Bir Tawil belongs to no country; or rather, it belongs to two and neither of them wants it. It is the last unclaimed, habitable land on earth.
Wedged in at the border of Egypt and Sudan, a unique geopolitical oddity is carved out of the sand. A diplomatic void without parallel, it has captured the imagination of thrill-seekers, filmmakers and wannabe statesmen alike.
The region – a triangle of rough terrain not too much larger than Greater London – experiences temperatures topping 45 degrees celsius nine months of the year. It has no permanent population, only the entrepreneurial mining folk that periodically migrate north from Sudan to scour the earth for gold, before taking their finds down to sell in the capital Khartoum.
The Red Sea lies 300 miles to the east, while the Nile, the main artery in this part of North Africa, is not much nearer. The border along which Bir Tawil sits is a knife-edge. Egypt and Sudan have not always been the cosiest friends. Cairo accused the government in Khartoum of complicity in a 1995 plot to assassinate Egypt’s president, a flavour of how dramatically temperatures can flare here. Local diplomacy, with almost a dozen states fighting over access to the Nile’s water, is high-stakes and rarely straightforward. What would ever attract outsiders to come here?
A disagreement at the turn of the 20th century over where the Egypt-Sudan border really lies led both countries to distance themselves from any claim to Bir Tawil, an impasse that sustains today. For a hundred years, the territory went largely ignored by all but the most localised actors.
Then, in 2014, a flurry of interest erupted in founding a functioning state on this desert-no-man’s land.
Dwain Coward, a 41-year-old barrister from south London, is the latest. He might also be the most serious. There was plenty of bluster that accompanied his initial proclamation to be “king” of Bir Tawil; a coronation, a crown, even an oath vowing to work in the interests of developing his new “country” for humanitarian good.
But the kitschy flourishes and kooky pageantry obscure a more solemn purpose. There is, believes Coward, a viable future for Bir Tawil as more than just an anomaly, that it could, with the right guiding hand, become an oasis of possibility.
“We have a company that we have established in Sudan,” Coward told VICE Worlds News. “We’re reaching out to recruits there as we need more effective control on the ground.
“There’s a gentleman who works as a tour guide taking people into Bir Tawil who has been instrumental. We have an arrangement where he is able to carry messages into the territory. A lot of the people that we want to reach and want to help don’t have access to the internet. So reaching out to the people we want on our team to help us with the initial work has been difficult.”
But what is the plan, exactly? What is Bir Tawil and the wider North Africa region lacking that this on the surface wholly wacky endeavour thinks it has the power to install? What problem is Coward trying to solve?
“Right now it’s open season on Bir Tawil’s gold resources,” says Coward. “There are some big mining operations going on. Our concern is that without any legislation in place, it’s damaging the land. The fear is that when we get in there and start to drill for water, it will have been poisoned with mercury and other chemicals these people have used in the mining process. It’s wreaking havoc on the land.”
At the heart of the project is a desire to dismantle the black market, and to bring regulation to a practice that is driven by profit but which, says Coward, is ecologically unsustainable. Some might see the logic as sound: take Bir Tawil’s natural resources out of the hands of the professional racketeers that are currently mining here and place them in the jurisdiction of an accountable authority, creating taxable revenue with which to fund a viable state.
“One of our biggest challenges is to unify the diverse factions that are used to operating without any oversight,” says Coward. “I’ve sent my terms to the tribal chiefs in the area. I’ve told them it’s in everybody’s interests if we work together; put something out of the profit you’re making to one side to create a communal pot where we can improve the situation for everybody. You can continue what you’re doing, but under this regime.
“There is difficulty in this. Because some people prefer the status quo. But the time for change has arrived. The super-information age has changed everything.”
The vocabulary might be troubling to some. To call the proposed movement a regime is to conjure up an unfortunate parallel with the worst excesses of imperialist history. That the “tribal chiefs” with whom Coward says he is negotiating are not native or even permanent in the region also raises questions about ownership and the right to extract Bir Tawil’s resources. The co-opting of foreign land and wealth for economic purposes, however benign the rhetoric, carries implications that are hard to ignore.
Some observers have pointed out awkward symmetries between foreign interest in Bir Tawil and the history of African colonisation. Certainly, the language in which Coward communicates at times reads like an updated blueprint for selling a sanitised imperialistic vision of the continent.
As the son of Jamaican immigrants to the UK, it’s a charge he feels well-armed to fend off. His logic goes that, since there is gold in Bir Tawil, it makes humanitarian sense to put it to good use – enriching the lives of local people rather than lining the pockets of a remote few. The proceeds could then be used to construct roads, energy facilities and infrastructure.
“The difference is we’re here to build a state. Not to take wealth out, but to keep it in. We need these people to work with us. It will be a tax on what they earn, but they still keep the lion’s share. Once they understand that there’s a mutual benefit here… Everything I’m doing is for the benefit of the people there. It’s just a matter of getting them to recognise that.”
