by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 17 Feb
THREE WEEKS of "brotherly" talks in Riyadh, plus some
quiet international diplomacy, have taken the immediate heat out of the Saudi-Yemeni
border dispute. After the frontier skirmishes of December and January, and accusations of
a military build-up, the troops have seemingly pulled back from areas where nobody will
admit to having sent them in the first place.
As yet the talks are a modest affair: not specifically
about the border, but about a framework for more talks - and even if the arguments keep
going round in circles the fact that they have continued for so long is an achievement in
itself. There is, as a Yemeni official put it, no breakthrough but no deadlock either.
From the scant information that has leaked out, it is
clear there are substantial differences. According to the Yemenis, the Saudis want to
treat the border issue in two separate parts, reflecting the pre-1990 division of Yemen
into northern and southern states. Apart from casting doubt on the reality of Yemeni
unification (a sensitive point in Sana'a) that approach would probably favour the Saudis
and could easily result in a partial settlement rather than a complete one.
The Yemenis, meanwhile, are seeking a mechanism to monitor
the border area, perhaps through a joint military committee including international
representatives. This would forestall any attempt by the Saudis to short-circuit
negotiations by establishing a de facto frontier. It would also give the dispute a higher
profile on the international stage - possibly to Yemen's advantage. Understandably, the
Saudis are not enthusiastic.
With much more formidable hurdles ahead when they come to
discussing the border itself, it is difficult to see the two neighbours resolving their
dispute peacefully without outside help. So far, Syria, Egypt and Jordan have helped in
small ways but there is probably only one country with enough influence to ensure success:
the United States.
The Americans have a strategic interest in Saudi Arabia
and are not afraid to use their influence there when necessary. At the same time, their
relations with Yemen have improved since the Kuwait war and they would like to encourage
Yemen's experiment in multi-party democracy. They also recognise the contribution Yemen
could make to the stability (or otherwise) of the region.
On February 5 President Clinton sent a message to the
Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Salih, expressing Washington's support for the talks and
its "keenness for the existence of good and cordial relations between the two
neighbouring countries in a way that consolidates security, peace and stability in the
Reading between the platitudes, Clinton's letter may be
interpreted as the first public hint of American readiness to act as honest broker when
the time comes. That, at least, is how the Yemenis see it. Their strategy now is to
cultivate Washington, even at the expense of long-standing relations with Iraq.
One indication of that was Yemen's decision, early this
month, to send home Iraqi military advisers who had been training its MiG-29 fighter
pilots. A token gesture, perhaps, but it has pleased Washington and will go some way
towards reassuring the Saudis.