by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 8 August 1997
Yemeni security forces have arrested more than 50 opposition
figures in the biggest political clampdown since the 1994 war of secession. Most of those
arrested are associated with the Yemen Socialist Party or the League of the Sons of Yemen,
the two parties which led the failed breakaway in the south.
The arrests began only hours after two small dynamite
bombs exploded in Aden on July 28. Last week the London-based National Opposition Front
(Mowj) - an umbrella organisation formed by exiled southern politicians after the war -
claimed the bombs had been planted by government forces to create a pretext for the
arrests. "Mowj condemns both the explosions and the arrests," a spokesman said.
Earlier, Ali Salim al-Baid, the former socialist leader
and president of the short-lived separatist state, broke a three-year silence by appearing
on MBC television, the Saudi-owned satellite channel which is widely viewed in Yemen.
Al-Baid is one of the 16 secessionists currently being tried in their absence by a Yemeni
court on charges of treason. For some time the trial had been proceeding at a desultory
pace but recently sprang to life, with daily sessions while the prosecutor presents 5,000
extra documents as evidence.
The timing of these developments is difficult to explain
except in the context of Yemeni-Saudi relations which for many years have been clouded by
mutual suspicion and claims of interference in each other's affairs. Yemen's stance during
the war with Iraq greatly alarmed the Saudis. In 1994, Saudi Arabia gave diplomatic
support to the Yemeni secessionists, who were largely funded from Saudi and Gulf sources.
The last two months have witnessed much high-level
shuttling between Sana'a and Riyadh, with both sides publicly claiming that a settlement
of the 63-year-old border dispute is near. Despite the hyperbole (one meeting was said to
be "crowned with success"), other events have given few grounds for optimism.
Tension rose last April during Yemen's parliamentary
elections when Sana'a accused the Saudis of financing several opposition parties which
boycotted the poll. There have also been complaints of Saudi Arabia expelling up to 1,500
Yemeni workers a week and turning back Yemeni exports. The Saudi press retaliated by
accusing Yemen of blaming others for self-inflicted troubles.
There was also a mysterious incident around June 26.
Although no details have emerged, the Palestinian newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, reported
that it involved armed clashes in the Yemeni-Saudi border area, with heavy casualties, and
that Yemen's mobile phone system was cut off, apparently for security reasons.
In the light of these developments the most obvious
explanation for the intensified diplomatic activity is that it is mainly an exercise in
conflict management. It may be significant that the main talks are not being conducted
between the respective foreign ministers, but between the interior ministers. This
suggests that the prime concern is not the border itself but internal security on either
side of it.
On the other hand, it is conceivable that real progress is
being made towards a settlement but that an increase in tension is inevitable as each side
tries to strengthen its negotiating hand. According to this scenario there are no major
new factors pushing the two neighbours towards conflict and powerful reasons for moving
towards a reconciliation.
Yemen, for instance, has a long shopping list of favours
it would like from the Saudis in exchange for a border agreement. These include free
movement of Yemeni labour into Saudi Arabia, resumption of Saudi economic aid, increased
trade and - most importantly - admission to the Gulf Cooperation Council.