Let's Decide Who Owns What in Gulf, Red Sea

Nationalism, unstable regimes, and borders drawn by colonial powers are an explosive mix that threatens the world's most important oil-shipping lanes

LAST December's fighting between Yemen and Eritrea over the Greater and Lesser Hanish Islands highlights the need for an international conference on the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Two-thirds of the world's oil is transported through the Red Sea and Gulf shipping lanes; and much of the trade between Europe and the Far East transits the Red Sea. Large-scale military conflict in the region could seriously damage the international economy.

It is no accident that military exercises held earlier this month between the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) involved "liberating" an island seized by a hostile power.

Territorial disputes now present the greatest threats to security in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf. The poorly defined boundaries left in place by British colonial administrators are a recipe for disaster. The Iran-Iraq war - the costliest interstate conflict since World War II - and the Gulf war are stark examples.

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's recent mediation may or may not reduce tensions between Yemen and Eritrea, but other potential flash points make the region a powder keg. Saudi Arabia and Yemen have an ongoing border quarrel and disagreements over the Farasan Islands. Riyadh also has territorial disputes with Qatar. Qatar and Bahrain are locking horns over the Hawar Islands. Iran and the UAE have a long-running clash over Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands. Egypt and Sudan are bickering over the Hodeida Triangle.

Control of scarce resources propels some of the disputes. In the Yemen-Eritrean clash, oil and fishing rights are at stake, as is tourism. Eritrea recently launched a $200 million project to create a resort on the Dahlak Islands, northwest of the Hanish Islands. Sovereignty issues, however, are what transform local disputes into international crises. Who controls, not what is controlled, is what counts.

Governments easily stir up nationalist sentiments. Trivial disputes assume Herculean proportions given the right atmosphere. Few had even heard of the Falklands before the Argentinian and British governments made the islands an issue in 1982.

Such sentiments are dangerous because few of the region's regimes are durable enough to withstand the pressures of prolonged military conflict:

*In Saudi Arabia, King Fahd has temporarily handed over the reins of power to his brother, and a growing Islamist movement challenges the legitimacy of the monarchy. Recent bombing incidents underscore Riyadh's predicament.

*Egypt's President Mubarak is confronted by a thriving Islamist movement as well as by the country's technocratic elite, who are dissatisfied with the status quo.

*Bahrain's majority Shiite population is demanding a greater say in the Sunni-led government. Security forces put down riots in Manama last year, and further disturbances erupted in January.

*Yemen is precarious, recovering from a bloody civil war that, at its end, reunited the country.

*Eritrea is also in the process of state-building. The last thing it needs is another war like the one it fought with Ethiopia.

Regional efforts to arbitrate territorial conflicts have failed. Saudi Arabia is mediating the Hawar Islands dispute, but is not regarded as a credible interlocutor by Qatar. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has sided with the UAE over the Abu Musa dispute, but Iran does not recognize the GCC's authority. The Organization of African Unity has censured the Arab League for siding with Yemen in the Hanish conflict.

Thus the time is right for an international conference on the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Borders must be permanently fixed. Oil and gas reserves, water and mineral rights, and fishing grounds must be allocated equitably.

A conference held in Taiz, Yemen, in 1977 disintegrated because of political differences and procedural wrangling. So, too, have attempts to bring grievances before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The Western powers could sponsor such a conference, which might adopt a similar framework to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea.

In the end, the concerned parties may decide that certain disputes are best left unresolved for the time being. But the conference would at least serve as a mechanism for diffusing tensions by providing a forum for face-to-face interaction under international auspices.

The age of imperialism is long past, but its consequences remain. Let's decide who owns what before it's too late.

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