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The Yemeni / Saudi border

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1 The Yemeni / Saudi border le Jeu 6 Jan - 15:51

Morgan Mouton
December 16, 2010

Major actors: the Saudi government, the Yemeni government, the Houthi rebels
Situation: territorial and humanitarian

Main events:
After decades of conflict around the Saudi-Yemeni borders, the treaty of Jeddah (2000) ended the quarrel. However, this area is subjected to strong tensions, due to the presence of the so-called “Houthis” – Yemeni rebels that were named after the leader Badr Eddin al-Houthi – near the border. This situation led to a military intervention of the Saudi forces in November 2009. Although the Yemeni government has not denounced them, these events could complicate the situation.

A historically disputed territory that raises issues of immigration

The Saudi-Yemeni border is defined in the Treaty of Jeddah (November 12, 2000), and is the product of an almost 75 years long dispute. It reaffirms the previous Treaty of Taif (1934) as valid and binding for the two parties, and extends the border to the Red Sea ad to the Thar Mountains, two territories that were not taken into account in 1934. The treaty stipulates (article 4) that the area on both sides of the border has to be demilitarized and empty of any military installation. This area represents 5 km on each side for the part of the border that was inherited from the Treaty of Taif, and extends to 20 km for the newly established part of the border. Military presence is restricted to “mobile police patrols”, armed with “customary weapons” (1 & 2).

Now that the borders are accepted by both countries, the main problem lies in their porosity. The fights between the Yemeni government and its allied tribes in the one hand, and the Houthi rebels in the other hand, have amplified an already huge movement of civilians streaming from Yemen to Saudi Arabia in search of better living conditions. Official statistics estimated the number of attempted illegal infiltrations at 695,000 in the past two years (3). In this context, the refoulement of refugees is a common practice for the Saudi authorities at the border, although it is an obligation for Saudi Arabian in International law (4 & 5). The vice secretary general for humanitarian affairs for the UN, M. Holmes, estimates that the displaced populations represented 250,000 persons in 2009(6).

The Saudi military intervention

The presence of Houthi rebels around the border is another factor of instability. In November the 5th, following the death of a Saudi guard after a fight where 11 other Saudi soldiers were injured in the region of Jabal al-Dukhan, Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention to secure the border (7). The operation involved maritime military action including in international waters, with the sinking of boats transporting fighters (8 & 9). Operations were also led on Yemeni soil, with the Saudi army bombing Houthi positions (10). One of the main concerns of the Saudi authorities was to expel the “intruders” from this region, with the idea of securing the border (11). The armed conflict only ceased on February 11, 2010 after a unilateral ceasefire declared by the Houthis.

The Yemeni government did not denounce the Saudi air strikes on its territory, and its first reaction was to deny any Saudi incursion, insisting that the operations were taking place on Saudi soil. Interestingly, the Houthi rebels tried to spread the idea that they were fighting for Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. President Saleh welcomes Saudi Arabia’s role in the war against his enemies. He declared on November 7 2009 that “the real war” against the Houthis had only started with the Saudi operations. The Yemeni position is to consider these actions as beneficial for Yemen (12). However, after the recent focus of international press on Yemen and the terrorist threats that it may hold, the minister of endowment Hamoud al-Hithar reaffirmed Yemen’s attachment to its sovereignty: “an external intervention will only unify the Yemenis against any military action from outside” (13). In the Yemenit press, voices also reacted to the Saudi “negative” attitude regarding Yemen and called for more respect (14).

The international position is mainly focused on the condition of civilians, and the matter was not discussed by the UN Security Council or by the general Assembly. However, Human Right Watch called for the protection of civilians for all the parties involved in the conflict, and asks Saudi Arabia not to “forcibly return” the Yemeni refugees who try to reach Saudi territory (15). On the 11th of November 2009, Amnesty International expressed its concern for the security of civilians in the region, and mentioned the rumors of the use of phosphor bombs by the Saudi Army. The organization asked for a clarification on this point, and warned the Saudis that such weapons are devastating if used near civil populations. However the Saudi authorities did not reply the organization. In addition, Amnesty International stressed that while Houthis and Saudis claim to detain prisoners from their adversary, both parties did not authorize the International Committee of the Red Cross to access the detainees (16).

(1) Halwan Al-Enazy A., « "The International Boundary Treaty" (Treaty of Jeddah) Concluded between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni Republic on June 12, 2000 », in The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 96, No. 1 (Jan., 2002), pp. 161-173
(2) “International Boundary Treaty”, or “Treaty of Jeddah”, June 16, 2000
(3) Al-Saheil T., “securing the Saudi-Yemeni boarder”, in Yemen Times (Sana’a), September 9, 2010 (consulted via https/, on December 4)
(4) “Civilians flee violence to Saudi Arabia” in Yemen Times (Sana’a), November 29, 2010 (consulted via https/, on December 4)
(5) Press release from Human rights watch, November 4, 2009
(6) Press conference of the vice secretary general for humanitarian affairs for the UN, M. John Holmes, October 10, 2009
(7) “Saudi soldier killed in Houthi raid”, in Al Jazeera English (Doha), November 4, 2009 (consulted via https/, on December 4)
(8) Al-Hayat (London), November 18, 2009 (consulted via https/, on December 4)
(9) Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 19, 2009 (consulted via https/, on December 4)
(10) “Les forces saoudiennes bombardent les bastions des rebelles Houthis au Yémen” in Xinhua Press agency (Beijing), November 5, 2009 (consulted via https/, on December 4)
(11) Press conference of Assistant minister of Defence, Prince Khaled Bin Sultan, December 22, 2009, summarized in the US diplomatic cable n°09RIYADH1667 by ambassador James B. Smith in Riyadh
(12) US diplomatic cable n°09SANAA2040 written on November 9 by ambassador Stephen Seche in Sana’a
(13) Saeed A., “Minister warns against foreign military action in Yemen”, in Yemen Times (Sana’a), November 25, 2010 (consulted via https/, on December 4)
(14) Al-Haifi H., “From Saudi Arabia, with love: the capture of ‘subversives’”, in Yemen Times (Sana’a), November 29, 2010 (consulted via https/, on December 4)
(15) Press release from Human Rights Watch by James Ross, December 4, 2009: « Saudi Arabia/Yemen: Protect Civilians in Conflict with Rebels », (, visited on 12/19/2010)
(16) Press release from Amnesty International, November 11, 2009: « Les forces soudiennes et yéménites doivent protéger les civils pris dans le conflit de Saada » (’da-conflict-20091111, visited on 12/19/2010)


On Saudi Arabia:
- DAZI-HÉNI F., Monarchies et sociétés d'Arabie, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2006
- DROZE-VINCENT P. & SALAME G., “Saudi Arabia”, in Encyclopaedia Universalis
- DA LAGE O., Géopolitique de l’Arabie Saoudite, Bruxelles, Edition Complexes, 1996, 2006

On Yemen:
- DRESCH P., A History of modern Yemen, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000
- Report of the French Senate on Yemen: (visited on 12/18/2010)
- Bernin P., « Les guerres cachées du Yémen » in Le Monde diplomatique, October 2009,, visited on 12/18/2010

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