Lines in the Sand

[Originally published by SaudiDebate, and then republished in the book on Saudi Arabia I co-edited].

It is difficult to draw lines in the desert. The wind tends to quickly cover them up with sand, and the surface is as before. The problem is exacerbated if one has to draw lines around a nation bordered by seven other countries. If that wasn't difficult enough, it is especially hard to draw such lines when you have three competing ideas of where the line should be. Nation states like clear lines between organised sovereignties, separating out the vivid blocks of colour on our maps. Such an understanding is not shared by nomadic peoples, whose concept of territorial ownership can often be durational and change with the seasons. Nor is such an understanding shared by Islamic movements that see only one border: that between Islam and the non-believers.

Suffice to say, Saudi Arabia has always had a problem with lines.

This problem is further complicated by the fact that the Saudi Arabian state relied on both Islamic movements and nomads to achieve power. The territorial expansion of the House of Saud in the 30's would not have been possible without their alliance with the Ikhwani, a religious and military brotherhood derived from Bedouin tribes. Their notions of movement and expansion did not sit well with the centralising tendencies of Ibn Saud's nascent state. After a significant deterioration in the relationship, leading to a rebellion in 1929-30, Ibn Saud crushed the movement.

The battle with between the Ikhwan and Ibn Saud was not simply a question of a difference between badw (nomad), and hadr (settled) populations; it was also about two different varieties of Wahhabism. On the one hand, Ibn Saud wanted to consolidate the state he had already established, on the other, the Ikhwan, who cared little for the static boundaries established by the British, and wanted to continue the expansion of Wahhabism.

While the Ikhwan were defeated in the 1930's, the tension continues between a centralizing state with pragmatic concerns about survival and a religious ideology that, while acting as the justification for the state, implicitly rejects the centralisation of the House of Saud. Many of those who captured the grand mosque in Mecca were descendants of the defeated Ikhwan.

But it is not just the Ikhwan's descendants who are unsatisfied with the borders Saudi Arabia has drawn up around itself. The Saudi government had encouraged the fighters who had gone to Afghanistan in the 1980's to fight against the Soviet occupation. On their return, it was these fighters, along with a new generation of religious clergy, that decried the presence of American troops on Saudi soil during the first Gulf war. Again, at stake was a question of boundaries. For al sahwa al islamiyya (the Islamic awakening), the idea of having infidel forces present so close to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina was against Islamic law:differing perceptions of religious and national borders clashed. These tensions was exacerbated by the perceived lack of political will on the past of the Saudi state to intervene in situations, such as Palestine, where members of the umma were under attack.

These tensions continue to build.

Walking the line...

Today, Saudi Arabia is again worried about Saudi militants returning from foreign wars to sow dissent back home. Except this time, the foreign war is rather closer to home. In fact, it is just next door. Most worryingly, as Okruhlik notes:ii "The jihadis engaged in the war in Iraq are returning to Saudi Arabia much younger and perhaps more independent than the mujahideen who returned from Afghanistan in the 1980s."

Saudi Arabia's border with Iraq is 900km long, undemarcated and undefended. Before the American invasion, the chief concern for the Kingdom was the smuggling of alcohol and weapons. Now, peopleiii have to be added to the list. The Saudi government has reacted forcefully. Accordingiv to a recent report by the Saudi defence analyst Nawaf Obaid, Saudi Arabia has spent $1.8 billion securing its border with Iraq since 2004.

They have every reason to be worried. The Shi'a resurgence in Iraq means the Kingdom is becoming worried about the possibility of a generalised Shi'a awakening across the region. Despite recent reforms instituted in Saudi Arabia, the Shi'a population are still very much second class citizens, and the Kingdom doesn't want them catching the revolutionary wind. In theory, that would leave Saudi Arabia backing the Sunni factions in Iraq - if it wasn't for the fact that many of the Sunni factions have links, or at least shared sentiments, with the jihadis currently active in Saudi Arabia.

For the moment then, the border is staying firmly shut. Thousandsv of Iraqi's are fleeing: at least 100,000 to Egypt, 730,000 to Jordan and 660,000 to Syria, with more arriving each month. Very few are getting to Saudi Arabia. And if the message wasn't being understood before, the Kingdom hope that the wallvi they are building, which will cover the entire length of Saudi Arabia's border with Iraq, will give the message loud and clear. Given past experience, bets are off on Saudi Arabia managing to keep many people out.

...Or crossing it?

If they did fail to build the wall, it wouldn't be the first time. In 2003, the Kingdom embarked on an ambitious project to build a fence along the border with Yemen. The Saudi government claimed the fence was being constructed to stop smuggling.

They have a point. In December 2003vii, more than 4,000 people and large quantities of weapons and drugs were seized in the south of the country. The Yemeni side of the border is dominated by tribes that are less than totally obedient to the government, and this makes enforcement of border restrictions difficult. In December 2001 the government attempted to capture Abu Ali al-Harithi, a former body guard of Osama bin Laden, who was believed to be in Ma'rib. The tribal forces responded, and the Yemeni government troops were forced back with heavy losses. To make matters worse, between March 2002 and February 2003, thirty six Saudi border guards were killed in the frontier town of Jizan.

There is not only an unmanageable border with Yemen, but thousands of weapons to be smuggled over it. Decades of civil war mean that there is nowviii an estimated three weapons per head of the population in Yemen. These weapons have been finding their way into the hands of jihadis in Saudi Arabia - two AK-47 assault rifles used in an attack on the U.S consulate have been traced to Yemen's Defence Ministry.

Despite all these reasons for alarm, the wall was eventually abandoned following fierce disagreements with the tribes living on the Yemeni side of the border. The origin of these arguments is complex.

