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Gulf frontiers: lines in the sand.

Border disputes perpetually bedevil relations between the countries of the Gulf. The most dramatic example, of course, was Iraq's attempted annexation of Kuwait in 1990. Charles Hoots surveys an endemic problem and the slow progress towards its solution.

WHILE INTERNATIONAL attention over the past year has focussed on United Nations efforts to redraw the border between Iraq and Kuwait, and more recently on the dispute between Iran and the UAE over the island of Abu Musa, border questions in other areas of the Arabian peninsula have been largely overshadowed. With the exception of the brief outbreak of hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in September, considerable progress has been made elsewhere towards defining mutually acceptable frontiers through mainly empty desert.

Talks are under way between several countries to resolve border problems which have plagued relations for many years. There is reason for optimism that agreements will soon follow which will put an end to the history of desert skirmishes between border patrols in the region.

Two such agreements have already been signed, both concerning Oman. The first was with Saudi Arabia in March 1990, when Riyadh and Muscat agreed on a common border stretching through the southern reaches of the Empty Quarter desert and the deadly quicksands of Umm al Samim. Although the minutes of the accord have not been made public, Riyadh relinquished its long-standing claim to a large chunk of land under de facto Omani control.

Shoring up its southwest flank as well, Sultan Qaboos of Oman visited Yemen at the beginning of October and signed another border accord. Negotiations had been going for a decade, punctuated by occasional clashes between soldiers along the frontier. Until the unification of Yemen in May 1990, agreement between the conservative pro-American government in Muscat and the Soviet-subsidised socialist government in former South Yemen made reconciliation all but impossible.

Talks have also been revived to resolve the only dispute in the peninsula that has the potential of degenerating into serious military conflict. Although a gap still separates the Saudi and Yemeni positions, the two began talks in October to resolve the entire border issue between them - from the coastal and mountain provinces in the west, to the desert expanses of the Empty Quarter in the east, where last spring Riyadh warned several oil companies working on concessions granted by the Yemeni government that they were operating on Saudi territory.

Yemen's population of some 12m is more than the rest of the Arabian peninsula combined. Although a full-scale war between the two is ruled out, military build-ups on both sides of the border materialise and vanish in correlation to the often volatile state of relations between the two.

Oman and the UAE have also made slow but sure progress towards solving outstanding differences on their border. Last November, the two countries set up a "joint supreme committee" to establish an acceptable border between Oman and the emirates of Dubai, Fujairah, and Ras al Khaimah. Although "technical problems" have been cited as slowing progress, Oman and the UAE exchanged ambassadors last May for the first time, arousing hope that improved relations will eventually result in a settlement.

But fighting between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has cast a shadow over the progress on other border disputes. At least two Qatari soldiers were killed at the border post of Al Khaffus on 30 September in what Riyadh says was a shoot-out between nearby bedouin tribes which the Qataris mistook for an attack.

Qatari authorities, however, say the post was deliberately attacked by Saudi troops and that one Qatari was even taken prisoner. Tensions arising from the incident appear to have subsided following Arab mediation, and it will probably be quickly forgotten. Ironically, the border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been one of the most stable in the peninsula over the past three decades.

These border disputes have their roots in a combination of expanding national aspirations, colonialism, and the competition for control of resources. Until the discovery of oil on the peninsula in 1938 and the promise of much more to come, "borders" were essentially the spheres of influence of dominant tribal leaders. Their subjects were often bedouins who roamed throughout a loosely-established territory, and often beyond.

As the Saud family reclaimed its dominance over Nejd in 1902, and extended its control to most of the peninsula for the next 32 years, the British thought it expedient to establish a frontier separating their own clients along the coast from the Saudi bedouin armies. In 1922, Sir Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner in Baghdad, drew up a border between the rapidly expanding Saudi territory and British possessions in Kuwait and Iraq. But not until 1927, when the British had mobilised an effective military force in Iraq and Transjordan, was the border an effective deterrent to bedouin crossing the border at will.

Further south, settlement was not so peaceful, nor stable. Mutual fears between Yemen's Iman Yahya and Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in Riyadh led to manoeuvering for support among the tribes of the Red Sea coast around Jizan and the nearby mountains of Najran and Asir. War broke out in March 1934 and Saudi forces drove down the coast to the Yemini city of Hodeida before fighting stopped. Negotiations resulted in the Taif treaty of 13 May 1934, in which Yahya agreed to cede the three contested provinces for a period of 20 years. Saudi troops withdrew from Hodeida following the agreement.

Later attempts to resolve border questions met with some success. In 1965, the border between Saudi Arabia and Qater was negotiated through the British. Although the agreed frontier was not clearly marked, there was little motivation to do so then, and the border area remained without incident for more than 25 years. Qater suspended recognition of the treaty after September's clash.

In 1974, the border between the UAE emirate of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia was formalised. The dispute between the two revolved around the potential of finding oil near the Buraimi oasis, which lies some 90 miles away from today's recognised UAE-Saudi border.

Only after the unification of Yemen and what the surrounding conservative states viewed as a moderation of former South Yemen's radical policies was the scene set for Sanaa's border agreement with Muscat in October, and possibly for a future accord with Riyadh. The Taif treaty between Yemen and Saudi Arabia expired this autumn and there is some question as to whether Sanaa will renew it for another 20 years. However, the current talks, though far from making rapid progress, indicate that both countries realise the necessity of settling the potentially explosive frontier issue.

Border problems in the Arabian peninsula are essentially a reflection of relations between the country's involved, and any conflict usually has more political repercussions than military. Following the border incident with Saudi Arabia, for example, Qatar withdrew its symbolic contribution of 200 men from the Gulf Cooperation Council force stationed in Kuwait, sparking rumours that it may withdraw its membership from the organisation completely.

Firmly established borders are not a panacea for the peninsula's disputes. The most clearly defined and accepted frontiers would quickly be thrown into question in the event of acute political tensions between two states, simply as a means to apply pressure. But clear delineation of the borders would at least remove one of the potential catalysts to deteriorating relations in the first place.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; Middle East's border disputes
Author:Hoots, Charles
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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