Yemen & Saudi Arabia: Time Left Till End of 1998 [Archives:1998/33/Viewpoint]

August 17 1998

I have a disturbing feeling that Yemen and Saudi Arabia are going to miss an important opportunity. Time is passing by, and they have not work out their differences. These neighbors have a dispute regarding their common border, and there are problems in their bilateral relations. The differences can be resolved, especially as the leaderships of the two nations have the vision as well as courage needed to overcome the disputes. But nothing is happening.
1. The Border Issue:
There is already near complete agreement on the borderline. What is left to settle is negligible. Actually, the outstanding issues in this count are not where the line runs, but what kind of line it is going to be. Is it a wall? Is it a bridge?
Yemen wants a border agreement which creates the basic infrastructure for better understanding and cooperation between the two neighbors and the region.
Saudi Arabia wants a border deal first, and other forms of understanding and cooperation can be negotiated later and independently.
I find the Yemeni approach more reasonable.
2. Bilateral Relations:
There is no doubt that by sheer size and influence, Saudi Arabia plays the role of a regional big brother. Yemenis are willing to live with that, provided the big brother takes care of the interests of the little ones. If Saudi Arabia is willing to play this constructive role, which it had in the past, there will be no problem regarding its regional influence.
What we are talking about is not just financial support, but a more comprehensive understanding and coordination of local, regional and international policies.
3. Side-Stepping Central Government:
One of the thorny issues in Yemeni-Saudi relations is the direct links between Saudi Arabia and a vast array of Yemeni public figures – tribal sheikhs, religious leaders, security and military officers, political personalities, journalists, and even decision makers in government. In other words, Saudi Arabia today bankrolls some 11,000 persons in Yemen. The number of Yemeni beneficiaries from Saudi largesse had reached some 27,000 at one time, but has since come down given falling oil revenues.
This Saudi ‘generosity’ poisons its relations with the Yemeni central government, especially in times of crises. It is also the basis for the Yemeni government claim that those who oppose it are supported by Saudi Arabia.
Time is running out. There is a rising level of frustration with the inability of the two governments to overcome their differences and build mutual confidence.
In my opinion, unless the two countries conclude the on-going talks before the end of this year, local and regional conditions will be too complicated to allow a real stab at the issues. Something could happen to HM King Fahd, God forbid. The Saudi succession issue will be a new factor. In Yemen, the internal strife could get out of hand, thus leading to more volatility.
I sincere wish the two sides will focus on this matter and get it over with, before it is too late.
Prof. Dr. Abdulaziz AL-SAQQAF
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher