Limited agreement

Limited agreement

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 3 March 1995

AT A MIDNIGHT ceremony in Mecca last weekend Yemen and Saudi Arabia took the first small step towards resolving their 60-year border dispute. A memorandum of understanding signed at the home of the Saudi defence minister, Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz (hitherto regarded as a hawk on the border question), hived-off the problem to various committees charged with determining land and sea frontiers, developing economic co-operation and preventing troop movements near disputed areas.

The fact that a document of such limited scope took more than a month of haggling underlines the difficulties ahead as the two neighbours move on to substantive negotiations. The impasse was broken only after American intervention, including a visit by David Walch, USchargé d'affairesin Saudi Arabia, to President Salih in Sana'a. American involvement is one of the few grounds for optimism in an otherwise bleak picture. Recognising that the confrontation could threaten its own strategic interests, the US appears to be quietly shepherding the two neighbours towards a settlement.

The 11-point document reflects concessions by both sides. They have ambiguously reaffirmed their "commitment" to the lapsed Treaty of Ta'if (which in 1934 defined the north-western end of the frontier) while stopping short of actually renewing it. Yemen appears to have conceded the possibility of settling the border in more than one stage. The Saudis have given ground on the question of military supervision and have accepted the principle of arbitration if no mutual agreement on the border is reached.

Both countries have also promised not to be used "as a base and centre for aggression against each other or for the carrying out of any political, military or information activities [including media campaigns] against the other side." But since most of these things have been a routine feature of Saudi-Yemeni relations for years, there will be ample scope for either side to accuse the other of infringing the accord and to use it as grounds for pulling out of the deal if they feel so inclined.

The Mecca agreement came just three days after Yemen announced that a $6 billion project to pipe natural gas from Ma'rib to the coast had been awarded to the French company, Total. The government also invited two unsuccessful American bidders, Enron and a consortium of Hunt and Exxon to participate as junior partners. While the project will no doubt reinforce western interest in Yemen's long-term future it will do little for the country's immediate economic plight. The cost of vegetables, meat and eggs is said to have gone up 60%-100% in the space of a few weeks and earlier last month [February] all the country's wholesale merchants - 150 in Sana'a alone - were arrested in an effort to control prices. The need for scapegoats suggests the government is becoming seriously alarmed. During a similar crisis which brought riots in 1992, the money-changers were arrested.