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Bad Fences

In Washington today, many blame America's terrorism problem on Saudi Arabia. In an August 2003 Washington Post op-ed, for instance, Senators Jon Kyl and Charles E. Schumer accused Riyadh of continuing to deceive the United States, "acting as our ally [while] supporting a movement--Wahhabism--that seeks our society's destruction."

But Saudi Arabia has a scapegoat of its own: Yemen. The Saudi government says smugglers from its neighbor provide the explosives and weapons used by radical Islamists, who carried out two massive suicide attacks against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia last year, killing more than 50 and injuring hundreds. Saudi Arabia, one of the most vocal critics of Israel's security fence, is even emulating Israel's example, erecting a highly contentious barrier along its porous frontier--part of a larger plan to build an electronic surveillance system across the entire length of the kingdom's land and sea borders.

Yet this strategy is unlikely to succeed. Yemeni smugglers moving arms and explosives are already developing creative ways to evade Saudi controls. And, for the crackdown to be effective in stopping the weapons trade, Riyadh will need the cooperation of the Yemeni government, which is not likely to be forthcoming. In Sa'ada, only 25 miles from the Saudi border, I walked through the biggest of Yemen's numerous arms bazaars, where row after row of dealers peddled firearms, grenades, and rocket launchers. I was offered an 85-millimeter surface-to-surface missile for only $2,500--a projectile that could blow through a building. Anti-aircraft missiles, the type of weapon fired at an Israeli jetliner in Kenya last year, were no longer on display, but, when I asked a few dealers, they told me these heavy weapons were still available--for the right price. "There is complete freedom here," a Sa'ada local said proudly. "Anyone can buy whatever they like, as long as they have enough money."

The smuggling of drugs, alcohol, luxury goods, and arms across the mountainous, sparsely populated, and largely unmarked Saudi-Yemen frontier has been a problem for years. Enmity between the two countries has only made it harder to stop. Saudi Arabia has a history of supporting disaffected Yemenis, in an effort to destabilize a country Riyadh sees as a security threat because of its large population and strategic location. When Yemen was divided into two nations during the cold war, opposition to unification became a stated Saudi foreign policy objective. When Yemen unification took place nonetheless in 1990, the Saudis increased clandestine funding to various Yemeni insurgent groups. According to a prominent Yemeni journalist, many tribal leaders in Yemen opposed to the central government in Sanaa remain on the Al Saud payroll. And the two countries have continued to squabble over how to demarcate their shared border. This conflict peaked in the early '90s, resulting in border clashes in 1994. Three Yemeni soldiers were killed by the Saudis in border skirmishes as recently as 1998, and, despite an agreement reached by the two nations in 2000, resentment lingers.

In recent years, cross-border smuggling has grown more prevalent and violent. Between March 2002 and February 2003, 36 Saudi border guards were killed in Jizan, a Saudi frontier town. And these arms are now going to terrorist groups. The Saudi media have reported that the perpetrators of a series of recent terrorist attacks inside the kingdom used explosives smuggled in from Yemen. Since the May 12 bombings, Saudi border patrols have seized weapons and explosives in large quantities on a daily basis, including more than 90,000 rounds of ammunition, dozens of grenades, more than 2,000 sticks of dynamite, and hundreds of bazookas.

Worried, the Saudi government is beefing up border protection. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz recently told Arab journalists that Riyadh constantly pressures Yemen to police the frontier more seriously. Not content to rely on Yemeni cooperation, Riyadh is also building a border-surveillance system. The project, which will include fences, cameras, and other electronic-detection equipment designed to prevent vehicles from crossing the frontier, has quietly been in the planning stages for several years. According to a recent report in the Paris daily Le Figaro, the French aerospace group Thales is "on the verge" of being awarded the contract to oversee construction of the system--a contract said by Le Figaro to be worth up to $8.75 billion.

