Seeking to reassure?

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 17 Feb 1995

THREE WEEKS of "brotherly" talks in Riyadh, plus some quiet international diplomacy, have taken the immediate heat out of the Saudi-Yemeni border dispute. After the frontier skirmishes of December and January, and accusations of a military build-up, the troops have seemingly pulled back from areas where nobody will admit to having sent them in the first place.

As yet the talks are a modest affair: not specifically about the border, but about a framework for more talks - and even if the arguments keep going round in circles the fact that they have continued for so long is an achievement in itself. There is, as a Yemeni official put it, no breakthrough but no deadlock either.

From the scant information that has leaked out, it is clear there are substantial differences. According to the Yemenis, the Saudis want to treat the border issue in two separate parts, reflecting the pre-1990 division of Yemen into northern and southern states. Apart from casting doubt on the reality of Yemeni unification (a sensitive point in Sana'a) that approach would probably favour the Saudis and could easily result in a partial settlement rather than a complete one.

The Yemenis, meanwhile, are seeking a mechanism to monitor the border area, perhaps through a joint military committee including international representatives. This would forestall any attempt by the Saudis to short-circuit negotiations by establishing a de facto frontier. It would also give the dispute a higher profile on the international stage - possibly to Yemen's advantage. Understandably, the Saudis are not enthusiastic.

With much more formidable hurdles ahead when they come to discussing the border itself, it is difficult to see the two neighbours resolving their dispute peacefully without outside help. So far, Syria, Egypt and Jordan have helped in small ways but there is probably only one country with enough influence to ensure success: the United States.

The Americans have a strategic interest in Saudi Arabia and are not afraid to use their influence there when necessary. At the same time, their relations with Yemen have improved since the Kuwait war and they would like to encourage Yemen's experiment in multi-party democracy. They also recognise the contribution Yemen could make to the stability (or otherwise) of the region.

On February 5 President Clinton sent a message to the Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Salih, expressing Washington's support for the talks and its "keenness for the existence of good and cordial relations between the two neighbouring countries in a way that consolidates security, peace and stability in the area."

Reading between the platitudes, Clinton's letter may be interpreted as the first public hint of American readiness to act as honest broker when the time comes. That, at least, is how the Yemenis see it. Their strategy now is to cultivate Washington, even at the expense of long-standing relations with Iraq.

One indication of that was Yemen's decision, early this month, to send home Iraqi military advisers who had been training its MiG-29 fighter pilots. A token gesture, perhaps, but it has pleased Washington and will go some way towards reassuring the Saudis.