Negotiating the Saudi-Yemeni international boundary

by Richard Schofield

The author is Director of the Geopolitics and International Boundaries Research Centre at SOAS, London. This is an abridged version of his talk to the British Yemeni Society on 31 March 1999.


Today’s talk will be divided into four parts. Firstly, I shall introduce the Saudi-Yemeni boundary question in its regional context, one which has seen an impressive number of boundary delimitations settled in the last decade, although a handful of historically-loaded territorial disputes remain a potential threat to regional stability. Secondly, I shall address recent developments in Saudi-Yemeni relations affecting boundary negotiations. Thirdly, with the aid of two detailed maps, I will review historical precedents for boundary lines in southern Arabia, with the important caveat that each state has followed a different approach in formulating its claims. In articulating its own traditional boundary claim during the summer of 1996, Yemen effectively ignored the imprint of British and Ottoman imperialism within the Arabian peninsula. Yet it may still end up with a boundary which corresponds to some of the old, imperial lines (or sections thereof) for the practical reason that these reflect better, perhaps, the degree to which each state has extended effective occupancy of territory than the contemporary claims of the disputing states themselves. Fourthly, I shall review the general course of Saudi-Yemeni boundary negotiations through the 1990s.

Formal negotiations towards serthng Arabia’s last indeterminate territorial limit — that is the eastern three-quarters of the Saudi-Yemeni boundary — have occurred intermittently since 1992, and, following the Yemeni civil war of 1994, more continuously since the conclusion of the February 1995 Memorandum of Understanding between the two states. These represented, and continue to represent, the first formal negotiations ever entered into between Sana’a and Riyadh to settle upon a boundary in the indeterminate borderlands east of the 1934 Taif line (although Aden and Riyadh apparently entered into brief but inconclusive negotiations on this issue in 1982). As regards the eastern three-quarters of the borderlands, one cannot really say that there ever has been a boundary as such to dispute, but rather a series of overlapping territorial claims (see Map 1). The large overlap of territory indicated by the grey shading on Map 2 represents, to the best of my knowledge, the maximum possible overlap of territorial claims today in the southern peninsula. Nowhere else in the region did British claims (on behalf of its protege states) and those of Saudi Arabia overlap more significantly than along the northern borders of the former Aden Protectorate. This area of overlap was effectively doubled by the first ever cartographically depicted claim to the area put forward by the government of Yemen in the summer of 1996. Saudi Arabia responded by slightly retracting but basically restating its long existing claims in the southern peninsula dating from the mid-1930s. However, these should be regarded as opening salvoes in what was in 1996 the first occasion on which the two sides seriously began to examine each other’s territorial claims. The preceding four years, critically interrupted by the Yemeni civil war, had seen boundary negotiations bogged down by preliminaries and procedural matters.

The articulation of the Yemeni territorial claim of 1996 was the result of a wholly different approach to boundary-making than has been the norm in the Arabian peninsula this century. Yemen was claiming a traditional boundary which looked back to a time before Ottoman and British imperialism left their imprint on the peninsula. It was based upon the GreaterYemen of cultural and historical tradition, which reached its greatest geographical expression in modern times during the one hundred year period between 1630 and 1728. Maps produced around this time — generally by Western travellers — showedYemen to possess a fairly consistent size and shape within Arabia. The north-western limits of Bilad al-Yemen — as shown on these historical maps — lay on the Red Sea littoral, generally to the north of Asir (or the modern Saudi provinces of Asir Surat and Tihamat Asir) and then ran in an approximate south-easterly direction until they hit the Arabian Sea coast adjacent to the Kuria Muria islands. Greater Yemen possessed no boundaries as such, certainly not in the modern sense of the term. Its general shape had resulted from the limits of allegiance and settlement of tribal groups. Yemen has doubtless discovered in preparing its contemporary territorial claims vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia, that it is extremely difficult to give a precise alignment to a traditional boundary. Hence, as a leading legal authority on international boundaries, Ian Brownie, has said, one cannot help but notice the ‘relative insignificance of traditional boundaries in the world today’. At least in Yemen’s case — unlike many other traditional boundary claims — no colonial boundaries override its own contemporary territorial claim. For most of its length, the Saudi-Yemeni boundary remains the last missing fence in the desert. And the existence of the 1934 Taif line (the delimitation from the Red Sea margins to the high mountains of Asir) and of the 1992 Oman-Yemen delimitation, both arrived at by the independent action and agreement of governments in Sana’a, obviously mean that Yemen, should it so desire, will not be able to claim the whole area of Greater or Historic Yemen for the foreseeable future.

