Two months ago, the Saudi government began to build a fence along its border with Yemen in an attempt to separate the residents along both sides of the border. The border between the two countries was set out in the 2000 Jeddah border treaty, which included a 20 kilometer-wide neutral zone as a strip of grazing land permitted to both sides. The building of the fence enraged the Shi'ite Wayilah tribe on the Yemenite side, which even before its construction had objected to the location of the border.
The Wayilah tribe owns approximately 200 military vehicles and thousands of rifles, and in the past has waged fierce battles against the Saudi Yam tribe. In 2000, it battled the Yemenite Dahm tribe, which is said to have the support of the Saudi government.
The late Wayilah tribal head Sheikh bin Shag'e, who died in 2002 under mysterious circumstances, had explained that he had in his possession 240 year-old documents proving the tribe's ownership of the lands included in the Jeddah treaty. Saudi Arabia tried to pacify the Wayilah, giving 500 of them Saudi citizenship, but the tribesmen nevertheless rioted on various occasions, including when the Saudi authorities arrested a Shi'ite sheikh of the tribe and shut down his mosque.
The Wayilah Tribe: We Do Not Recognize the Border
When Saudi Arabia began to build the separation fence, the Wayilah tribe announced that if the Saudis did not stop the construction and remove all trace of it from the area, they would "blow everything up," including the Jeddah treaty. The tribe compared the Saudi fence to Israel's separation fence, and claimed that it was being built five kilometers over the border into Yemenite territory.
The Wayilah tribe also claimed that it did not recognize the international borders that crossed their territory and ripped apart their tribal unity, let alone the fence that as far as they were concerned violated their human rights. The tribe said, "The blood of thousands of our tribesmen has been shed in tribal wars against the Saudi Yam tribe for the sake of the border … and our tribesmen are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to preserve the borders of their tribal lands."
The Wayilah claimed that the tribal borders between the Wayilah and Yam were set down in written tribal agreements even before the Saudi and the Yemenite states were established, and that these agreements were officially recognized by the first Saudi monarch Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Saud and by the Yemenite monarchy during the time of the Imam Yahyah Hamid Al-Din.
A communiqué published by the Wayilah tribe stated: "We are renewing our objection to the agreements that created a barrier between us and our lands and our property. Similarly, we reject the principle of compensation or the division of land or of the tribe… Every new border route will be null and void, and has nothing to do with the tribal border route recognized by the Wayilah and Yam tribes…."
Saudi Government: Most Explosives and Weapons Captured by Saudi Security Forces were Smuggled In by Islamists from Yemen
Saudi officials told the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the "barrier of pipes and concrete" could in no way be called a "separation fence." Saudi Border Police Commander Talal 'Anqawi said: "What is being built within our borders is a barrier of pipes full of concrete, aimed at deterring infiltration and smuggling… This barrier does not in any way resemble a fence. The site chosen to establish it is located within sovereign Saudi territory."
The Saudi prince of Najran, Mash'al bin Abd Al-'Aziz, also denied that the barrier was a separation fence. According to him, Saudi authorities built a barrier of pipes 95 km-long in an open area between two mountains to block smugglers in cars from infiltrating Saudi lands, north of the region of the agreed upon 20 km-wide strip. According to the Saudis, most of the explosives and weapons captured by Saudi security forces in recent months have been smuggled in by Islamists from Yemen.
Yemen Claims Saudi Arabia has Backed Down
Following the media reports, the regime heads in Saudi Arabia and Yemen denied any crisis. The leaders of the countries tried to solve the problem behind the scenes, and Yemenite President Ali Abdallah Saleh went to Egypt so that it would mediate between the sides. At the same time, a Yemenite delegation visited Saudi Arabia in order to resolve matters. But according to a report in the English-language Yemen Times, the Wayilah tribe was preparing for war:
"A prominent sheik of the Wayilah tribe … told Yemen Times that up to 3,000 tribesmen are preparing to fight Saudi forces unless Saudi Arabia pulls out of Yemen. The sheik claims that Saudi Arabia has already built a security fence 4 to 7 km beyond the neutral zone inside Yemen, stretching from Jabal Hobash to Jabal Al Fara. 'Saudi Arabia has already built a security fence inside Yemen,' said the sheik, 'and we are ready to fight any time if Saudi Arabia doesn't remove what they have built in our country…'
"Even though tribes are preparing for a conflict, a Yemeni government official told Yemen Times on Tuesday that Saudi authorities did accept to remove the separation fence along its border with Yemen after extensive Egyptian and U.S. efforts paid off in convincing Saudi authorities to do so. 'Both the U.S. and Egypt exerted efforts with Yemen and Saudi Arabia resulting in an agreement to remove all constrictions made by the Saudis,' said the Yemeni official."
* Yotam Feldner is Director of Research at MEMRI.