Border deal nearer

Border deal nearer

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 26 September 1997

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 incidents.

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 palatable.

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.