by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 19 December
Yemen and Saudi Arabia were attempting to pull back from the brink
last week, after a dramatic worsening in their relations which brought three clashes on
the disputed border in as many weeks. Ten days of live-fire exercises by Saudi armed
forces near the contested area also raised the political temperature.
In one clash, at Qarqa'i, a village claimed by both sides,
Saudi and Yemeni forces shot at each other as they tried to hoist rival flags over a
school. Several died, though - as with almost everything in this confrontation - the
precise number is disputed.
Tension has been heightened further by the security
situation in Yemen and two mass trials which opened simultaneously last month. In San'a,
31 alleged "foreign agents" are charged with robbery and attacking military
positions and government facilities. In Aden, 27 people are being tried (four of them in
absentia) in connection with 11 explosions earlier this year, and an attempt to kidnap an
Italian tourist. Several of the Aden defendants claimed in court that they had been
tortured, but the judge denied them a medical examination.
Meanwhile two car bombs exploded at opposite ends of the
country - one in Sa'ada and one in Aden - in the space of a fortnight. Although no
casualties were reported, car bombs are a new tactic in Yemen. According to the
government, 42 suspects have been arrested in connection with the Aden explosion (17 in
San'a, 14 in Aden, and 11 in Hadramawt), though it is difficult to see why a terrorist
cell would involve so many people.
Later, security forces reported finding almost half a
tonne of TNT, together with a car intended for another bomb, in a remote area west of
At the end of November, the Yemeni foreign minister, Dr
Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, met King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh. Before the
trip, Yemen had hinted that the talks would pave the way for a final settlement of the
border question, but the minister returned empty-handed.
A few days later, the main defendant in the Aden trial
told the court that Saudi Arabia had paid him $150,000 plus $1,200 a month to organise
bombings in Yemen and to kill foreign minister Iryani. The man, a 43-year-old Spanish
national of Syrian origin, said he had been trained in Jeddah and had previously worked
for the Saudis in Spain, spying on Algerian Islamic militants there.
The Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz,
emphatically denied the claim, saying: "This type of thing does not happen from Saudi
Arabia because we do not believe in this method and we respect the security of each
country. Yemen's security and stability is one of our priorities."
Although progress towards a settlement of the 60-year-old
border dispute appears stalled yet again, most of the frontier line has in fact been
agreed. The continuing quarrel relates mainly to three specific issues.
Firstly, Yemen is seeking the return of territory
belonging to the former PDRY which was annexed by Saudi forces during clashes in 1969.
Secondly, Saudi Arabia has repeated its demand for a corridor through Yemen to the Arabian
Sea. Finally, Saudi Arabia is seeking to broker a reonciliation between President Ali
Abdullah Salih and the southern Yemeni opposition leaders who were exiled after the failed
secession in 1994. The proposal is not merely that they should be allowed to return, but
that they should be given government posts - a suggestion which Salih is unlikely ever to
accept. The 16 secessionist leaders are currently being tried in their absence for treason
and war crimes.
San'a, meanwhile, has floated the idea that the border
issue will remain unsoluble until it is put to international arbitration. Several leading
figures in the Yemeni government have been quietly promoting this course for years on the
grounds that it would give a more "balanced" result than could ever be achieved
though negotiation with such a powerful neighbour as Saudi Arabia.