Too good to be true?

Too good to be true?

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 30 June, 2000

AFTER more than 65 years of un-neighbourly strife, Saudis and Yemenis are reeling at the sudden about-turn in their relationship.

In Sana’a, political leaders are euphoric, describing the border treaty signed on June 12 as no less significant than the unification of north and south Yemen 10 years ago.

On news of the deal the Yemeni riyal soared against the dollar, and hopes that Saudi investors would shortly arrive caused the asking price of land in some parts of Yemen to double in the space of a fortnight.

After the signing, both governments moved rapidly to approve the deal. A formal ratification ceremony was said to be imminent as MEI went to press. At a Saudi cabinet meeting on June 19, King Fahd hailed the agreement as "an exemplary model for working with brothers to solve issues".

With such a long history of mutual suspicion, the inevitable questions are: is it too good to be true, and will it last?

Initially, both sides made great efforts to give the treaty a positive spin but remained strangely coy about its content - arousing suspicions in Yemen of a sell-out which people would be bamboozled into accepting.

Publication of the text has not entirely allayed those suspicions. Although described as a "final and permanent" settlement, the treaty does not define the entire frontier.

At the western end, the line of the maritime border is clear. On land, the agreement incorporates the 1934 Treaty of Ta’if, covering the area from the Red Sea to Jabal al-Thar, the "moving mountain" whose identity was disputed earlier this year (MEI 618). It is now fixed in position with a grid reference. But elsewhere along the Ta’if line the new treaty provides for amendments where the border cuts through villages.

There is a continuing dispute in this area between the Yemeni government and the Wa’ila tribe, who claim to have a 241-year-old document demarcating their own tribal boundary with the Yam tribe.

Further east, the main section of the land border - from Jabal al-Thar to the frontier with Oman - remains undefined. The treaty merely states that "the two contracting parties have agreed to demarcate this part in an amicable way". There is, incidentally, no specific mechanism in the treaty for resolving any disputes.

The excitement in Yemen is less about the territorial outcome than about the impact of better relations with the Saudis - especially in terms of political stability and economic benefits.

Yemeni sources see the agreement as a genuine change of direction and say that Crown Prince Abdullah and President Ali Abdullah Salih have recently established an astonishing rapport.

According to some sources the final push towards a deal, after years of discussion in committees, was motivated by the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea on the other side of the Red Sea. Others link it to the changing political climate in Saudi Arabia.

The treaty incorporates the 1995 Memorandum of Understanding which contains several important clauses not directly related to the border. One of these is the promotion of economic, commercial and cultural relations between the two countries. There are suggestions in the Yemeni press that Saudi Arabia will now support the country’s application to join the Gulf Co-operation Council.

Another key clause from the memorandum incorporated in the treaty says: "Both countries confirm existing obligations whereby their territories will not be used as bases or centres of aggression against the other: nor will they be used for political, military or propaganda purposes against the other party."

This is easily the most contentious part of the agreement and the extent of its observance will determine whether relations have really changed. Both sides have long accused each other of meddling in their internal affairs.

If the interference does stop, several hundred politicians, tribal leaders and officials in Yemen, who have been accustomed to receiving loyalty payments from the kingdom, will see their incomes cut. The future of some Yemeni opposition groups backed by Saudi Arabia, and of those southern Yemeni leaders to took refuge in the kingdom after the 1994 war, looks uncertain, too.

The non-interference clause also extends to "propaganda" - which has sometimes been interpreted as meaning that neither side should allow its media to attack the other. If that interpretation prevails, the effect will be to enshrine an permanent restriction of press freedom in an international treaty.