Border cat-and-mouse gameSmugglers beware! [Archives:2004/715/Front Page]

February 26 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

While Saudi Arabia has stopped construction of a barrier at Yemen's border, easing tensions between the two countries, stemming the wave of arms smuggled from Yemen will still be a tall order.
Both sides have agreed work together to enhance border control and curb smuggling of illicit goods into Saudi Arabia.
But it's all about money. Smugglers in northern Yemen, living in the poorest country in the Gulf region, earn their livings by moving a wide variety of goods.
In fact, it's estimated that $200 million worth of qat, a mild stimulant chewed regularly in Yemen but illegal in Saudi Arabia, crosses the border every year. Also, due to government subsidies, the price of diesel in Yemen is one-fourth the price in neighboring countries, which has made it a hot item in the smuggling market.
The availability of weapons in Yemen has made it easy for smugglers to sell arms.
One estimate pegs total weapons in Yemen at 60 million, for a population of just 20 million.
One estimate pegs total weapons in Yemen at 60 million, for a population of just 20 million.
One of the biggest and most prosperous gun markets in the country is Souq Al-Talh, which is near the city of Sada and close to the border with Saudi Arabia.
The Yemeni government has shown an interest in implementing laws on gun control, especially trying to reduce the number of people carrying guns in public.
But laws on gun control have been difficult to pass since having guns in Yemen is a deeply embedded tradition.
“I would really like to see more gun control in Yemen,” said Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi. “But there is a strong tradition in Yemen to own guns. There has been a struggle in Parliament to make progress on gun control. As for smugglers, they are willing to sell if someone is willing to pay.”
To increase border security, the two countries plan to construct observation towers, put up security checkpoints and operate joint border patrols. The large border covers 1,800 km (1,100-miles) and is mountainous in some areas.
As one foreign diplomat said, “Tribesmen will try to find a way to get around security on the border in the vast, open region. Smugglers live in a very poor country, and if they find a way to make a profit, they will always try to continue their business.”
Smugglers already avoid Saudi border guards by suing donkeys have been trained to follow mountain trails through rugged terrain, crossing the border and returning on their own.
Some fear that there may be armed conflicts as border security tightens: In 2002, 36 Saudi border guards were killed in Jizan, a southern town in Saudi Arabia.
There is also concern that developments in Saudi Arabia might sustain the demand for arms smuggled out of Yemen. According to John R. Bradley, former Managing Editor of the Jeddah-based Arab News and author of the forthcoming book Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers and the Puritans in the Wahhabi Kingdom, instability in Saudi Arabia seems to be growing.
“Saudi Arabia may be on the verge of a popular uprising. At the moment it is only attracting radical fringe elements when it comes to terrorist attacks,” said Bradley. “Since before the Iraq war, which is really the catalyst for this recent instability, there has been great demand in Saudi Arabia for arms.”
He added that the Afghan war, the war in Iraq and America's ongoing support of Israel have motivated extremists in Saudi Arabia to take action against the Saudi government because it has a close relationship with the U.S. government.
Bradley also pointed out that the economic conditions in Saudi Arabia could foster more instability. The Saudi birth rate is one of the highest in the world, about 60% of the population is under the age of 21 and unemployment is as high as 35%.
“All of these tensions breed instability,” said Bradley, “and there may be a relationship between that and terrorism.”
According to Saudi authorities, Saudi border patrols have seized more than 90,000 rounds of ammunition, dozens of grenades, more than 2,000 sticks of dynamite, hundreds of bazookas and more than 1,200 other weapons since terrorist bombings on May 12 last year killed over 50 people in Saudi.
Saudi Arabia claims that weapons involved were smuggled out of Yemen.
The Yemeni government has had an impressive record of thwarting terrorist attacks, hunting Al-Qaeda operatives and increasing security within its borders since it joined the war on terror soon after terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
Important terrorist suspects have been captured – including Mohamed Al-Ahdal, who is considered the number-two Al-Qaeda suspect – hundreds of militants have been rounded up, no foreigners have been kidnapped for over two years and more checkpoints between cities have made traveling within the country safer.
Just last week, the US government delivered seven gunboats to Yemen to help strengthen its coastguard that will patrol the country's coastline.
To strengthen border security, it is important for tribal leaders in the north to team up with the government. Qirbi said that tribal leaders based in vast rural areas of Yemen have worked with the government closely to help fight terrorism.
“Tribesmen pay the price of terrorism,” said Qirbi. “After the attacks on the USS Cole and the French tanker Limburg, Yemen's economy was affected and so were the tribes. They have helped a great deal during the fight on terror, and I am confident that they will help the government increase border security.”
Before the two governments agreed to increase border control through joint efforts, the Yemeni government complained that the building of the barrier was within the demilitarized zone, a violation of the 2000 border agreement.
Not only was the location of the barrier perceived as the Saudis grabbing more land, but it was also seen as violating the rights of tribes living along the border who are allowed to move freely in the neutral zone.
The Wayilah tribe, which is one of the largest tribes living along the border, threatened to take up arms if the barrier had been completed. According to a representative of the tribe, a barrier would divide the people of the tribe and their land, which is something that cannot be tolerated.
“As long as the wall is not built, we will help the government stop smuggling,” said the Wayilah tribe representative. “We are ready to stop smuggling and will help with no hesitation.”
But even with the help of tribes, the fight against smuggling will be no easy task.