Yemeni-Saudi Border Dispute Flares Over Oil Discoveries

OVER the years, relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen have fluctuated from close cooperation to open conflict. Now, largely as a result of the Gulf war, these relations have hit a tension-filled low.

Yemeni newspapers have been reporting Saudi troops amassing along the disputed border and occasional clashes with the Yemeni Army. The Saudi government sent letters directly to foreign oil companies operating in Yemen in an attempt to stop their exploration near the disputed border.

The Saudi ambassador was kidnapped for 19 hours last month by a Yemeni demanding a $1 million ransom, an action widely proclaimed in the local press as a Saudi conspiracy to make Yemen look bad. And Saudi Arabia continues to fund Yemeni tribes along the border to keep them independent of the central government.

These recent events exacerbate a problematic relationship already strained by Yemen's pro-Iraqi position during the Gulf war. Saudi reaction included the return of more than 800,000 Yemeni workers and the removal of most aid to the republic.

The present border dispute stems from the fact that no official treaty has been signed over the Saudi-Yemeni border at the edge of the immense Rub al-Khali desert. Now that Yemen has discovered oil in the region, the fluidity of the border is proving troublesome.

"Saudi strategy was to weaken Yemen enough to get away with what they wanted at the [border] talks," says Abdulaziz Saqqaf, professor of finance at the University of Sana. "They [the Saudis] have decided to talk now because they feel they are in a position of strengh."

While the present border disputes are in sparsely populated regions and surround the issue of oil, a different Saudi-Yemeni border dispute may be more intractable. Yemen considers the fertile southwestern Saudi provinces of Asir, Jizan, and Najran to be historically and culturally part of Yemen. Ibn Saud won control over these territories in 1934 during a war with North Yemen. The treaty that keeps them in Saudi hands is up for renewal in 1994. The return of the provinces is already a key election issue.

Starved of hard currency, Yemen desperately needs oil revenues to bolster its economy and views Saudi intervention in its affairs as an attempt to deny it prosperity.

The Riyadh government seems fearful that its neighbor will become powerful through a strong central government and increasing oil revenues.

Yemen has indicated a willingness to negotiate with the Saudis over the border, but as a Foreign Ministry official put it, "They don't seem to want to sit with us."

"Yemenis would love to have good relations and cooperation with Saudi Arabia," stated an editorial in the Yemen Times. "But if that is not possible, we want to be left alone."

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