IF not contained, the border skirmishes between Saudi Arabia and Yemen could lead to what many in the Middle East call phase two of the 1990 Gulf war.
Indeed, there are enough grievances between these two countries to push them to the brink of war. Other Gulf states may support Saudi Arabia against Yemen as a way of settling the score with Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh for refusing to join the coalition against Iraq during the Gulf war.
The Gulf states are also uncomfortable with the idea of Yemen's functioning democracy in the middle of their authoritarian neighborhood. The Yemenis in turn are angry at Saudi Arabia and many of the neighboring Gulf states for supporting the southern separatists during last year's civil war in Yemen. Since the victory of the forces of unity in Yemen, frictions between Saudi Arabia and Yemen have increased.
Three weeks ago, tension heightened between the two countries. Saudi Arabia massed troops along its borders with Yemen, near Bok'e, Sadah, and Harad, a little over 125 miles north of Sana, the Yemeni capital. In the past two weeks, Saudi Arabian patrols have engaged Yemeni troops along the disputed border several times, causing the deaths of 10 Yemeni soldiers, according to official Yemeni reports.
In spite of reported Syrian mediation, the parties are not likely to come to the negotiating table without pressure from major powers, primarily the United States, which has the most influence in the region. The current low-level discussions between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which are supposed to lead to higher-level meetings, appear to be deadlocked. The US should defuse this conflict through preventive diplomacy before the players complicate the problem.
More parties in the region are interested in escalating the situation than in being peacemakers. The players behind the scenes are numerous. Iraq's Saddam Hussein might support Yemen as a way of attracting world attention and alleviating internal pressure. Iran and Sudan may also back Yemen as a way of undermining Saudi leadership in the Gulf.
However, for preventive diplomacy to be effective, mediators should be aware of two factors: the historical complexity of the problem and the new post-Gulf war political realities.
The Saudis probably do not intend to wage war against Yemen. Instead, they want to pressure the Yemeni government into reaffirming its commitment to the 1934 treaty that gives Saudi Arabia sovereignty over three border areas (Aseer, Najran, and Jizan), areas that Yemen claims and that were part of Yemen before the 1934 treaty. According to the terms of the treaty itself, the parties must renew the agreement every 20 years. The last time the treaty was renewed was in 1974.
Yemeni-Saudi relations have always been tense. No year has passed without skirmishes between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The most important conflict was in 1987, when oil was discovered in the border area of Marib. Five hundred people were killed in that incident.
The Saudis have continued to attempt to prevent Yemen from producing oil from that area, perhaps because an oil-rich Yemen could become independent in its foreign policy. Saudis have long thought of Yemen as a virtual satellite and a source of cheap labor.
Because of post-Gulf war bitterness and the Saudi dismissal of 1.2 million Yemeni workers (an act that devastated Yemen's economy), Yemen has refused to renew the treaty. Yemenis also viewed support of the southern separatists during last year's civil war by Saudi Arabia as a violation of Articles 8 and 9 of the treaty, which call on the two countries not to aid or harbor one another's subversives.
YEMENI officials do not seem adamant in denying Saudi sovereignty over the areas specified in the treaty. However, they would like to up the ante on those territories for fear of Saudi claims to other territories. They also seek some solution for their economic problems. Indeed, Yemen needs economic help, especially after the devastation of last years' civil war.
Helping Yemen with political backing and humanitarian aid could save the region further devastation and allow both countries to spend their money on very real political and economic problems.
The alternative may be a war that would cost thousands of lives, destroy an ancient center of human civilization and culture, and threaten one of the region's few democracies. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.