Border tensions

Border tensions

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.