When Jeremiah Heaton trekked across the desert and planted a flag in an 800-square-mile patch of land between Egypt and Sudan in June, he staked a claim to the area, calling it his “Kingdom of North Sudan.” He said he wanted the barren, craggy swath so his 7-year-old daughter Emily could be a princess, and he vowed to start an agricultural center there.
Although Heaton, of Abingdon, Va., intends to reach out to the Egyptian and Sudanese governments for their official recognition of his kingdom, it turns out that his chances of success in taking over the area known as Bir Tawil aren’t so good.
Experts say that simply planting a flag in the sand isn’t how countries are born these days, even if land sits apparently unclaimed. Heaton is not a state, nor is he acting on behalf of any nation. And he is not occupying the land, instead living more than 6,600 miles away in southwestern Virginia. He would also need Sudan and Egypt to recognize his kingdom.
Gamal Malik Ahmed Goraish, counselor at the Sudanese Embassy in the District, said that although no country currently occupies the Bir Tawil trapezoid, “there is no land between Egypt and Sudan that doesn’t have any owner.” Goraish added that Sudan and Egypt are negotiating over official ownership of the area, which appears on maps as a desolate spot about halfway between where the Nile crosses into Sudan and Egypt’s border along the Red Sea.
Goraish said that “there is no third party” allowed in the discussions. Officials at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Heaton is not the first person to try to claim Bir Tawil, and his bid probably will be unsuccessful, according to international officials and experts.
“Under international law, only states can assert sovereignty over territory,” said Anthony Arend, co-founder of the Institute for International Law and Politics at Georgetown University.
Arend said that for a state to claim no-man’s-land, or terra nullius, it must also demonstrate that it has occupied the space, not that it just physically stepped foot there. Under the most basic definition, Arend said, members of the occupying nation must have lived on the land for several years.
Asking the United Nations for official recognition wouldn’t necessarily help, according to Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general. Dujarric said it is not the role of the United Nations to define borders and that “membership in the U.N. is separate from recognition as a country.”
“The recognition of a country is something that’s done bilaterally” among neighboring countries, Dujarric said.
Arend said an alternative for Heaton and others wishing to start a nation on Bir Tawil soil would be the principle of self-determination. In such a case, a people — a group with a common ethnicity, language, or governing structure, as examples — can occupy the land for years, unchallenged, and claim it as their own. An example of this would be secession from an established country, Arend said.
Heaton argues that the idea of limiting land claims to existing states is a colonialist approach to international law. and he insists his claim to Bir Tawil is legitimate.
“This is no-man’s-land, and I have claimed it,” Heaton said.
He said that to occupy the land he would first need to enact his long-term goal for the kingdom: Turning the patch of desert into an agricultural production center that will tackle food security issues in the region.
Scientists from Germany, Australia and India have contacted Heaton, hoping to assist with the farm project, he said. Although one of the main reasons Heaton claimed the area is that he hoped to fulfill his daughter’s wish to become a princess, his family also has wanted to transform the land into a needed agricultural resource.
Once he finalizes his vision for the desert, he intends to meet with Sudanese and Egyptian officials, thinking they will agree that his plans will benefit the region.
“There is no way they can’t see it in a positive light,” Heaton said.
Even so, Heaton recognized that it would be best to formalize his plans before approaching government officials.
“I think it’s too early for them to weigh in negatively,” Heaton said.
Heaton is not alone in dreaming about Bir Tawil. Others have taken to the Internet before him to claim the land, including Kareem Hamdy, 34.
Hamdy, a second-year student at Saint James Medical School in the Caribbean, said he initially claimed Bir Tawil in 2010, distributing news releases of his claim to various Web sites.
Hamdy’s “United Arab Republic” project was meant to be a mental exercise in creating a micro-nation for displaced people, Hamdy said. Since then, seven others have joined him in developing the project with current conversations revolving around establishing a digital economy.
“I’m trying to build a legitimate project to be recognized by the international community,” said Hamdy, who is Egyptian.
Although the odds might be against them and the international community is unlikely to endorse their plans, Heaton and Hamdy separately say they are committed.
“Starting a nation from scratch doesn’t happen overnight,” Heaton said.