The Regional context

If the Yemeni unity agreement of May 1990 best explains the inevitability ofYemen and Saudi Arabia finally sitting down to talk on common limits to territory, the regional context in which this happened was also very important. For during the 1990s, there has been much progress towards finalising the Arabian political map; the glass of settled Arabian land boundary delimitations has moved with impressive speed from half to near full. This progress has been threefold in character:

(1) materially: through the conclusion of bilateral boundary agreements (see Map 2), especially within south-eastern Arabia (Saudi Arabia-Oman, 1990; Oman-Yemen, 1992). Oman also announced in the spring of 1993 that residual disputes with the United Arab Emirates had largely been ironed out but that it would take another six years for the precise alignment of its border with Abu Dhabi to be agreed. Oman’s recent boundary agreements have rightly been lauded for their sophistication in providing for the free movement across boundaries of the nomadic populations of southern Arabia.

Meanwhile, the International Court of Justice is set to deliver in the relatively near future a verdict on the Bahrain and Qatar maritime dispute. And once Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have settled their maritime boundary, Kuwait and Iran, as the result of a formal undertaking in the summer of 1995, are committed to recommencing negotiations on the delimitation of their maritime boundary

(2) by adhering to the norms of international law: the texts of the agreements of the 1990s (and some of those agreed at a much earlier date, e.g. Saudi Arabia-Qatar in 1965) have recently and increasingly been registered at what the international legal community regards as the appropriate international institutions. This is a recent phenomenon. Saudi Arabia can now point to the fact that it has renegotiated or modified all the territorial understandings reached between Ibn Saud and the British (or frequently imposed by the latter) during the early part of this century Saudi Arabia’s small but historically-mindful Arab neighbours along the western/southern Gulf littoral should also be reassured by the growing evidence that the territorial framework has evolved to a point of no return.

(3) institutionally: since the 1991 GulfWar there has been an increasing preoccupation on the part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with the entrenchment, institutionalisation and, where appropriate, the finalisation of the Arabian territorial framework.

The Damascus Declaration of March 1991 (concluded among the six GCC states, Egypt and Syria) remains an important statement of policy, principle and intent so far as the regulation of state territory in the region is concerned. Following Iran’s heavy-handed actions on Abu Musa in 1992, further principles would be enunciated. The GCC summit in Abu Dhabi in December 1992 laid great stress on the ‘inadmissibility of the acquisition of land by force’, while that in Manama in December 1994 was notable for the apparent keenness of the Supreme Council to see territorial disputes between members and neighbouring states settled and the political map of the Arabian peninsula finalised. The GCC also appeared to favour bilateral negotiations as a means of settling disputes, rather than third-party arbitration or judicial settlement. With time, however, it would become all too clear that statements of GCC territorial policy tended to reflect the immediate foreign and regional policy concerns of the state hosting the annual summit. For instance at the end of 1994, Bahrain was desperately hoping that the Hawar case would not go before the International Court of Justice for judicial settlement and would be solved by bilateral means instead. GCC pohcy has been reactive rather than proactive: it has been, and will continue to be, a response to regional instability (such as Iraq’s two recent wars in the northern Gulf); it will also favour the tidy appropriation of natural resources, especially where the drawing of seabed boundaries is involved — a task, incidentally, which is far from complete.

