by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 16 October 1998
THERE WERE celebrations in
Yemen last week on the news that an international court had ordered the return of Red Sea
islands seized by Eritrea. At least 12 people died and more than 200 Yemenis were taken
prisoner in December 1995 when Eritrean forces occupied Greater Hanish, one of three main
islands in an archipelago almost midway between the two states and alongside one of the
world's busiest shipping lanes.
Since the British
occupation of Aden, the islands had generally been regarded as part of Yemen. Greater
Hanish was inhabited only by a few Yemeni fishermen, apart from a short period when Yemen
allowed Eritrean guerrillas to use it as a base for their liberation struggle.
Later a German company, under Yemeni auspices, began
building a hotel and scuba diving centre there. The Yemenis then sent a force of 200 men,
ostensibly to guard the construction site. Eritrea, meanwhile, signed a $28.5 million oil
and gas exploration deal with an American company Eritrea for an area of the Red Sea close
to the disputed islands.
The Eritrean attack both surprised and humiliated Yemen,
coming only a few hours after the President Issayas Afewerki had sent a friendly note to
his Yemeni counterpart, Ali Abdullah Salih. Among numerous officers taken prisoner on the
island (but later released) was the Brigadier-General commanding the Yemeni army's western
flank, together with three colonels, five majors, eight captains and 11 lieutenants.
After prolonged diplomatic wrangling - and mediation
efforts involving Ethiopia, Egypt, the United Nations and France - both sides agreed to
submit their territorial claims to the Court of Arbitration at The Hague. A panel of five
judges has been holding deliberations in London.
At a cursory glance, the text of the tribunal's ruling,
issued on October 9, appears more even-handed than it actually is. Three paragraphs award
territory to Eritrea, two award territory to Yemen, and one deals with fishing rights.
But the tribunal has actually reviewed ownership of more
than 40 islands and islets that might conceivably be disputed by the two countries.
Sovereignty of the Zuqar-Hunaish group - the subject of the 1995 conflict - has
unquestionably been awarded to Yemen. Eritrea has sovereignty over a few smaller islands
and rocks to the south-west.
However, the tribunal has not apportioned fishing rights.
It says that regardless of sovereignty, the "traditional fishing regime" in the
area should remain, with "free access and enjoyment for the fishermen of both Eritrea
and Yemen." A decision on maritime borders will be made later.
Both sides have said they accept the ruling and have 90
days to comply.
King Fahd of Saudi Arabi sent Yemen his congratulations
and Crown Prince Abdullah phoned President Salih to praise "the spirit of wisdom and
the peaceful approach adopted by the two neighbours".
This is a coded reference to Yemen's other - more
important - border dispute, with the Saudis. Yemen wants to refer that to an international
tribunal, too, but the Saudis reject arbitration, partly because they are seeking to amend
parts of the border defined by the 1934 Treaty of Ta'if.
Meanwhile, as Yemen's economic problems continue, the
World Bank has recommended cutting the number of government employees from 400,000 to
200,000 by the year 2003 in a move to reduce public sector spending.
Although the bank has allocated $25 million for projects
to create alternative jobs, the move is likely to be problematic. Aside from its
bureaucratic needs, Yemen requires a large civil service to keep down unemployment and, in
some cases, maintain political stability through patronage. President Salih has already
called for a freeze on new public sector appointments and promotions.
The government recently postponed another controversial
move which would have cut the subsidy on diesel fuel. Currently diesel sells in Yemen for
only 50% of the world price, but similar price rises last June caused riots. The increase,
which was due in September but is not now expected before the end of the year, will
particularly hit farmers, who depend on the fuel for agricultural vehicles and pumping