Yemenis Feel Brunt of Arab Split

Saudi Arabia ends special relationship with neighbor and sends thousands of Yemenis home

FOR 10 years, Izmat's corner grocery store has been a fixture in one of Jiddah's prosperous downtown neighborhoods, as integral a part of the community as the mosque just down the street. Today, as he packs away the last of his goods and pries down shelves that displayed everything from shampoo to soft drinks, the Yemeni responds softly to a reporter's questions about a recent Saudi edict that will force him to leave the country.

``This is my home. I wanted to stay,'' he says. ``But what choice do I have? They have forced me to go.''

Izmat is one of thousands of Yemenis who have become the latest, largely unnoticed victims of the historic changes set in motion by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Once part of an network of industrious shopkeepers and merchants which formed the backbone of Saudi Arabia's local economy, the Yemenis are suddenly perceived as security risks. This is because their government has chosen to provide moral support to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, even while honoring the United Nations trade embargo against Iraq.

Together with 300,000 Kuwaitis and tens of thousands of Palestinian and Egyptian workers, the 500,000 Yemenis now expected to leave Saudi Arabia have become part of the most extensive transfer of populations in the Middle East since the end of World War II.

The estimated 1 million Yemenis living in Saudi Arabia were told last month that they would have to return home if they did not find Saudi sponsors within 30 days. Although the timetable was subsequently relaxed and exemptions added, most Yemenis have been left with no choice but to pull up stakes and return home.

Saudi officials insist the sudden decision is merely an effort to put the Yemenis on the same footing as other foreign workers, who have always been required to have visas and obtain sponsors.

``It was an old decision that we implemented now,'' comments a Saudi official. ``Yemenis have had special privileges for years. It was just a way of equalizing things.''

But most observers see less coincidence in the timing of the decree, which followed reports of pro-Iraqi demonstrations in the Yemeni quarters of Riyadh and Jiddah and in Sana, the Yemeni capital.

``It's a matter of internal security,'' says a former Saudi official. ``One million people can create a major problem and become a fifth column. It's a normal security operation.''

Whatever the rationale, the decree has produced hardship for nearly everyone concerned.

The mass exodus has created a buyer's market in Saudi Arabia, forcing the Yemenis to settle for only a fraction of the real value of the property now left behind.

``A lot of Saudi people are very unhappy about this,'' a Saudi journalist says. ``The Yemenis have been honest and hard working. They're not responsible for what their government has done.''

In Yemen, meanwhile, the return of hundreds of thousands of workers will add huge burdens to a government already struggling to cope with the problems posed by the unification of North and South Yemen last spring.

In an inexplicable move that will only increase the glut of returning workers, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih recently ruled that Yemenis obtaining Saudi sponsorship will lose their property holdings in Yemen.

The only beneficiary of the sad partings still taking place all over Saudi Arabia will be Egypt, which is expected to supply most of the workers to fill jobs vacated by Yemenis. The opportunity is a godsend for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was faced with the problem of finding jobs for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians expelled from Iraq after the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

The Yemeni ruling is part of a diplomatic offensive that has included the cut-off of oil supplies to Jordan, which has also failed to cut all ties to Iraq. One motive behind the moves is widespread Saudi fear of a coordinated military attack by Iraq, Jordan, and Yemen to dismember the kingdom. Iraq would get the northern oil fields, Jordan the western Hejaz region once ruled by King Hussein's grandfather, and Yemen the disputed Asir Province in southwest Saudi Arabia.

``We have not seen any definite proof of that,'' concedes a senior Saudi official of the alleged plot by Saudi Arabia's neighbors.

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