawil’s status will be a corollary of the resolution of Halayeb’s. Home to about 28,000 people, primarily from the Basharya and Ababda tribes, the triangle sits atop mineral riches, including petroleum, copper, manganese, and gold; along East African trade routes; across from Saudi Arabia; and overlooking the Red Sea; its geopolitical value is far greater and has unfortunately made the triangle and its inhabitants a point of contention between Egypt and Sudan since 1956.
If any good were to come out of the Kingdom of the Yellow Mountain and the frenzy it ignited, it might be bringing attention back to the Halayeb dispute, and hopefully pushing for a permanent resolution of the conflict, to the best interest of its local population. In any event, the kingdom set itself a deadline to begin receiving citizens by the end of 2020, with a host of state-building steps along the way. That seems unlikely. At best, maybe the new supposed leaders can sell their story to Disney too. At worst, they’ll simply lose the Twitter war against the other aspirants to the crown and fade from view.
M ohamed El Dahshan is the founder of OXCON, a consulting firm focusing on fragile and post-conflict countries; he is also a non-resident Fellow with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in DC, and cofounder of Afrilanthropy, a philanthropic advisory firm. Twitter: @eldahshan
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