Tensions in Arabia: The Saudi-Yemeni Fault Line

Reviewed by Sheila Carapico
University of Richmond

Yemen Update 43 (2001)

[Renaud Detalle, editor, Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden: 2000 (181 pp. Including annexes)]

This collection was commissioned by the European Union's Conflict Prevention Network (CPN) through the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) as a policy analysis of the EU's interests in the Saudi-Yemeni border dispute, and published to make the papers available to scholarly audiences. Because heretofore only a handful of European journalists even considered the question of a European perspective on the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, it is a useful contribution to the literature on Euro-Arabian and Saudi-Yemeni relations.

The book is divided into three sections. The context of the border conflict is set in the first three essays. Richard Schofield maps competing claims derived from Ottoman and British lines as well as the 1934 treaty between Saudi Arabia and Yemen's imam, while Renaud Detalle analyzes the mix of social, economic, and political tensions between the neighboring countries and Horst Kopp points out the important water and oil resources that lie beneath the disputed territory. Natalie Fustier and Liesal Graz, respectively, reflect on American and European interests &endash; in all cases, Saudi oil and Yemeni stability. Lastly, Eric Watkins and Renaud Detalle consider various scenarios and European policy options. Detalle, the book's editor and a long-time resident of Sanaa, sums up the conclusions of the study, noting "the strong national interests of EU member states in maintaining good relations with the KSA, a major consumer of European goods, including weapons, and the biggest producer of oil in the world," as well as the question of whether Europe's commitment to democracy "should translate into support for a Yemeni regime which displays a willingness to change, over a Saudi regime which rejects participatory politics and gender equality and expresses strong reservations on the notion of human rights." (p. 150) In light of these concerns, the European Union "should not resign itself to letting the USA be the sole influence in a region where European interests are at least as important as those of the USA."(p. 162) Instead, the EU has incentives and opportunities to exercise leadership in peace nurturing, partly by aiding economic development and the rule of law in Yemen and partly through diplomacy.

Hindsight is always easier than foresight. In retrospect, the premise of the SWP-CPN series seems to have directed the authors' attention towards a conventional bilateral border conflict, albeit one complicated by overlapping economic and socio-cultural circumstances and Saudi hegemonic aspirations. The mission to advise the EU on policy toward a potential armed conflict over the border may even have led authors to discount the likelihood of the presumably best-case solution to this conflict: a quick formal demarcation of land and sea boundaries. In any event, virtually as the book was in print, between June 12 and July 4, 2000, the two countries announced what the Royal Embassy in Washington's monthly newsletter termed a "finalization" of all their common land and marine borders. This "definitive marking of the permanent border," as the newsletter put it, (by a private international consulting firm) hardly means that all sources of tension between and around Saudi Arabia and Yemen have been resolved. Indeed during the summer of 2000 the Saudi government expelled many thousands of Yemeni workers and blamed Yemeni individuals for unrest in Najran among Isma'ili Shi'as belonging to the Yam tribe. And either government might worry about the spillover of domestic problems from the other. Perhaps this was the case in October, when an attack in Aden harbor on an American navy ship bound for the Persian Gulf was followed closely by the hijacking of a Saudia Airlines passenger plane. Without faulting Detalle and his colleagues for failing to predict the future, readers might wish for another scenario wherein two neighbors decide to build a gated fence while recognizing that they nonetheless share an ecology neither nor both can fully manage.

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