Border dispute flares
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 5 June 1998
THE LONG-RUNNING border dispute between Yemen and Saudi Arabia flared up again at the end of May when Saudi forces moved into a Red Sea archipelago which is also claimed by Yemen. At least seven islands, just over 100km west of Midi, are involved.
According to the Yemeni opposition newspaper, al-Jamahir, the Saudis landed on Dhu-Hurab island, which was undefended by Yemeni troops and cleared off the eight fishermen they found there. Within 12 hours they began erecting pre-fabricated buildings and installing military positions.
The newspaper said they had also occupied a second island in the group and were seeking an evacuation of inhabitants from the remainder as a precondition for talks with Yemeni officials.
Although frontier quarrels between the two neighbours have been running for more than 60 years, attention has focused mainly on the land border, only part of which has ever been defined.
The agreed portion of the land border ends at the Red Sea about 5km north of Midi. Yemen maintains that a north-westerly kink in the line just before it reaches the sea indicates that the maritime border should continue in the same direction. The Saudis, on the other hand, draw the line in a westerly direction, giving them more of the Red Sea.
This latest move is an attempt to establish the Saudis' claim, though it possibly also reflects Saudi disapproval of Yemen's new government. The recently-appointed prime minister, Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, has always taken a firm line on the border question and, during his years as foreign minister, never endeared himself to Riyadh.
Earlier, Saudi Arabi had appeared to question Yemen's eastern border with Oman, which was agreed six years ago. In a memorandum to the UN General Secretariat last April, the kingdom suggested that it might have a claim to some of the territory covered by the Yemeni-Omani agreement.
The move has caused some surprise among diplomats because Riyadh did not formally oppose the border settlement in 1992. It may be linked to the Saudis' desire for an oil corridor to the Arabian Sea, between Yemen and Oman.
Recently Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz, the Saudi Defence Minister, paid an inspection visit to the border province of Najran, an ethnically-Yemeni area which was ceded to the kingdom under the Treaty of Ta'if in 1934. The prince's visit was perceived in Sana'a as provocative.
Inside Yemen, sporadic trouble continues in the south. One person was reportedly killed and eight injured by two separate explosions in Aden last week. In another incident, a soldier was wounded when five masked men fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a restaurant in al-Dali'.
In Abyan province, five people were injured when demonstrators clashed with police. The protesters were demanding the release of two opposition leaders, Ahmed al-Qamaa of the al-Tajamu' Party and Abbas al-Asal of the Socialist Party. There is also concern for the whereabouts of Hassan Ba-Awm, a prominent opposition figure, who allegedly opened fire on police during a demonstration in Mukalla.
Authorities are playing down reports of an organisation called the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, which, according to the socialist newspaper, al-Thawri, set up an "almost impregnable" training camp in the mountains about 35km north of Zinjibar three months ago. The newspaper said that troops used heavy artillery and helicopter gunships to attack the camp last week - with uncertain results.
Meanwhile, three members of a BBC television team were transferred from detention to Sana'a's most luxurious hotel. They had been arrested on May 26 as they returned to the capital after visiting the Bani Dhabyan tribe to interview Sheikh Mubarak Ali Saada, responsible for kidnapping four Britons during the last few months.
Earlier the Ministry of Information had advised them to avoid the tribal area for safety reasons, though apparently it had not forbidden them to go there.