What has motivated the giant steps taken towards finalising the Arabian political map in the 1990s? The main reason — and this is very relevant to the Saudi-Yemeni case under discussion — has been pragmatic. Most states in the region embarked upon accelerated exploration drives for oil at the turn of the 1990s, with Saudi Arabia the most prominent of all. Hitherto, because of their politically sensitive location and general remoteness, these fields had been largely ignored; but the economic imperatives of maximising production in a flat oil market, and of compensating for the maturation of older fields, were now to outweigh such reservations. The need to consolidate authority right up to the territorial limits of the state — to ensure that exploration and development proceed smoothly and border incidents do not occur — may help to explain the progress made in finalising border delimitations in recent years. In advance of its exploration efforts in these frontier regions, Saudi Arabia has generally renegotiated with neighbouring states old territorial arrangements which were an unfinished legacy of Britain’s colonial presence in the peninsula. The result has been the fixing, finalisation and (in most cases) demarcation of much more precise boundary delimitations. There remains, of course, the same largely pragmatic incentive to finalise maritime boundaries in Gulf waters. Pragmatic moves towards exploiting economically what were, until recently the ill—defined margins of Arabian state territory, have given rise to a number of serious border incidents (as was arguably the case with the al-Khafus border incident on the undemarcated Saudi-Qatar boundary in September 1992), and have also highlighted controversial arrangements already in place for exploiting trans-border hydrocarbon reserves (e.g. the Shaibali/Zarrara oil field straddling the 1974 Saudi-UAE/Abu Dhabi boundary delimitation).

The Arabian territorial disputes which we are left with in early 1999 are generally those which are deeply entrenched, have proved resistant to all proposals for their settlement, and have always been a potential threat to regional stability. It is worth asking whether, where a final and fully sovereign settlement of a dispute seems unlikely to occur, an attempt should be made to manage the problem through the institution of neutral or joint economic zones. These have been, and continue to be, of proven utility, especially in Gulf waters. Such an arrangement has been mentioned, at least privately to me, in the context of the Saudi-Yemeni dispute over territory lying east of the Yemeni mashriq. For example, the 1971 Iran-Sharjah Memorandum of Understanding over Abu Musa island introduced a scheme for the shared administration of the island, while ducking the question of sovereignty. But more relevant, perhaps, for our purposes is the May 1934 Treaty of Taif introducing the short stretch of existing boundary between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Part of the attraction for both countries in reconfirming the provisions of this treaty in 1995 was that it contained so much grey area that each party could (legitimately it seems) maintain different interpretations about the status of the boundary which the treaty introduced.

