GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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The Yemeni-Saudi Border: From Boundary to Security Barrier
Paper Proposal Text :
In little more than a decade, the 1,800-km Yemeni-Saudi border has been recast from a symbolic boundary into a security barrier. The Saudi Arabian government increasingly views the extension of its sovereign power over the border area as essential for the country’s national security. The resulting ‘securitization’ of the border – culminating in the start-stop attempt to build a fence and detection system – by Saudi Arabia has had, and continues to have, major consequences for people living on both sides of the boundary.

The 1934 Treaty of Taif settled the Saudi-Yemeni boundary in an international legal sense. The result was an arbitrary division of people with extensive kinship ties. Yet considerable movement back and forth across the border, much of it unregulated, continued. The borderland continued much as has it had done before; people crossed without consequence for many decades after partition. More than this, the largely free movement of Yemenis into Saudi Arabia was codified in the 1934 treaty (as part of the agreement, Yemenis were provided with ‘special privileges’ to enter, work and reside in Saudi Arabia). This principle has been an important feature of relations between the two countries. At times of tension between the two countries, Riyadh has revoked this exemption.

After the 1962 revolution, most republican governments in North Yemen rejected the boundary agreed in 1934. After many years of negotiation, the two countries agreed in 2000 – in what became known as the Treaty of Jeddah – on a revised demarcation between the two countries. The 2000 boundary agreement included the creation of a demilitarized zone along the border as well as a buffer area for the free grazing of livestock. Soon after the Treaty of Jeddah was signed, however, the Saudi government embarked on a rapid securitization of the border, especially in the southwest portion of the Kingdom (where Jazan, Asir and Najran provinces meet Yemen).

The borderland’s long-held reputation as a space plagued by gunrunners and drug-traffickers had not previously spurred the Saudi government into action. State regulation over the movement of people and goods into Saudi territory between 1934 and 2000 can be described as palsy. Before the 2000s, Riyadh looked at the immediate borderland, much of it worn down by sandstorms and drought, with mild disinterest. The border is a key site where states seek to demonstrate their sovereignty. Historically, borderlands are poorly administrated, but this can change when there is a strong political motivation to set rules and punish those who resist the imposition of state sovereignty.
This paper will show that a continuum of perceived security concerns in new millennium radically altered the Saudi government’s policy toward the border. Initially the purported concern over terrorism followed by the fear of contagion from conflict in Yemen propelled the Saudi government to spend considerable sums in trying to ‘secure’ the border. Though only partially complete, the integrated system of barriers and sensors and border guards has effectively framed the borderland in binary terms – us-them, here-there. It is argued that this process of extending state sovereignty is erasing cross-border linkages and that this has major cultural, economic and security implications for the people who occupy borderland area and for relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.