1981 The Birth of Diving Diplomacy

Howard Rosenstein and Eugenie Clark, Ras Mohamed 1974

Returning from Egypt where I had been part of a tourism delegation to the Bilateral Egyptian-Israel tourism talks I had a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis who had helped set up my meetings in Cairo. Sam, a diving student of mine was very curious about how the trip went. I was thrilled to share my impressions and experiences in Egypt.

The Israeli minister of tourism Sharir with the Egyptian Minister of Tourism and assistants at the bilateral tourism talks in Cairo

I told him about the various Red Sea Diving presentations I made. First to the tourism ministers of Egypt and Israel and then later the same evening a historical Red Sea film and slide show at the United States Embassy Cultural Center attended by hundreds of eager and welcoming Egyptian Divers.

After the presentation, I met with Ayman Taher leader of the Egyptian diving community who asked if I could help arrange for him to visit Sharm before the official withdrawal date as a representative of the Egyptian Diving community.

Sam listened to all this in fascination and said he would make some phone calls and see if he could help facilitate Ayman’s visit.

Ambassador Lewis with Howard

A few weeks later to my surprise, and perhaps a sign of the very changing times, I received a call from the Israeli Foreign ministry regarding my proposed itinerary and plans for Ayman’s visit. I related to them that I envisioned this as an informal visit, Diver to Diver, like the Ping Pong Diplomacy initiated by Henry Kissinger, symbolized America’s rapprochement with China. Instead of “Ping Pong Diplomacy” it would be “Diving Diplomacy” based on our personal contacts in Egypt. Ayman’s visit would only serve to enhance the initiative.

I proposed inviting some of the leaders of the Israeli diving community and of course to invite Ambassador Lewis, who had been so involved in the peace process and a great advocate for the continuation of international diving tourism to the Sinai as well as the conservation of its beautiful Red Sea reefs. The ministry people were prepared to give it the green light if the Egyptian side was also in favor.

I notified Ayman of the good news and now all he had to do was get permission from his side, which turned out not to be such an easy task. It was not easy for Egyptian nationals to get travel permits to Israel. He shared with me his frustrations and challenges in getting the permit to travel to Israel. Once again, I turned to the good offices of the American Ambassador, who in turn talked to his contemporary in Cairo, and finally, they succeeded, Ayman got his visa to visit Israel accompanied by a staff member of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

During this phase of the peace process, there was an interim border crossing just west of Ras Mohamed.

The plan was for Ayman to get to the Egyptian side of this temporary border, and I would wait to pick him up on the Israeli side.

The entire area was under military control, and everything had to be coordinated with the military on both sides. Somehow, we got all the pieces together and on the scheduled day, I waited anxiously in my jeep on the Israeli side and sure enough, after a few minutes of bureaucracy, the checkpoint barrier was raised and Ayman and his Embassy escort marched through, diving gear and suitcase in hand. He climbed into my jeep and the age of Diving Diplomacy between Egypt and Israel was moving into high gear. Happily, the visit was a great success, Ayman had the time of his life, and all the Israeli divers enjoyed their time with him.

Ayman, Genie, and Howard on the beach at Ras Mohamed – Photographed by Amos Nachoum

Shortly after Ayman’s visit to Sharm, I was contacted by Dr. Eugenie Clark, world renowned marine scientist and author who advised me that she was in Cairo and had given a lecture attended by Gamal Sadat, an enthusiastic Diver who also happened to be the son of the country’s president Anwar Sadat. Gamal was so impressed with Genie that he told his father about Genie’s lecture.  The President invited her to the presidential palace for an informal meeting.

Genie was a great communicator, especially on subjects that she was passionate about, and she was passionate about the Red Sea.   In 1950, Genie had worked on her PhD at Professor Gohar’s research station at Hurghada for a year and even picked up a decent Arabic.

Genie managed to impress upon Sadat with her stories about diving off the Sinai’s Red Sea shore.   She was so effective in fact, that the President offered to organize a delegation of Egyptian scientists and responsible government officials to accompany Genie on her return to Sharm and to see for themselves what she was talking about. He even offered transportation in his personal Range Rover for the drive to Sharm. Genie agreed on the spot to join such an expedition and would try to set things up on the Israeli side.

The next day Genie called me from Cairo excited as a child in a candy store and proceeded to report on everything that transpired and the offer of President Sadat to send a delegation with his own car to Sharm.

Genie suggested that I speak with the Israeli side to help organize a meeting in Sharm between scientists and conservation officials.

I contacted Admiral Yochai bin Nun, former commander of the Israeli Navy, a war hero of the 1948 War between Israel and Egypt. The Admiral was now the director of one of Israel’s largest Oceanographic research centers based in Haifa. He was all in favor of cooperating with the project and immediately agreed to send one of his top Scientists down to join the group.

A few days passed and I got word that the caravan of the Egyptian team was heading for Sharm. The Egyptian group escorted by Dr. Eugenie Clark was comprised of 5 leading Egyptian scientists and government representatives. It was late in the afternoon when the Egyptian delegation arrived at the border outpost at the very southern tip of the Sinai.

President Sadat red Range Rover with the delegation

I welcomed them once they crossed the improvised border barrier.

Coincidentally at this time a camera film crew led by famed TV reporter Bob Simon, bureau chief of CBS news in Israel. He was in Sharm covering different aspects of the Sinai peace treaty. I had tipped him off on the Egyptian’s visit, wanting to generate some public interest in the fate and future of Red Sea Diving after the Israeli withdrawal.

Genie would be joining up with her National Geographic team of David and Anne Doubilet already in Sharm and working on a Shark story for the magazine. Bob Simon intended to connect both the Egyptian’s visit and the Shark story into a very interesting piece for his network.

To view his televised report, click here 

CBS camera crew with Genie Clark in the Red Jacket

I escorted the delegation on visits to some of the more popular dive sites like Ras Mohamed and the Tiran Straits, and discussions with the Israeli scientists and conservation officials

Howard with the Egyptian delegation at the diving center

It was extremely important for us to impress upon them the need for conservation and protection of the area’s natural treasures above and below the water.  

The next day I gave them a tour of Ras Mohamed which had been the Sinai’s first marine nature reserve going back nearly 10 years. They saw firsthand the visiting divers as they finished a dive and spoke with them and learned objectively from the tourists that they considered Ras Mohamed to be the finest diving site in the world.

Little did they know that the petite woman in pigtails standing next to them, Dr. Eugenie Clark, had written a very similar message in a for National Geographic “If I had only one place to dive for the rest of my life, it would be Ras Mohamed”.

Once again, Diving Diplomacy was at play, and I do think that the visit of the first Egyptian team of scientists to set foot in the Sinai in 15 years, played role in President Sadat declaring his intention of making Ras Mohamed Egypt’s first Nature Reserve once the area was back under Egyptian sovereignty. In the end President Sadat did just that and the rest is history.

All of us involved have a feeling of great accomplishment. 

Ayman and Howard celebrating a new era of peace
  • Cover picture photographed by David Doubilet from National Geographic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *