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An Unneighborly Rapport: How Yemeni-Saudi Relations Went Astray

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

The Taif Treaty between North Yemen and Saudi Arabia ended the 1934 war between the two states and led to the Saudi annexation of the disputed provinces of Najran, Jizan and Asir. The treaty stipulated Saudi control over the disputed provinces for a period of 40 years. It also granted the right of the citizens of each country to live and work in the other country. That was followed by 30 years of peace that allowed the development of strong economic ties and facilitated the migration of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers to the kingdom.

The relations soured after the September 1962 Republican Revolution against Imam Mohammed al-Badr, who fled to Saudi Arabia. The revolutionaries invited Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s main competitor in the region, to send troops to support the nascent republic. Shortly after, Vice President Abdul-Rahman al-Baydani, who was forced upon the revolutionaries by the Egyptians, threatened to bomb the palaces of Riyadh. That ushered in a major Saudi intervention in support of the royalist forces that fought to restore the imam to power in Sana’a. Egyptian intervention stopped after an agreement between President Nasser and King Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud following Egypt’s defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967, but the Saudis, despite their agreement with Egypt, kept financing the royalists until 1970. When it became clear that the royalists could not win, Saudi Arabia cut the funding for their war effort and brokered a peace agreement between them and the republicans that granted the royalists a nominal share of political power in the republican system. A new page of relations between North Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic) and Saudi Arabia started, lasting only a few years, characterized by hegemonic Saudi influence over Yemen and its persistent attempts to finalize the boundary line of 1934. In April 1973, Riyadh managed to get the Yemeni Prime Minister, Abdallah al-Hajri, to renew the Taif Treaty — a move that was struck down by the governing Presidential Council, prompting Saudi Arabia to sponsor the overthrow of the civilian government and replace it with a military council.

The leader of the Military Command Council, Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, proved equally resistant to Saudi hegemony. He was assassinated in October 1977 in a plot widely believed to have been sponsored by Saudi Arabia. The commander who killed Al-Hamdi and succeeded him as president, Ahmed al-Ghashmi, was in turn assassinated eight months later by a suicide bomber sent by the leader of South Yemen, Salim Rubai Ali, leading to Ali Abdullah Saleh assuming power in the North.

The wily Saleh skillfully survived the ups and downs of relations with Saudi Arabia despite his resistance to renew the Taif Treaty. He often said that no president of one part of Yemen can finalize the boundary line with the Saudis, as the other part of Yemen will consider that a sell-out. From 1978 until unification in 1990, Saleh was targeted by several assassination attempts that he attributed to Saudi Arabia.

Unification of the two parts of Yemen, a national objective that had been pursued by northern and southern Yemeni leaders for decades, took place in 1990. Saleh became the president; the leader of the South, Ali Salem al-Beidh, became vice president. Unification was opposed by Riyadh, but was supported by Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, both of whom were hostile to Saudi Arabia. Relations between the newly unified republic and Saudi Arabia would soon sour even more.

As an accident of history, Saddam invaded Kuwait a few months after Yemeni unification. Saleh chose the side of Saddam, against the protests of most senior Yemeni officials including his vice president, Al-Beidh, whom Salah quickly marginalized to become the sole decider of Yemen’s foreign policy. To Yemen’s misfortune, it was the only Arab member of the UN Security Council at the time, and Saleh instructed his representative to abstain from the vote that authorized the use of military force to liberate Kuwait. Saleh also instructed his government to organize massive demonstrations of solidarity with Iraq. Students were dismissed from schools and civil servants from work and all were instructed to join. Yemen’s actions triggered a massive backlash by Saudi Arabia (and some other Gulf states) that included abolishing the special privilege given to Yemeni migrant workers to work in the kingdom without a sponsor and the summary expulsion of approximately 1 million Yemeni migrant workers who could not liquidate their businesses or sell their assets.

Despite the cooling of relations of 1990-91, Saudi Arabia and Yemen resumed communication on two key issues: finalizing the border; and a Saudi proposal to build a pipeline through eastern Yemen to export Saudi oil, skirting the chokehold of the Strait of Hormuz. Some progress was achieved on both topics. Saleh agreed to start talking about the border and agreed in principle to the pipeline proposal. A point of disagreement was the security arrangements for the pipeline. Saudi Arabia insisted on joint security arrangements and Saleh, citing sovereignty, insisted on Yemen handling all security arrangements.

In the meantime, Saleh’s marginalization of his vice president and a wave of assassinations that claimed the lives of more than 150 Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) leaders led to tension that culminated in the 1994 war between YSP forces and northern forces, supported by a dozen southern brigades that had fled to the North after the 1986 civil war in Aden. Six months before the war, when it had become clear that Saudi Arabia was supporting the YSP and bankrolling its weapons deals, including Scud-B missiles from North Korea and MiG-29 bombers from eastern Europe, Saleh informed Riyadh that he was agreeable to joint security arrangements for the pipeline. The Saudi response was that it would accept nothing less than full sovereignty over the pipeline corridor.

Soon after the war, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the two states that initiated the process of demarcating the boundary line. Six years later, the process ended with the signing of the 2000 Treaty of Jeddah permanently demarcating the border between the two states.

With its main security concern, the boundary line, satisfactorily resolved, Saudi Arabia showed a willingness to turn a new page. Saudi financial support for Yemen, greater work opportunities for Yemeni migrants, and plans for developing the border communities and funding Yemeni Border Guards were clear indicators. However, Saleh did not reciprocate. Weapons used by Al-Qaeda in terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia were traced back to Saleh and his erstwhile partner, General Ali Mohsen. Mutual confidence was again shattered. The pipeline proposal, which two members of the Yemen Technical Committee for Border Affairs involved in the discussions said continued at the technical level until 2003, seemed to have been put on hold due to the Houthi rebellion of 2004. This emerging shared security concern meant Saudi support for Yemen continued, albeit plans to integrate Yemen into the regional economy through the Gulf Cooperation Council waned.

As the Sa’ada wars raged, Saudi Arabia focused on managing the immediate threat of growing Iranian influence in Yemen. Yemeni-Saudi relations at the leadership level improved significantly, with Saleh receiving frequent infusions of cash from Saudi Arabia. The Sa’ada wars, which Saleh used to degrade the military forces of his main competitor, General Ali Mohsen, also turned the small Houthi militia into a significant military force. Saudi Arabia continued to support Saleh, even as major protests called for his overthrow during the 2011 Youth Revolution. When it became clear that Saleh could no longer hold on to power, Saudi Arabia supported a peaceful transfer of power and sponsored the political agreement to achieve it.

With Saudi Arabia now negotiating a pipeline through Oman, it is clear that Yemen in Saudi eyes is, first and foremost, a security concern. Yemen has posed a real or imagined threat to the kingdom throughout the past century. This has been amply demonstrated in the current Yemen conflict. It is also clear that, in Yemeni eyes, Saudi Arabia is a hegemonic power that has cast its gaze on part of Yemen’s territory. Stability in this part of Arabia will not be restored until this main concern is dealt with.