good to be true?
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 30 June, 2000
than 65 years of un-neighbourly strife, Saudis and Yemenis are
reeling at the sudden about-turn in their relationship.
In Sana’a, political leaders are
euphoric, describing the border treaty signed on June 12 as no
less significant than the unification of north and south Yemen 10
On news of the deal the Yemeni
riyal soared against the dollar, and hopes that Saudi investors
would shortly arrive caused the asking price of land in some parts
of Yemen to double in the space of a fortnight.
After the signing, both
governments moved rapidly to approve the deal. A formal
ratification ceremony was said to be imminent as MEI went to
press. At a Saudi cabinet meeting on June 19, King Fahd hailed the
agreement as "an exemplary model for working with brothers to
With such a long history of mutual
suspicion, the inevitable questions are: is it too good to be
true, and will it last?
Initially, both sides made great
efforts to give the treaty a positive spin but remained strangely
coy about its content - arousing suspicions in Yemen of a sell-out
which people would be bamboozled into accepting.
Publication of the text has not
entirely allayed those suspicions. Although described as a
"final and permanent" settlement, the treaty does not
define the entire frontier.
At the western end, the line of
the maritime border is clear. On land, the agreement incorporates
the 1934 Treaty of Ta’if, covering the area from the Red Sea to
Jabal al-Thar, the "moving mountain" whose identity was
disputed earlier this year (MEI 618). It is now fixed in position
with a grid reference. But elsewhere along the Ta’if line the
new treaty provides for amendments where the border cuts through
There is a continuing dispute in
this area between the Yemeni government and the Wa’ila tribe,
who claim to have a 241-year-old document demarcating their own
tribal boundary with the Yam tribe.
Further east, the main section of
the land border - from Jabal al-Thar to the frontier with Oman -
remains undefined. The treaty merely states that "the two
contracting parties have agreed to demarcate this part in an
amicable way". There is, incidentally, no specific mechanism
in the treaty for resolving any disputes.
The excitement in Yemen is less
about the territorial outcome than about the impact of better
relations with the Saudis - especially in terms of political
stability and economic benefits.
Yemeni sources see the agreement
as a genuine change of direction and say that Crown Prince
Abdullah and President Ali Abdullah Salih have recently
established an astonishing rapport.
According to some sources the
final push towards a deal, after years of discussion in
committees, was motivated by the conflict between Ethiopia and
Eritrea on the other side of the Red Sea. Others link it to the
changing political climate in Saudi Arabia.
The treaty incorporates the 1995
Memorandum of Understanding which contains several important
clauses not directly related to the border. One of these is the
promotion of economic, commercial and cultural relations between
the two countries. There are suggestions in the Yemeni press that
Saudi Arabia will now support the country’s application to join
the Gulf Co-operation Council.
Another key clause from the
memorandum incorporated in the treaty says: "Both countries
confirm existing obligations whereby their territories will not be
used as bases or centres of aggression against the other: nor will
they be used for political, military or propaganda purposes
against the other party."
This is easily the most
contentious part of the agreement and the extent of its observance
will determine whether relations have really changed. Both sides
have long accused each other of meddling in their internal
If the interference does stop,
several hundred politicians, tribal leaders and officials in
Yemen, who have been accustomed to receiving loyalty payments from
the kingdom, will see their incomes cut. The future of some Yemeni
opposition groups backed by Saudi Arabia, and of those southern
Yemeni leaders to took refuge in the kingdom after the 1994 war,
looks uncertain, too.
The non-interference clause also
extends to "propaganda" - which has sometimes been
interpreted as meaning that neither side should allow its media to
attack the other. If that interpretation prevails, the effect will
be to enshrine an permanent restriction of press freedom in an