on the border
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 11 February, 2000
soldiers were reported killed during recent clashes in which Saudi
forces are said to have seized Jabal Jahfan, seven kilometres
inside Yemeni territory. News of the incursion sent Yemen’s
foreign minister scurrying to Riyadh with a message from President
Ali Abdullah Salih.
Although the latest skirmishes
might give the impression that a solution to the 66-year-old
border dispute is as far away as ever, that is not quite the case.
A basic outline of the new frontier - known as the "Como
Line" - was provisionally agreed between Salih and Prince
Sultan at a meeting in Italy in 1997, and the current argument is
mainly about how to relate this to precise points on the ground.
At the western end, the draft
agreement incorporates the line adopted by the Ta’if treaty of
1934. The outstanding issue is where this line actually lies,
since the treaty defined it by reference to various geographical
features and tribal territories rather than precise co-ordinates.
There are, apparently, piles of stones on the ground marking the
boundary but these have a habit of moving about when one side or
the other is not looking.
One of Saudis’ concerns is that
the treaty gave Yemen most of the mountain-tops and,
theoretically, a military advantage in any conflict. They have
therefore been eager to shift the border to lower ground. A
seven-hour meeting in Sana’a towards the end of last year broke
up in disarray when the Saudis insisted that Jabal Sar, a high
peak at the eastern end of the Ta’if line, was actually a much
smaller hill six kilometres to the south.
The Yemenis have responded to the
Saudis’ security concerns by offering to extend the
demilitarised zone provided by the 1934 treaty from five
kilometres to 20 on either side of the border. This, they say,
would take account of the longer range of modern weapons and was
the distance accepted by Oman in its border settlement with Yemen
a few years ago.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s interior
ministry claimed that "foreign fronts" (usually a coded
reference to the Saudis) are behind kidnappings of foreigners and
that their aim is to damage the country's reputation and
The statement was prompted by the
kidnapping, on January 26, of Kenneth White, an American oil
worker who was abducted – most unusually – from his bed in the
Halliburton company’s compound. The kidnappers broke in by
cutting through barbed wire and skilfully covered the tracks of
their escape route.
The Yemen Times described it as
"the most professional" kidnapping the country has
witnessed and – again, most unusually – the motive for the
abduction remains unclear. In the absence of any real clues, the
authorities have resorted to ever more extraordinary claims.
Besides the "foreign fronts", they have also accused
unnamed leaders of the main opposition party, Islah, and linked it
to a $400 million land dispute in Aden.