Breaking the ice

PRESIDENT Salih's visit to Jeddah on June 5-7 was his first since Yemeni-Saudi relations were soured by the Gulf crisis in 1990. Whether this marks the final breaking of the ice or just a temporary thaw remains to be seen. Although Sana'a radio described the trip as "successful and fruitful", the fruits are difficult to identify. A 1,300-word joint communique listed the names and titles of all who attended, noted a convergence of views on Bosnia, Chechenya and the status of Jerusalem but smothered the main business of the talks in vague generalities.

The two neighbours have reiterated their support for the memorandum of understanding signed last February after border clashes, so with luck it will not be long before the joint committees established four months ago get down to serious work.

President Salih has also said that the lapsed Treaty of Ta'if, which defined part of the common frontier, will be renewed "without amendment". That should please the Saudis, but Yemeni hopes of receiving economic aid in exchange have been met by little more than encouraging noises. Nor is it clear whether Yemeni workers will be allowed back to Saudi Arabia on the special terms they enjoyed before 1990. Those privileges, which Yemen regarded as an integral part of the Ta'if treaty, ended when Yemen refused to join the alliance against Saddam - resulting in a huge economic and social upheaval caused by the loss of remittances and the sudden arrival of 750,000 jobless expatriates in Yemen.

The 1934 Ta'if treaty settled only a small part of the Yemeni-Saudi border, leaving the most important - potentially oil-rich - parts in dispute. The lapsing of the treaty last year provided Yemen with a means to push the Saudis towards a comprehensive border settlement, but once the treaty is renewed that leverage will disappear.

Whether by coincidence or design, two days before the president left for Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman held elaborate ceremonies to mark the final settlement of their joint frontier. This allowed Salih to declare in Jeddah that the Omani agreement was a "splendid model" to be followed by the Saudis. Although it is likely that the Yemeni-Saudi border dispute will drag on for some time, recent talk of economic co-operation and joint pipelines might conceivably point to a way out of the impasse. It could indicate the revival of an old plan that would leave the frontier undefined, while turning the disputed territory into a joint oil exploration area. Interestingly, this was the mechanism used by north and south Yemen before unification to resolve their own border dispute.

Meanwhile Yemen's oil minister, Faisal bin Shamlan, has been replaced by his deputy. Shamlan, a southerner, was one of three candidates who opposed Salih in the presidential election last October. More recently he quarrelled with the president over the award of a large contract to the French company, Total, and absented himself from official duties. Shamlan's departure was masked by a routine cabinet reshuffle in which the interior minister (who has been ill) was also replaced, along with the trade and information ministers.

Speculation about the explosions in Aden (Middle East International 502) continues. Although the government maintains the cause was an accident, many Adenis believe it began with an attempt to seize weapons captured from the separatists during the war last year. One theory blames supporters of Ali Salim al-Baid, the exiled separatist leader. Another blames southern Islamists who helped northern forces to oust the separatists but were deprived of a share of the spoils because the northerners did not trust them.