Recent events

July 1998 witnessed a violent flare-up on al-Duwaima island, lying adjacent to the disputed terminal point of the Taif land boundary line on the Red Sea coast. This resulted in at least three Yemeni fatalities. The whole episode neatly illustrated the tendency during the last few years for Saudi-Yemeni border negotiations to move from impasse to incidents, and then to high-level ‘patch-up’ talks, despite constant official statements in sessions of the various boundary committees that progress was being made. The al-Duwaima incident occurred following somewhat oblique reports that President Ali Abdullah Salih and the Saudi Defence Minister, Prince Sultan — who has long directed Saudi policy towards Yemen — had concluded a secret agreement on the general alignment of the indeterminate eastern three-quarters of the land boundary, at a meeting on the shores of Lake Como in 1997. Details are scarce but as far as I have been able to gauge fromYemeni press coverage, the agreed alignment apparently ran in a straight line westwards from the northern terminus of the 1992 Oman-Yemen boundary delimitation to a point just to the north-east of the eastern terminus of the 1934 Taif line at Jabal al-Thar. If this interpretation of what was discussed at Como is true rather than wishful, it could be seen as something of a coup for Yemen, since the line runs not only far north of long existing Saudi claims but also far north of the limits which Britain traditionally defended for the Aden Protectorate (see Maps 1 and 2). However, strong doubts have been expressed on the degree to which the two sides have agreed on a boundary east of the Taif line. During June 1998, for example, a full month before the al-Duwaima incident, Saudi Arabia lodged renewed protests at both the Arab League and the United Nations against the northern border terminus introduced by the 1992 Oman-Yemen boundary agreement. Problems concerning the terminal point of the Taif line on the Red Sea were well-documented and relatively long-established but it would now be revealed that the eastern terminus of the Taif line was in itself an active problem. In the immediate aftermath of the al-Duwaima incident inJuly 1998, President Salib would declare that Saudi Arabia was not claiming Jabal al-Thar as the eastern terminus of the Taif line but a wholly different and more southerly geographical feature instead, Jabal Habash. Yemen would also accuse Saudi Arabia of systematically changing the location of the original boundary-markers laid down during 1935-36 by the joint Saudi-Yemeni demarcation committees set up following the 1934 Taif treaty. Meanwhile, the announcement by an arbitral tribunal on 9 October 1998 thatYemen, and not Eritrea, possessed sovereignty over the important islands in the Hanish and Zukur groups was a coup for the Yemeni government. President Salih would comment in the same year that reference to impartial, third—party arbitration might better safeguard Yemen’s ‘historical and legal rights’than its current bilateral negotiations. This all suggested that the reported Como agreement of 1997 had failed to solve the eastern boundary question.

Historical precedents for a boundary line

The absence until the summer of 1996 of a Sana’a-derived map depicting Yemen’s territorial claims meant that, before this time, one could never be exactly sure about the extent and basis of such claims. Since the rationale for the 1996 Yemeni claim was to wholly discard the imprint of British and Ottoman imperialism upon the southern peninsula, the benefits of assessing British territorial claims during the Britain’s stay inAden (1839-1967) might be questioned. Yet some of the lines, or at least portions of them, forwarded during the 1934-1955 Anglo-Saudi frontier negotiations may constitute, in some instances and for some stretches, the best indicator of the extension of effective occupation to the borderlands (that is, the physical control exerted by the states in question). This, in itself, is a compelling reason for reviewing them.

The 1934 Taif line

Let us begin with the one stretch of the Saudi-Yemeni boundary that has been delimited by treaty — the 1934 Taif line. By 1927 a territorial equilibrium of sorts had been reached between Ibn Saud’s expanding Arabian state and the Imamate of Yemen. A Saudi-Idrisi agreement of 1926 had seen Idrisi territory in Asir (already much reduced in size following the Zaidi Imam of Sana’a’s seizure of a long stretch of the Tihamah coast north of Hudaidah) come under Saudi protection, a process of absorption which would be completed in 1930 when Ibn Saud formally annexed the territory. The Saudi-Yemeni boundary introduced by the 1934 Taif treaty was essentially the de facto line of effective control as it had existed in 1927.

Only three articles of the treaty dealt with the boundary as such. Article Four described it in workmanlike terms, although the listed place names and tribal names were difficult to equate with existing maps, geographical knowledge of the border zone being still at a premium at this point. The last sentence of Article Four provided for the final demarcation of the Taif line by a joint Saudi-Yemeni boundary commission Article Five prohibited the future construction of fortifications (and the resurrection of old ones) within a ten kilometre zone straddling the boundary, while Article Six provided for the mutual withdrawal of Saudi and Yemeni forces into the newly-defined state territories specified in Article Four. Article Twenty-two called for renewal of the entire treaty at intervals of 20 lunar years. To introduce limits to state territory in such a manner — within a general treaty of friendship which itself required renewal — is certainly unusual. Some observers have concluded — mistakenly in my opinion — that the effect of the Taif treaty had been forYemen to agree to lease Asir, Jizan and Najran to Saudi Arabia.

