Saudi Arabia's border clear-out

Two weeks after Prince Khaled bin Sultan announced that Saudi forces had “purged the mountains inside the kingdom” of Yemeni guerrillas, military operations in the border area arecontinuing with aerial bombardment by warplanes while troops on the ground search for “infiltrators” and hidden weapons.

In this part of Saudi Arabia – largely Shia and ethnically Yemeni – the word “infiltrator” covers a multitude of sins, not just the Houthi rebels. The border is almost impossible to control and there has always been a lot of movement across it, both legal and illegal.

In the first six months of this year 127,875 people were detained for trying to enter the kingdom illegally, according to a Border Guard report, and in one recent two-week period an astonishing total of 30,557 people were allegedly arrested for smuggling offences. The smuggling trade includes weapons, hashish, qat, “shamma” snuff and alcohol. A report in Okaz newspaper said:

“The villages on the border assist their Yemeni counterparts in smuggling, with Saudi homes and Yemeni homes sometimes separated by no more than a few metres.

“Smugglers and infiltrators use abandoned houses as hiding places before moving on to the main cities in the kingdom, and use donkeys at night, navigating their way along tracks that take them around checkpoints, and sometimes seeking the help of local shepherds to keep them aware of any police presence.”

The mass evacuation of the border area prompted by the Houthis’ incursion has given the Saudi authorities an opportunity to tackle these other problems at the same time – though at considerable cost to the local population.

Thousands of people of Yemeni origin who were considered to be in breach of the kingdom’s residency laws have been rounded up and deported. On November 10, the head of the Passports Department in Jizan province said the number of deportations was running at about 1,500 per day. They were being bussed across the frontier into Yemen and probably included some 
recent arrivals who were seeking refuge from the fighting in Yemen.

Initially, about 240 villages were reportedly evacuated though 
according to the Saudi Gazette the restricted zone has now been extended westwards, affecting 400 villages in all. 

Some of those made homeless have been talking to the Saudi media about their experiences. In al-Raha the order to evacuate came late at night and with immediate effect. 

Ali Qarish said he left the village during the night with his 200 sheep, and as he made his way towards the refugee camp he was overcome by tiredness and slept. 

“When I woke up I couldn’t find a single one of them,” Ali said, believing them to have been stolen.

“A lot of the evacuees I’ve met have said they’d had money and cattle stolen as they headed to the evacuation camp,” he said.

Many had no choice but to abandon or sell their livestock – which caused prices in the markets to fall. Fortunately, though, the drop was not as great as it might have been at a different time of year: with the Eid approaching, demand for sacrificial animals is high.

It is unclear exactly how many people have been evacuated. On November 11 the Saudi Gazette reported a total of 3,473 families which was said to be still increasing. Assuming an average of six people per family, that would amount to more than 20,000 people. Some have made their own arrangements to stay with relatives or friends, while 7,500 are currently living in 500 tents at the Ahad al-Masareha camp. 

The camp, as the Saudi Gazette was careful to point out, “is exclusively for Saudi refugees holding an official identification card as proof of their Saudi nationality” and, if Saudi media reports are to be believed, every effort is being made to make keep up morale with entertainments, sport and play facilities for children all laid on. Fifty Islamic scholars are also being dispatched there “to teach the people how to behave during the war”.

Even so, many of the camp’s rsidents are hankering to return to their homes and possessions. “The fear of losing their homes is one of the main issues facing the refugees,” the Saudi Gazette 
said. One man told the paper: “I have just finished building my home in the village of al-Kheshel. I spent more than SR300,000 ($80,000) to finish it … I am always thinking about my home. I didn’t take anything with me like furniture or clothes. I was only thinking of leaving the restricted area as soon as possible.”

But amid reports of continuing improvements to the camp – “roads” being asphalted and “street” lighting installed – there’s nothing to suggest the evacuees’ return is imminent. Indeed, as far as pacifying the border area is concerned, it would probably suit the authorities’ plans better if they never go back.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 November 2009.