Tensions with the Saudis

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,19 December 1997

Yemen and Saudi Arabia were attempting to pull back from the brink last week, after a dramatic worsening in their relations which brought three clashes on the disputed border in as many weeks. Ten days of live-fire exercises by Saudi armed forces near the contested area also raised the political temperature.

In one clash, at Qarqa'i, a village claimed by both sides, Saudi and Yemeni forces shot at each other as they tried to hoist rival flags over a school. Several died, though - as with almost everything in this confrontation - the precise number is disputed.

Tension has been heightened further by the security situation in Yemen and two mass trials which opened simultaneously last month. In San'a, 31 alleged "foreign agents" are charged with robbery and attacking military positions and government facilities. In Aden, 27 people are being tried (four of them in absentia) in connection with 11 explosions earlier this year, and an attempt to kidnap an Italian tourist. Several of the Aden defendants claimed in court that they had been tortured, but the judge denied them a medical examination.

Meanwhile two car bombs exploded at opposite ends of the country - one in Sa'ada and one in Aden - in the space of a fortnight. Although no casualties were reported, car bombs are a new tactic in Yemen. According to the government, 42 suspects have been arrested in connection with the Aden explosion (17 in San'a, 14 in Aden, and 11 in Hadramawt), though it is difficult to see why a terrorist cell would involve so many people.

Later, security forces reported finding almost half a tonne of TNT, together with a car intended for another bomb, in a remote area west of Aden.

At the end of November, the Yemeni foreign minister, Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, met King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh. Before the trip, Yemen had hinted that the talks would pave the way for a final settlement of the border question, but the minister returned empty-handed.

A few days later, the main defendant in the Aden trial told the court that Saudi Arabia had paid him $150,000 plus $1,200 a month to organise bombings in Yemen and to kill foreign minister Iryani. The man, a 43-year-old Spanish national of Syrian origin, said he had been trained in Jeddah and had previously worked for the Saudis in Spain, spying on Algerian Islamic militants there.

The Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz, emphatically denied the claim, saying: "This type of thing does not happen from Saudi Arabia because we do not believe in this method and we respect the security of each country. Yemen's security and stability is one of our priorities."

Although progress towards a settlement of the 60-year-old border dispute appears stalled yet again, most of the frontier line has in fact been agreed. The continuing quarrel relates mainly to three specific issues.

Firstly, Yemen is seeking the return of territory belonging to the former PDRY which was annexed by Saudi forces during clashes in 1969. Secondly, Saudi Arabia has repeated its demand for a corridor through Yemen to the Arabian Sea. Finally, Saudi Arabia is seeking to broker a reonciliation between President Ali Abdullah Salih and the southern Yemeni opposition leaders who were exiled after the failed secession in 1994. The proposal is not merely that they should be allowed to return, but that they should be given government posts - a suggestion which Salih is unlikely ever to accept. The 16 secessionist leaders are currently being tried in their absence for treason and war crimes.

San'a, meanwhile, has floated the idea that the border issue will remain unsoluble until it is put to international arbitration. Several leading figures in the Yemeni government have been quietly promoting this course for years on the grounds that it would give a more "balanced" result than could ever be achieved though negotiation with such a powerful neighbour as Saudi Arabia.