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Yemen, once known as Arabia Felix, finds oil wealth has passed it by

By Helena Cobban, Special to The Christian Science MonitorThe author is temporarily in London after seven years in Beirut, during which she traveled throughout the Middle East and contributed to The Christian Science Monitor. / September 4, 1981

Geology has favored the east of the Arabian Peninsula; but in the west, no oil flows. That is a sad fact of life for the two countries now sharing historic Yemen. It could yet prove a destabilizing factor for the peninsula as a whole.

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For the ancients, Yemen was known as Arabia Felix,m "happy Arabia." The reason: cool, soaring mountains terraced for cultivation; hidden valleys where powerful traders were 500 years ago constructing eight-story skyscraper cities; rich fisheries in two sunny seas.

For successive colonial powers in the region, interest centered on Aden -- a staggering natural harbor commanding the entire northwest corner of the Indian Ocean. For the British, Aden was a vital staging post in imperial communications with India.

But the British largely failed to develop the port's hinterland, and when they pulled out of Aden in 1967 a radical coalition of Yemenis took over and steered South Yemen firmly into the Soviet orbit. The whole sprawling collection of up-to-date port facilities, remote valleys guarding ancient lost civilizations, and spreading desert became austerely known as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.

In North Yemen, government had for centuries been in the hands of a traditional religious leader. But Egypt's president Nasser, just up the Red Sea from the Yemens, supported a modernizing republican movement in North Yemen in the early 1960s. Soon thousands of his troops were tied down in remote Yemeni valleys, but their threat was sufficient to prod the Saudis into supporting the religious leader.

Compromise was reached only in the aftermath of the Arabs' defeat in their June 1967 war with Israel: The Egyptians withdrew, and North Yemen emerged as the military-dominated Yemen Arab Republic.

The Two Yemeni states are each today committed to inter-Yemeni unity. But their social and political systems remain fundamentally different.

In the North, successive officers' governments rule only by outwitting all other comers in the traditional Yemeni game of tribal alliances. In the South, determined efforts have been made to halt that game altogether and supplant it with a Soviet-style one-party system.

Such developments are extremely alarming for the Saudis. The Saudi royal house sees itself as leading the fight against communist influence throughout the Mideast and in the Islamic community worldwide. Yet here, on its very borders is one state firmly allied to Moscow, and another continually vacillating between an East-bloc and a West-bloc orientation.

The Saudis have tried at different times either to subvert or to moderate the regime in Aden. But the Soviets appear eager that their allies in South Yemen resist Saudi peace overtures: In 1977, the South Yemeni head of state was overthrown by more staunchly pro-Soviet followers who accused him of negotiating secretly with riyadh.

A further "palace coup" since then has brought the Soviets into even greater control in the Aden of the current youthful leader, Ali Nasser Muhammad Hasani.

The East-bloc presence in South Yemen, estimated by Oman to involve some 4, 000 East-bloc military and technical personnel, is deeply worrying the Saudis. equally disquieting is the continued chronic instability in North Yemen.

Throughout the peninsula, state boundaries have traditionally been fluid. Here in the mountains and valleys of the southwest, there is a constant movement of people and ideas, particularly between the two Yemens, and between North Yemen and Saudi Arabia.