The boot print of the former British Empire is stamped across this part of North Africa. The conundrum of Bir Tawil dates to 1882, to a British military intervention in Egypt to save the government in Cairo from religious insurgency.
Egypt at that time constituted the territory of the modern state with the addition of what is now Sudan, then considered by Cairo to be an integral part of the country. Britain, exercising its role as protector and effective sovereign, had other ideas; in order to split Egypt off from Sudan and increase its influence over the latter, a border was drawn – the idiomatic “line in the sand” that characterised Britain’s imperial presence in Africa – upon which the boundary between the two countries is roughly still based.
That was in 1899. Then, three years later, realising that the border drawn dead straight from east to west had failed to take into account the ethnic makeup of the area, Britain pencilled in a new boundary. The 1902 amendment brought the region of Hala’ib on the Red Sea under Sudan’s control. Bir Tawil meanwhile, was transferred to Egypt. Given that Hala’ib was a coastal region of potentially significant mineral wealth, whilst Bir Tawil was little more than an arid desert, Cairo refused to acknowledge the new boundary and the material losses it would entail.
More than 120 years later, both states still loudly assert sovereignty over Hala’ib, leaving a permanent scar across their bilateral relations. Correspondingly, neither country can make a claim to Bir Tawil, as to do so would contradict the right to administer Hala’ib. It renders this 800 square mile triangle in the Nubian Desert a diplomatic Terra Nullius, land which no state claims and no nation on Earth seems to want.
In any other circumstances, Bir Tawil would be obscure even to communities living in the border region. Isolated from major towns and cities in Egypt and in Sudan, it is remote in the extreme.
Egypt and Sudan both formally gained their independence from the UK in 1956. Their relations over much of the next 50 years were centered on a common reliance on the Nile for their water supply, but the border dispute over Hala’ib and, by extension, Bir Tawil, remains a sensitive issue; Sudan reluctantly withdrew its military from the region only in 2000. The wider region too is stalked by political instability. It has derailed efforts to build infrastructure on the land before.
The first attempt was made in 2014. Jeremiah Heaton, a farmer hailing from Virginia in the US, acted on a promise to his seven-year-old daughter to make her a princess, and travelled to Bir Tawil to plant the flag designed by him and his family and proclaim the Kingdom of North Sudan.
It began as a kind of fairytale; Disney even bought the film rights to tell Heaton’s story on-screen. But after years of sporadic media interest in a quaint, anomalous news item, changes in the local diplomatic picture began to breathe unexpected impetus into this peculiar power vacuum.
“We had met with Egyptian officials and they were concerned that Sudan would object in some way if they were to recognise us as occupying the space,” Heaton told VICE World News. Then, in 2017, the ground began to shift. A thawing of Sudan’s relations with western governments, particularly the US, resulted in Washington removing long-standing economic sanctions against the country, and re-establishing long-abandoned diplomatic relations with Khartoum. For Heaton and Bir Tawil, the door of opportunity creaked open.
“Once the sanctions were lifted and Sudan had a US ambassador again, he agreed to meet with me,” says Heaton. “The country was in need of some economic development projects to be pointed towards Sudan. They asked me if I could source some of those to help the country of Sudan as a whole.
“The litmus test for functionality of a country is you have to have some sort of contractual relationship with your neighbours. Our intention was to build a solar farm [in Bir Tawil] and sell the power to Egypt and Sudan. The contract for the power purchase agreement would have helped us meet the criteria for statehood.”
Then, just as suddenly, the situation changed again. December 2018 brought revolution to Sudan. The president of 30 years, Omar al-Bashir, was removed in a coup d’état. It was a spanner in the cogs of Heaton’s nascent negotiations with Khartoum.
“We put together a package for them with several different projects in the areas they were interested in developing,” says Heaton. “Then 35 days before we were due to present to the ambassador, Sudan had a revolution. That was it. We had to stop our development efforts because the country was in chaos.
“Without some sort of business arrangement with either of the neighbours, you don’t have a state. If it weren’t for the revolution, then these things would have fallen into place and Sudan would have recognised Bir Tawil as a standalone entity.”
There have been others to take their flag to Bir Tawil. In 2015, an amateur radio enthusiast from Russia named Dmitriy Zhikharev travelled to the region to make the place his own. Yet Heaton undoubtedly retained the upper hand in taking practical steps to build something on the territory.
That was until Coward came along. As the world opens up and COVID travel restrictions are loosened, he is poised to redouble efforts to persuade stakeholders on the ground to invest their futures in his vision.
“Does striving for an impossible prize mean that I’ve flipped my lid, that I’m mad?” says Coward. “ Or is reaching for that which is just out of reach keeping me sane?
“This is about helping people living below the poverty line, people in dire situations who are fleeing war and death. If I can help them, there can be no greater calling in this world.”