Crisis over the border

Crisis over the border

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 29 Jan 1995

TENSION between Saudi Arabia and Yemen eased on 16 January when, after Syrian mediation, both sides agreed once again to talks on their 60-year border dispute. The move followed a series of recent skirmishes which culminated in reports of a large military build-up by the Saudis at three points in the border area just as President Ali Abdullah Salih was leaving Yemen on a rare - and diplomatically important - tour of Europe.

The two neighbours have had no legally defined border since last year, when the 1934 Treaty of Ta'if lapsed. Even before that, the treaty had defined only a small part of the frontier in the populated north-western corner. The remaining 1,000 miles or so have never been agreed. Since this undefined section runs mostly through desert on the fringes of the Empty Quarter its precise location had little importance until the mid-1980s when Yemen discovered oil close to the notional line.

If the promised talks do start, negotiators will face a host of technical difficulties. One is deciding what criteria to apply at which points on the frontier. For instance, the principle of self-determination might work in some areas, but obviously not in unpopulated desert. Because of these complexities it is possible the issue will eventually go to international arbitration, a solution the Yemenis appear to favour.

Since the end of Yemen's internal war last July, both sides have seemed genuinely interested in resolving the border issue - which makes the recent Saudi manoeuvres difficult to explain. Some observers suggest the Saudis were trying to short-circuit the discussion process by establishing a de facto frontier of their own choice. Others relate it more to strife inside the Saudi government, claiming that while King Fahd is pursuing a conciliatory line his military have been pushing in the opposite direction.

However, given the background of mutual suspicion, especially during the last five years, the sudden crisis may simply have been an over-reaction. There are Saudis who not only still fret over Yemen's ambivalent stance towards Saddam Hussein but who regard the country's republican, multi-party political system (for all its flaws) as subversive in a peninsula dominated by traditional monarchies. Equally, the Yemenis, who are relatively helpless against their rich and well-connected neighbour, have just emerged from a civil war in which the losing side received discreet but substantial Saudi backing.

Significantly, perhaps, that war and the current border dispute are linked by a common thread which concerns one of Saudi Arabia's long-term strategic aims. Potentially, Saudi oil exports are vulnerable to a blockade, since tankers have to pass through one of three narrow waterways, none of which the Saudis control directly: Suez and the Bab al-Mandab at each end of the Red Sea, and the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf. An outlet southwards, direct to the Indian Ocean, would provide greater security, but a mere pipeline would not suffice - it would have to be a corridor of sovereign Saudi territory. Oman rejected the idea some years ago, which now leaves Yemen as the only possibility.

If the Yemeni separatists' attempt to establish a new state in the south had succeeded last year, the Saudis would have come close to achieving their aim: not a corridor but an amenable puppet state permanently indebted to Riyadh. That ploy failed, but it will be surprising if the corridor idea does not resurface in some form during the coming border talks.