by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 26 September
Yemen and Saudi Arabia have moved closer to a settlement of their
63-year-old border dispute following a meeting in Milan between President Ali Abdullah
Salih and Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz.
Although there have been many false starts in the past,
the signs now indicate that a deal is near. The Americans have been quietly but
persistently nudging the parties towards an agreement as soon as possible, arguing that it
will increase political stability in both countries and remove a possible complication
from issues surrounding the Saudi royal succession.
The Yemeni-Saudi border is one of the longest undemarcated
frontiers in the world. Only a small part of it - at the extreme western end - has ever
been defined. That was under the Treaty of Ta'if in 1934. The remainder runs eastwards for
almost 1,000 miles through mostly unpopulated territory on the fringes of the Empty
Quarter. The absence of an agreed border has become increasingly problematic because of
attempts to explore for oil in the area and there have been a number of military
The respective claims are based mainly on old maps dating
back to the Ottoman and British empires: the Violet Line, the Hamza Line, the Riyadh line,
the Philby line, etc., representing earlier claims which were rejected by one side or the
other. These not only diverge by up to 200 km in places, but also cross.
Joint technical committees, meeting over several years,
have now agreed large sections of the frontier. In the west, according to Yemeni sources,
it basically follows the line of the Ta'if Treaty, though Yemen has gained about 4 km of
coastline, giving it control of several small Red Sea islands.
In the east, it starts at 52 deg E, 19 deg N, running
south-west to 49 deg E, 18 deg N, then to 47.3 deg E, 17 deg N, which is about 12 km south
of the Saudi city of al-Wadi'a. This combines part of the Riyadh Line (offered by the
British to Ibn Saud in 1935) with part of part of the Rayyan Line (which the British
government decided upon internally in 1949 but omitted to tell the Saudis about). This is
well to the north of lines claimed by the Saudis between the 1930s and 1950s.
After al-Wadi'a, the line turns north then west, following
the Saudi-built road to Najran, but staying about 10 km south of it.
In general, this probably gives both sides as much as they
can reasonably hope for and also reflects their current military dispositions. However,
there are fears in San'a that some elements may oppose it. The Yemeni government has begun
preparing the public for a settlement and has given private briefings to opposition
parties in the hope of heading off trouble.
Technically, an agreement might be challenged as
unconstitutional. This is because Article 1 of the Yemeni constitution states that the
country's territory is inviolable and no part of it may be ceded.
Two annexes to the border agreement are also under
discussion. These will cover economic co-operation and security issues. Yemen is
especially anxious to obtain some economic benefits which will make the border deal more
There is a long history of mutual suspicion between the
two neighbours, with each accusing the other of meddling in its internal affairs - most
notably by supporting Islamist militants in Saudi Arabia and southern separatists in
Yemen. It is expected that security annexe will seek to stop this, though policing of
infringements will be difficult.