In signing the 1934 Taif treaty and renewing it two decades later, Yemen seemed to have dropped its claims to the north-western portions of the Greater Yemen of historical tradition. However, the recapture of the ‘lost’ territories of Asir, Jizan and Najran would remain a goal of Yemeni nationalist sentiment.This would be driven home to the government of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1973 when the Taif treaty came up for renewal. A rather obscure Saudi-Yemeni communique issued on 17 March that year, during a visit to Saudi Arabia by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Hajri, described the Taif line as ‘permanent and final'. This appeared to obviate the need for renewal of those three articles of the 1934 treaty dealing with territorial definition, and was seen by nationalists as the ‘surrender of the lost provinces’ . It is significant that no Yemeni leader has since felt able to confirm or ratify the March 1973 communique. Yemeni unification in 1990 resulted in further calls for the newly-constituted republic to resurrect claims to Asir, Jizan and Najran.

The Anglo-Ottoman Violet line

The Blue and Violet lines introduced on paper by Anglo-Ottoman understandings of 1913 and 1914, would be employed by Britain, two decades later, as the basis of its territorial claims in Arabia during the intermittent, and ultimately fruitless, border negotiations with Saudi Arabia which ended abruptly with the Buraimi crisis of 1955.

As part of the July 1913 Anglo-Ottoman Convention, an arbitrary line was drawn to mark the easternmost point of Ottoman influence within Arabia. This was later referred to as the Blue line, after its colour on the accompanying map. It ran due south from Zakhuniyah island, lying west of the Qatar peninsula, and terminated in the desert wastes of the Rub al-Khali. During March 1914, the so-called Violet line — again after its colour on the map annexed to the agreement — was defined to link the southern terminus of the Blue line with the Ottoman boundary in southwest Arabia, delimited during 1903-1905 to separate the Ottoman vilayat ofYemen from the nine cantons of the Aden Protectorate. The Violet line ran at an angle of 45 degrees from Wadi Bana in the south-west in a straight line until it met the Blue line. No co-ordinates were specified to define the starting point for the Violet line at Lakhmat al-Shuwaib in Wadi Bana. Consequently the exact alignment of the border increasingly became the subject of dispute from the 1950s onwards.

Like the 1913 Blue line, the 1914 Violet line was designed to mark the hmits of Ottoman influence, this time within southern Arabia. The lines separated British from non-British spheres of influence and were basically a British diktat imposed on a desperately weak Ottoman government. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, they remained discarded relics of the past until the British hit upon the idea of confronting Ibn Saud with the argument that these limits were binding on account of the Saudi kingdom’s position as a successor state to the Ottoman Empire in this region. There had been no mention of the lines in agreements which Britain had signed with Ibn Saud in 1915 and 1927, nor in other border agreements with Ibn Saud relating to Transjordan, Iraq and Kuwait. Yet, from the outset of the Anglo-Saudi frontier negotiations during 1934 until their breakdown twenty-one years later, Britain maintained the Blue and Violet lines as the legal basis of its imperial territorial claims, despite internal legal advice that ‘spheres of influence’ had no status in international law. Nevertheless, the 1914 Violet line is shown on many contemporary Western maps as forming the western stretch of Saudi Arabia’s borders with what was the People’s Democratic Republic ofYemen (PDRY) before Yemeni unification in May 1990. At independence in 1967 South Yemen inherited a de facto border incorporating the Violet line in its western reaches, but in the east utilising another territorial limit proposed by Britain: the 1935 Riyadh line (the most generous concession on the Violet line ever officially offered to Saudi Arabia in the course of the 1934-55 negotiations). This ‘independence’ line — marking the northern limits of the Aden Protectorate —was first officially (and unilaterally) declared by Britain in August 1955.

Like the YAR, the PDRY never put on record its territorial claims and certainly never officially accepted that it was bound by the ‘independence’ line inherited from Britain; but the government of unified Yemen has, on the odd occasion during the early 1990s, suggested that the Violet line might be regarded as the operative border in this region. At the same time Saudi Arabia has taken seriously Yemeni transgressions of the Violet line (e.g. the 1969 Wadi’a incident), despite formally maintaining more southerly claims.

