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Mended fences.

A rapprochement between oil-rich Saudi Arabia and its poor but populous southern neighbour, Yemen, is poised to gather pace following the acceptance by King Fahd of an invitation to visit the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.

The invitation was accepted during a visit to Jeddah in July by Yemen's foreign minister, Mohammad Salem Basendwa. "King Fahd accepted the invitation but a date for the visit has not yet been set", he said. His talks in Saudi Arabia had been "very successful, and matters are improving with more rapprochement and understanding", he added.

Relations between the two states have long been troubled by a major border dispute, and the atmosphere worsened immeasurably during the Kuwait crisis when Riyadh felt that Sanaa was overly sympathetic to Iraq. Although Yemen condemned Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, it abstained on some of the UN Security Council's anti-Iraq resolution and voted against the resolution authorising the use of force to evict the Iraqis.

The Saudis reacted by expelling 800,000 Yemeni workers, with dire consequences for Yemen. Remittances from its expatriates were a pillar of the economy. To the lost income was added the burden of finding jobs and homes for the returnees.

At the same time, development aid from the Gulf states and Washington was cut savagely. As if all this were not enough, Yemen also lost crude oil supplied by Iraq and Kuwait for refining in Aden. This meant that some of Yemen's own modest oil output had to be diverted to the refinery, thereby losing some of it export revenues.

The govenment estimated the total economic cost of the Gulf crisis at $3bn. But Yemen also had to pay a high social and political price. By autumn 1991, as living standards declined, assassinations of leading political figures had become almost commonplace, and in October that year rioting broke out in the capital. The border dispute and Yemen's record during the Gulf crisis are only two of the points of friction between Sanaa and Riyadh. More important is an understandable Saudi wariness about the emergence of a new state in the Arabian Peninsula.

No-one knows for sure now many Yemenis and Saudis there are. But it is certain that the Yemenis are far more numerous. Yemen also boasts by far the biggest agricultural areas in the peninsula. Although still limited, meanwhile, Yemen's oil output had been growing, offering the unaccustomed prospect of wealth.

When Yemen was split into a republican north and a Marxist south, the potential rivalry with Saudi Arabia scarcely existed. In 1990, however, the two Yemens merged, in the only successful Arab unity project to date."

Even more provactively, the Yemenis have become democrats. In April, this year broadly free and fair multi-party election were held, without a descent into violence. The country's press is free and human rights are widely respected.

The Saudis have evidently now concluded that an unstable and hostile Yemen could pose an even bigger threat than a democratic Yemen, and that better relations and a resumption of aid would give Riyadh far greater leverage in Sanaa. Whether or not King Fahd actually visits Yemen may not be significant. His acceptance of the invitation, however, is a crystal-clear signal that he favours rapproachement.

During the Gulf crisis, Yemen's relations also cooled with other Gulf states, but these too are now improving. Qatar's foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, visited Sanaa in July and visits are reportedly planned for later this year by Oman's Sultan Qaboos and the UAE president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan.

Even Kuwait has indicated a readiness to mend fences with Sanaa. The emirate's foreign minister, Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah, had planned to meet his Yemeni counterpart in Vienna in June. Although the talks were cancelled following criticism in Kuwait's parliament, it cannot be long before a Kuwaiti-Yemeni rapprochement begins in earnest.
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Title Annotation:the proposed visit of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to Yemen, hints aims at strengthening their friendship
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Cleaning up their act.
Next Article:Kuwait's road to recovery.

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