Border row with the Saudis

Border row with the Saudis

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 31 July 1998

WITH MORE than 1,000 miles of undefined frontier to squabble about, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have again come to blows over lumps of rock in the Red Sea. On July 20, according Yemen, nine Saudi naval vessels used long-range artillery to attack and occupy al-Duwaima island, killing three Yemenis and wounding nine. The Saudis said they had acted "in self-defence". Two days later Yemen claimed its naval forces had landed at dawn and re-taken the island – which the Saudis denied. The truth, so far as can be ascertained, is that the Yemenis did re-establish themselves but failed to oust the Saudis, with the result that both countries now have a military presence there.

Al-Duwaima, which is too small to be marked on most maps, lies roughly to the west of Midi, the Yemeni border town. Last May, Saudi forces occupied two other islandswhich are claimed by Yemen. The sea in these parts is dotted with shoals and small islands which have little value in themselves but potentially bring their owner extensive mineral rights on the sea bed. Because the islands are so small and numerous, they are difficult to protect and occupation or possession is difficult to verify.

The increase in border tension has coincided with security problems inside Yemen – riots and tribal insurrection – brought about largely by the economic requirements of the IMF and World Bank. According to the interior minister, Hussein Mohammed Arab, "During one month between June 15 to July 15 Saudi forces perpetrated 73 violations, most of them establishing a presence and opening fire on Yemeni citizens and violating the airspace and sea on our borders."

Since then, there have been half-hearted attempts to reduce the temperature. Last weekend the Yemeni foreign minister, Abd al-Qadir Bagammal, returned from talks in Jeddah and announced vague measures "to control the some of the reasons behind the developments". He added: "We have agreed that whatever has happened should not be repeated." Almost certainly he will be proved wrong.

So far, Yemen appears to be winning the public relations battle by portraying itself as the victim of aggression. The Saudis, on the other hand, risk being perceived as exploiting Yemen's internal difficulties which resulted from following western economic advice.

That is unlikely to be well-received by the Saudis' closest ally, the United States. Yemen, meanwhile, has been quietly cultivating the Americans, knowing they are likely to play a central role in any border settlement. Last autumn during the arms inspection crisis with Iraq, Yemen kept a low profile – in contrast to its stance during the 1990-91 conflict which led to American aid being cut off.

In the face of protests from Islamists, Yemen has also stepped up military contacts with the US. Last February, American and Yemeni forces held their first joint military exercise, and more are planned. In March, the US warship, Mount Vernon, visited Aden – only the second such visit since the British left in 1967 – and in May, General Anthony Zinni, commander of US forces in the region, held talks with Yemeni leaders.

A ruling in Yemen's other border dispute – with Eritrea – is not now expected before September. Eritrean forces seized Greater Hunaish in December 1995 and, after much diplomatic wrangling, both sides agreed to submit their territorial claims to an international tribunal. A panel of five judges has been holding its deliberations in London. The judges' decision, which will be legally binding, had originally been expected last May. Early in July, however, Yemen presented more evidence, prompting speculation that its case had run into difficulties and a compromise verdict was in the offing.

Nevertheless, Yemen is also promoting arbitration as the best way to determine the Saudi border. The Saudis reject this, but as prospects for a negotiated settlement diminish, it is beginning to look like the most practical solution.