The Saudi ‘Hamza’ line

In April 1935, the Saudi Foreign Ministry presented to Britain its ‘Hamza’ line or ‘Red’ line as it was variously known, as representing the kingdom’s absolute minimum claim to territory in southern and south-eastern Arabia; its maximum claim, delivered the previous December, had characterised the population of all southern Arabia, apart from the coastal settlements of Qatar, Oman and Hadhramaut, as subjects of Ibn Saud. The Hamza line enclosed, very approximately the tribal grazing grounds (dirah) of various, principally nomadic, tribes under the sway of Ibn Saud. Until October 1949 when, backed by a formidable team of American lawyers, its claim was enlarged to include the Buraimi oasis in the north-east, the Saudi government rested its case squarely on the Hamza line, emphasising that this was an expression of territorial control as it existed in 1935. The 1949 claim (see Map 1) did not affect the territorial definition of the Aden Protectorate, but a renewed statement of Saudi claims made in October 1955 saw the westward extension of the Hamza line to incorporate territory which had traditionally been the preserve of the Imam of Yemen in the al-Jaufregion.When Saudi Arabia revised its claims in al-Jauf in 1984-86 to protest against the YAR’s award of an oil concession to Hunt Oil, it maintained its Hamza line claim further east; and there is no publicly available evidence that the kingdom’s 1935 claims in the eastern stretch of the Saudi-Yemeni borderlands have ever been retracted (the Saudis did, however, accept modification of its Hamza line claim in the Saudi-Oman boundary agreement of March 1990).

The 1935 Riyadh line

Britain characterised this as a natural boundary, sometimes claiming that it was coincident with the southern rim of the Rub al-Khali, although it had been deliberately defined to lie a good 20-30 miles north of this feature. It was the most generous departure from the Violet line ever offered to Saudi Arabia, which rejected it immediately On more than one occasion during the period 1949-54, the British authorities in Aden attempted to come up with a northern boundary which more accurately reflected tribal allegiances in these parts. Their ‘median’ line is shown in Map 1 but was never formally pressed. It would have run south of existing British claim lines in the east but to the north of them in the west.

Negotiations since 1992

Following Yemeni unification in May 1990 — which was in itself an admirably effective solution to long-established territorial disputes between the two Yemens — there would be intermittent and inconsequential consultations between Riyadh and Sana’a on the border issue.

The contemporary phase of the dispute, and its treatment by bilateral negotiation, was inaugurated in September 1991 when President Salib called for the final settlement ofYemen’s northern and eastern borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman respectively ‘with no reservations and in the context of the legal and historical rights of the parties concerned’. He also announced the formation of aYemeni Boundary Demarcation Committee. An agreement with Oman followed in October 1992, but on the Yemeni-Saudi front progress was hamstrung by procedural difficulties arising mainly from conflicting interpretations of the 1934 Taif treaty. This pattern would repeat itself for much of the next two and a half years, even after formal boundary negotiations had commenced during the summer of 1992.

The spring of 1992 had been notable for the despatch of letters from the Saudi government notifying Western oil companies operating Yemeni concessions that the concessions covered areas claimed by the kingdom, and that their operations should cease forthwith. Although similar letters were sent out in the autumn of 1993, their ultimate effect would be limited and may even have acted as a catalyst for the commencement of formal boundary negotiations. Although the European oil companies had responded rather nervously to Saudi warnings in March 1992, the US government took a more uncompromising line, advising the American concessionaires operating in the borderlands that Saudi territorial claims were not recognised and that any boundary disputes between Saudi Arabia and Yemen should be settled by peaceful means. In July 1992, Riyadh and Sana’a would exchange memoranda with procedural suggestions for entering negotiations, and the stage was set for three further rounds of discussion before the end of 1992.

