Yemen & Saudi Arabia… [Archives:1998/15/Law & Diplomacy]

April 13 1998

But, as the political roller coaster between Yemen and Saudi Arabia continues, and as the trip gets close to its final destination, many Yemeni politicians are gripped with fear. “How much has the political leadership of Yemen given away?” is a question that many ask. In fact, some opposition figures have openly and repeatedly stated that they will refuse any agreement between Yemen and Saudi Arabia that does not satisfy the basic requirements of the country.

The important milestones in the border talks were achieved in 1997. During the final quarter of 1997, many observers saw that the Republic of Yemen and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have finally reached a solution for their border dispute. Senior officials from the two sides told the media that a solution was in the works – actually in its final stages, and that an announcement on this matter was imminent. The high point to the positive developments was the tete-a-tete meetings in Italy between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and HRH Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense.

Then something went wrong and the talks hit a snag. Not only did the two sides fail to make the final move, they started accusing each other.
Up to date, no one can tell what happened. Nobody knows exactly what went wrong, but the reading on the Yemeni side is that HRH Prince Nayif Bin Abdulaziz, Minister of Interior, took an extreme position. He thus pushed the talks to the back burner, for some time.
Six months down the road, it is now clear that the two sides have finally worked out the small differences that persisted here and there. There is now agreement even in the eastern frontiers – along the Empty Quarter.

There is still a little problem around the Al-Thar mountain. The Saudis, wary of the uncomfortable proximity of Najran city to the border, are pushing the border another five kilometers south.
The Yemeni authorities are considering the matter. “We are interested in building trust and good neighborly relations with Saudi Arabia. For Yemen, that is far more valuable than a few kilometers,” said Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussain Al-Ahmar, Speaker of parliament, Head of the Islah Party, and Paramount Leader of the powerful Hashed Tribal Confederation. “It is not a matter of how much one can wring out of a neighbor. It is a matter of learning to be good neighbors and to interact productively for the mutual benefit of the two sides,” a source in the Foreign Ministry echoed. “That is new language out of the Foreign Ministry. You can read how much close they have come to an agreement from that language,” is how an opposition politician reacted.

Indeed, most Yemenis will agree it is not a matter of a few kilometers. But, at the end of the day, the citizens of Yemen will assess the agreement in terms of what is in it for them. All the political talk is secondary. Yemenis are interested in an economic break.
If President Ali Abdullah Saleh does not deliver on this point, he is asking for trouble by signing the agreement with Saudi Arabia. As one citizen in a qat chew put it, “We and the Saudis are brothers. But the Saudis should understand by now, it is not enough to pay off the politicians. They should consider economic arrangements that will create good will among the Yemeni public.”
At another level, time is running out. If an agreement is not concluded between Yemen and Saudi Arabia before the middle of 1998, the Yemenis will be pushed to follow other recourses to resolve the border problem with Saudi Arabia. International arbitration has been mentioned as one alternative. There are two more alternatives, according to informed sources, who would not say, what they are.

At the end of it all, however, the majority of Yemenis are hopeful and keen on a peaceful and productive solution.
Keep your fingers crossed.