by Michel Cousins, Managing Editor / Arab News –
JEDDAH, 10 February 2004 — Saudi and Yemeni border authorities are to hold emergency talks in a bid to defuse tension over a so-called “security screen” being erected by the Kingdom along the Yemeni frontier. A Yemeni delegation arrived in Jeddah yesterday for talks on the subject.
Yemeni authorities claim that the barrier is being built in a common grazing area that had been agreed in the June 2000 border pact that ended a decades-long territorial dispute between the two countries.
The screen is part of a larger plan to erect what will be an electronic surveillance system along the entire length of the Kingdom’s frontiers — land, air and sea. The project, involving fencing, cameras and other electronic detection equipment, has been in the planning stages for several years.
According to a report in the Paris daily Le Figaro last month, the French aerospace group Thales is “on the verge” of being awarded the contract to oversee the construction of the system.
The project is said to be worth up to $8.75 billion. It would, the French paper says, involve an integrated surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance and communication network. A spokesman for the French negotiators in the Kingdom would offer no comment other than to say that the discussions between the two sides had been going on “for a long time”. Le Figaro said that they had been going on “for 15 years.”
However, Arab News has learned from French sources that any contract is still “some way off”, probably several months. This was said to be due to the fact that the French negotiating team had changed and the new team, from Sofresa, a part-private part-state company linked to the Ministry of Defense, had had to familiarize itself with the details.
Previously, negotiations had been conducted by Sofremi, a part-private, part-Ministry-of-Interior company that exports security equipment. A further delay, the French say, was because the Saudi government wanted the project to be dealt with and signed on a state-to-state basis. This would require a French government minister coming to Riyadh to sign. The name of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was mentioned.
While talking to reporters last month, Interior Minister Prince Naif had indicated there were plans to erect the security screen. With reference to Yemen, he said that officials were in contact with Sanaa and that “we’ll do everything possible to protect our borders in cooperation with Yemen”.
The Yemen section of the plan appears to have become complicated by local tribal issues. Reacting to rumors in Yemen’s Sada province that the barrier would be a concrete wall, despite Saudi assertions otherwise, local Waelah tribal leaders protested to the government in Sanaa, claiming that any such wall would be against their interests and demanded that work cease on a 20-kilometer stretch.
They say that there could be no renegotiation of the existing border between themselves and the Yam tribe on the Saudi side that was approved by a tribal committee five years ago before being endorsed in the Saudi-Yemeni border agreement.
Saudi authorities refuse to call the barrier along a 42-kilometer (26-mile) portion of the border with Yemen a “security wall” opting instead for the term “cement-filled pipeline,” according to Asharq Al-Awsat, a sister publication of Arab News. “The cement-filled pipeline being built inside our territories is aimed at curbing infiltration and smuggling,” Lt. Gen. Talal Angawi, head of the Saudi border guards, told the London-based Arabic daily. A similar section of raised, concrete-filled pipeline, had reportedly already been built on Saudi Arabia’s northern border with Kuwait.
Diplomats say Saudi Arabia is urgently stepping up border controls after the surge of militancy last year, fueled by weapons smuggled across thousands of kilometers of desert and mountain borders.
Other officials in the Saudi Arabian border guards have also denied the rumors about a concrete wall. The head of border guards in Asir, Gen. Muhammad Al-Bayali, told Al-Watan newspaper that relations between the two countries are good and that border barriers would largely consist of barbwire fencing and in certain places, infrared cameras.
These were to prevent wanted criminals from escaping across the border and the smuggling of weapons and drugs into the country.
The rumors of a wall had been spread by smugglers, he said, worried about their illegal operations coming to an end.
Saudi Arabia frequently announces arrests and arms seizures along the 1,800-kilometer Yemen border. At the end of December the authorities said they had arrested 4,047 “infiltrators” and seized weapons and ammunition in Najran province.
The Kingdom has also stepped up the hunt for militants blamed for suicide bombings in Riyadh in May and November that left more than 50 people dead. Hundreds of suspects have been rounded up. Yemen has also been tracking down suspected sympathizers of Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda militant network.