Immediately, questions were raised about the status of the short stretch of existing boundary between the two states, delimited by the May 1934 Treaty of Taif. The Yemeni Foreign Minister, Dr Abdulkarim al-Iryani, had this to say on the subject:

‘… the Taif agreement is a fact. It was signed and ratified by King Abd al-Aziz and ImamYahya. A border demarcation committee was established and delineated the border from north of Midi to the Thar mountains. A demarcation committee prepared a memorandum which was handed to King Abd al-Aziz and Imam Yahya and they both ratified it.’

Iryani’s statement was factual and non-committal. The Taif treaty was such an unusual animal, with its provisions for renewal every 20 lunar years et al., that there would always be plenty of room for the two countries to maintain divergent interpretations of it. Indeed their differences, not least over the status of the border line which it had introduced, would dominate negotiations until these were suspended with the outbreak of Yemen’s civil war in 1994; and they would only be nominally reconciled with the Yemeni-Saudi Memorandum of Understanding of February 1995.

Even if the two sides had been able to agree on the re-demarcation of the Taif line, this would still have left a number of unresolved issues relating to its precise alignment. There were some stretches in the central, mountainous reaches of the 1934 boundary which had apparently never been demarcated. Secondly, the precise location of the coastal terminus of the boundary was disputed, raising issues of maritime sovereignty. And then there was the question of what the 1934 treaty had specified for a boundary east of the Taif line; the Saudis would try to argue, rather unconvincingly, that the treaty had introduced such a boundary — a stance they were to drop by 1995.

Saudi-Yemeni relations, complicated by Saudi support for the southern secessionists in the Yemeni civil war, degenerated significantly in December 1994. Following an escalation of border skirmishes along the Taif line, Saudi Arabia massed troops in its provinces of Tihamat Asir and Asir Surat. Syria, however, was able to broker a renewed Saudi-Yemeni commitment to settle their differences peaceably and the outcome was a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), signed in Mecca on 26 February 1995. How and why was this significant in a territorial sense? First of all, the Taif treaty became operative once more in all respects. That meant that Saudi Arabia andYemen had reaffirmed the short, existing stretch of their international boundary. Equally important, they had now agreed to brick it up. There were grounds for optimism that the task of delimiting territory east of the Taif line could now be tackled seriously But it would not be until the summer of 1996 that the two sides took the meaningful step of revealing their hand. Here Yemen’s action was by far the most significant, for it would be the first occasion on which a Sana’a government had produced a map depicting with some precision details of its territorial claims. Perhaps it was to be expected that these would not correspond closely to the claim lines put forward by Britain during its stay in the Aden Protectorate. Although Britain’s ‘independence’ line of 1967 had been used as a benchmark for drawing upYemeni oil concessions at the turn of the 1990s, Sana’a had made it clear that this limit was only provisional, and al-Iryani had hinted that Yemeni claims might well extend north of the old British line. Meanwhile, there had been a slight, if notable, tendency during the first two years of Yemen’s border negotiations with Saudi Arabia, for the northern-dominated Yemeni government to employ Sana’a’s own historic claims to territory and tribes in the central area of the borderlands, even though the latter’s links to Hadhramaut and the south were in many cases much better developed and documented.

Despite the tendency for the joint commiittees deriving from the MOU of 1995 to make all the right noises about progress, by July 1996 President Salih was publicly venting his frustration that negotiations were proceeding ‘very slowly’ and that the joint border committee ‘has not achieved the progress we had hoped for’. Underlying his frustration was the fact that Saudi representatives on the joint border committee had just summarily dismissed Yemen’s first formally articulated claim to territory in the borderlands east of Jabal al-Thar. Salih was to observe, with a fair dose of realism, that the Saudi-Yemeni territorial dispute would probably only be settled by a political decision at the highest level.

Editor’s Note: With the conclusion of the Treaty of Jedda on 12 June 2000, Saudi Arabia and Yemen finally settled their border dispute.

July 2000