by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 3 March 1995
AT A MIDNIGHT ceremony in Mecca last weekend Yemen and Saudi Arabia
took the first small step towards resolving their 60-year border dispute. A memorandum of
understanding signed at the home of the Saudi defence minister, Prince Sultan bin Abd
al-Aziz (hitherto regarded as a hawk on the border question), hived-off the problem to
various committees charged with determining land and sea frontiers, developing economic
co-operation and preventing troop movements near disputed areas.
The fact that a document of such limited scope took more
than a month of haggling underlines the difficulties ahead as the two neighbours move on
to substantive negotiations. The impasse was broken only after American intervention,
including a visit by David Walch, US chargé d'affaires in Saudi Arabia, to
President Salih in Sana'a. American involvement is one of the few grounds for optimism in
an otherwise bleak picture. Recognising that the confrontation could threaten its own
strategic interests, the US appears to be quietly shepherding the two neighbours towards a
The 11-point document reflects concessions by both sides.
They have ambiguously reaffirmed their "commitment" to the lapsed Treaty of
Ta'if (which in 1934 defined the north-western end of the frontier) while stopping short
of actually renewing it. Yemen appears to have conceded the possibility of settling the
border in more than one stage. The Saudis have given ground on the question of military
supervision and have accepted the principle of arbitration if no mutual agreement on the
border is reached.
Both countries have also promised not to be used "as
a base and centre for aggression against each other or for the carrying out of any
political, military or information activities [including media campaigns] against the
other side." But since most of these things have been a routine feature of
Saudi-Yemeni relations for years, there will be ample scope for either side to accuse the
other of infringing the accord and to use it as grounds for pulling out of the deal if
they feel so inclined.
The Mecca agreement came just three days after Yemen
announced that a $6 billion project to pipe natural gas from Ma'rib to the coast had been
awarded to the French company, Total. The government also invited two unsuccessful
American bidders, Enron and a consortium of Hunt and Exxon to participate as junior
partners. While the project will no doubt reinforce western interest in Yemen's long-term
future it will do little for the country's immediate economic plight. The cost of
vegetables, meat and eggs is said to have gone up 60%-100% in the space of a few weeks and
earlier last month [February] all the country's wholesale merchants - 150 in Sana'a alone
- were arrested in an effort to control prices. The need for scapegoats suggests the
government is becoming seriously alarmed. During a similar crisis which brought riots in
1992, the money-changers were arrested.