But the border crackdown isn't likely to work. The history of Saudi-Yemeni enmity makes the Yemen government wary of working with Riyadh, especially on border issues. In fact, this week, a Yemeni delegation arrived in Riyadh for emergency talks about the fence, after the Yemenis submitted an official complaint to the Saudi government. The 2000 treaty demarcating the common border stated that twelve miles on either side of the border should be neutral territory. Yemen's complaint states that, by building the wall in the middle of that territory, Saudi Arabia is effectively confiscating this neutral land. Ordinary Yemenis I spoke with in Sa'ada share the government's anger: They even still bitterly refer to Najran and Abha, two towns inside Saudi Arabia that used to have close links with Yemen before a 1934 border war, as Yemeni cities.

Yemeni tribes who straddle the border and oppose its fencing-off have already started to flex their muscles, attacking workers building demarcation posts. A prominent leader of the Wayilah tribe last week told The Yemen Times newspaper that up to 3,000 tribesmen "are ready to fight any time if Saudi Arabia doesn't remove what they have built in our country." Meanwhile, long- repressed Saudi Shia living in the border region near Yemen have little desire to assist their own central government. In the southern city of Najran, Shia have revolted over the arrest of a local imam on trumped-up charges of "sorcery, " and dozens of other protests have recently occurred across the south.

Many Yemenis are furious that Saudi Arabia is pinning so much of the blame for terrorism on them. Though Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has strong ancestral ties to Yemen, and many Al Qaeda operatives come from there, Saudi Arabia itself is a source of ideological inspiration and financial support for Yemen-based militants. They receive much of their funding from Saudi sources; many are products of the Saudi education system, which breeds extremism; and several work closely with Saudi-born terrorists. Al Qaeda's leader in Yemen, Saudi-born and -educated Mohammed Hamdi Al Ahdal, who was arrested last year, is a case in point. He has revealed under interrogation that both Saudis and Yemenis were involved in funding two major terrorist attacks in Yemen--against the USS Cole in October 2000, which killed 17 American sailors, and against the French supertanker Limburg in October 2002.

And the writ of Yemen's central government doesn't travel far. Yemen has scored some recent successes--with assistance from Washington. In November 2002, Yemen looked the other way while the CIA used a remote-controlled missile strike to kill a top leader of Al Qaeda, Qaed Salim Sinan Al Harethi, while he was driving near Marib, east of Sanaa. The Yemeni government has also rounded up hundreds of militants, and some urban roads inside Yemen contain many army checkpoints. Still, since outside major cities Yemen remains a largely lawless country, where all males past puberty openly bear arms, Yemen's arms bazaars are hard to shut down. In Sa'ada, rows of arms shops attract thousands of buyers each day, and overall there are an estimated 60 million weapons in Yemen, a country of 20 million people. On open display in the bazaars are weapons from China, Russia, Belgium, Spain, and even Israel--a country Yemen doesn't recognize. Worse, during a brief 1994 civil war, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is still in power, paid tribal leaders to ensure their support, which brought him a swift victory. Tribal leaders in rural areas, whose support Saleh still needs, fear that giving up arms will mean being marginalized from political life, so they are unwilling to close down weapons souks. To do so, Saleh fears, might provoke a popular uprising: Ibrahim Al Hamdy, a former Yemeni president, was assassinated in 1977 in what many believe was a plot by tribal leaders angered by government involvement in their affairs.

At the same time, smugglers are becoming more inventive. Saudi security officials say donkeys have been trained to carry gunrunners along narrow mountain trails across the border. The animals have become expert at crossing and recrossing the border on their own. And, though the United States has been training the Yemeni Coast Guard, paying $55 million to provide them with high-tech speedboats and other equipment and training, neither the Saudis nor the Yemenis have been able to stop trade in contraband by sea. Small ships continue to unload illicit goods at dozens of tiny islands off the Saudi coast and then move these items onto even smaller boats that slip undetected onto the mainland. It will take more than a fence to stop them.

John R. Bradley, former editor of the Jeddah-based Arab News, is author of the forthcoming book Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers and Puritans in the Wahhabi Kingdom.