A wall of its own

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,20 February, 2004

ONE of the world's oddest security barriers - a pipeline almost 10 feet high, mounted on posts and filled with concrete - has appeared unexpectedly on the Saudi-Yemeni border, much to the annoyance of some Yemenis.

Saudi Arabia, which has reportedly completed the first 25-mile stretch of what could turn into a 1,500-mile frontier obstacle running across mountains and desert, says the structure will help to stop militants and weapons flooding into the kingdom from its southern neighbour.

Saudi border patrols say they intercept weapons smuggled from Yemen almost every day. These include 90,000 rounds of ammunition and 2,000 sticks of dynamite seized since the suicide attacks on housing compounds in Riyadh last May.

Yemeni opposition newspapers, together with the Jerusalem Post, immediately likened the Saudi barrier to Ariel Sharon's fence/wall which is currently under construction in the West Bank - though nobody claims that it encroaches on Yemeni territory.

Officials in Sana'a acknowledge the kingdom's right to protect itself from infiltration but say the barrier violates the Treaty of Jeddah, signed less than four years ago, which ended a 65-year border dispute between the two neighbours.

The treaty created a 20-km demilitarised zone on either side of the frontier, within which shepherds from both countries would have cross-border grazing rights. It is these grazing rights that the barrier allegedly infringes.

As MEI went to press, President Ali Abdullah Salih was due to meet Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh to discuss the issue.

"It is a question that is going to be sorted out in a friendly way between the two countries, and we have not sought mediation by the Arab League," Salih told the news conference in Cairo last week.

"The problem is not building the barrier, it is the violation of the agreement," an official told the Yemen Observer. "They can build whatever they like in their land after the no-man [20-km] zone."

The head of Saudi Arabia's border guard, Talal Anqawi, said last week that the barrier is being constructed inside Saudi territory but did not specify exactly where. A report in the Yemen Observer, however, claimed that it was only 100 metres from the border line.

Apart from the security aspects, the new barrier could jeopardise Yemen's long-standing - and lucrative - smuggling trade which besides weapons includes luxury goods and qat, the popular Yemeni drug which is illegal in the kingdom. Qat smuggling to Saudi Arabia is thought to earn Yemen around $200 million a year.

Despite efforts by the kingdom to tighten its border controls in the wake of the Riyadh bombings, Yemeni smugglers have developed new ways to get their smuggled goods through - including the use of donkeys which have been trained to make their own way across the border unaccompanied.

It may only be a matter of time before the smugglers find a way under, over or through the concrete pipeline.