The Saudi-Yemeni border was first officially fixed by the Ti'faix agreement of 1934, following a war between the two countries. Under the termsx of Ti'fa agreement, Saudi Arabia agreed to give back some of the gains it had made during the war, while consolidating its hold on Jizan and Najran provinces.xi The agreement was supposed to last for twenty years, but at the appointed time was neither renegotiated nor renewed. Instead, years of warfare in Yemen followed. It was finally unified in 1990, a policy which Saudi Arabia completely disagreed with, hoping to keep the two countries separated.

However, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemen deteriorated through the early 90's, as Riyadh supported a number of factions that destabilised the country. The lowest ebb in the relationship was reached in 1994, when oil was found at Ma'rib, which was claimed on Saudi maps, and there were clashes between Saudi and Yemeni troops. Relations then improved in the late 90's, leading to the Jeddahxii agreement of 2000, which definitively fixed the borders between the two countries.

It is strongly believed that the Jeddah agreement was already agreed in 1997, and the delay between agreement and implementation was due to it being used as a political tool to gain leverage on other issues, such as the restoration of suspended financial aid from Saudi Arabia to Yemen. Despite no agreements being reached about such issues, the final agreement closely follows the Ti'fa agreement.

Saudi Arabia wanted to build their wall roughly along the agreed boundary - albeit 20km into Yemen's territory (as the limit of the neutral territory). The tribes living along the border were infuriated. Not only would this mean being deprived of a much needed revenue from smuggling, it clashes with the very different notion of territory held by the tribes living in the north of Yemen.

The Jeddah agreement tacitly acknowledges these differing conceptions of territory. One of the provisions reads:

"Shepherds in both countries will have the right to pasturage and water up to twenty kilometres beyond the border “according to prevailing tribal traditions”. However either side may set restrictions on the number of vehicles crossing the border with shepherds, the firearms shepherds may carry, and the like."

It is commonly thought that nomadic tribes have no real conception of territory. This is, of course, false. However, their conceptions tend to differ from the absolute lines imposed by ideas of international sovereignty. As J.C. Wilkinsonxiii notes for nearby Oman, rather than thinking in terms of 'mine', nomads in the region tend to think in terms of 'right.' Pastoral people are reliant on water supplies that are not constant - but change with the seasons. Thus, the notion of ownership tends to be more complicated than the absolute lines of a nation-state; they are, instead, predicated on ideas of duration and co-operative exchange.

Now a line in the desert doesn't disturb these arrangements, but a large wall certainly does. And sure enough, people were not pleased. The Sh'ite Wayliah tribe objectedxiv to the positioning of the border, claiming to have 240 year old papers that proved the tribes ownership of the land. Such papers may have had some validity - as it was only in 1934 that the areas now bordering Yemen were incorporated into Saudi Arabia, and the Ta'if treaty has only dubious international legitimacy. Be that as it may, Saudi Arabia didn't listen to their claim and tried to pacify them by giving five hundred of them Saudi citizenship.

The Wayliah were unimpressed, rioting on a series of occasions,xv and claiming,xvi in 2004, that there were 3,000 fighters ready to give up their lives to stop the construction of the wall. The Kingdom responded by trying to claim it was not a wall of separation, but after extensive discussionsxvii with the Yemeni government, eventually backed down from the project.

In a fascinating account,xviii J.C. Wilkinson notes that after the withdrawal of the British from the region, many border disputes were resolved by returning to older notions of territory. Today, two global movements increasingly prevent such accommodations being reached. Terrorism transforms empty stretches of desert into possible weaknesses. Oil transforms those same areas into liquid gold. The way the nation-state reacts to these two phenomenon has little respect for the older, more flexible nodal notions of territory.

Old Rivalries

If the relationship with Iraq and Yemen exemplifies Saudi Arabia's concern about terrorism, then the border dispute with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) exemplifies the concern with having absolute territorial rights over oil.

The question of the borders between the two countries was re-opened by President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, who took power in the UAE in November 2005, during a formal visit to Riyadhxix. The argument over the territory was publically reopened in 2006, following the publication of a UAE textbook showing a mapxx of the Emirates extending westward as far as Qatar, across Saudi Arabian territoryxxi.

The origins of this rivalry extend back before the existence of the Saudi Arabian state. At the time, the al-Sauds and the al-Nahyns (now the rulers of Abu Dhabi, the leading emirate) were dynastic families. The al-Nahyns were prepares to accept the dominance of the al-Sauds, but not Wahhabi Islam. The key bone of contention between them was the Buraimi oasis. Control of the oasis meant control of vital water for crops and herding in a desert region. Fifty years ago, the oasis was taken by Saudi Arabia. International arbitration between the two sides ensued. As the arbitration failed, Abu Dhabi retook the well with British support.

The situation changed in 1974, as the United Arab Emirates pressed for international recognition. Saudi Arabia only agreed to recognise the nascent state if Abu Dhabi relinquished a 25km stretch of land linking it to Qatar, and the Shaybah oil fields, now in the south of Saudi Arabia, where oil had just been found. In return, Saudi Arabia promised to relinquish its claim on the Buraima oasisxxii, and recognise the UAE. An agreement was signed on August 12 in 1974.

Today, the Shaybah oil fields produced 550,000 barrels of light crude oil a day, and revenues from the field are in excess of $10 million per yearxxiii. Abu Dhabi now claims that the whole agreement was carried out under political duress, and want to renegotiate the Riyadh treaty. The treaty itself is of doubtful legality under international law, as it has never been published, nor was it ratified by the UAE Federal National Council. The UAE hope that with new kings in place in both countries, a change in the political climate could occur.

Border Crossings

Any border is overlaid with a series of meanings. The line in the sand is at the same time a national boundary, the route to a watering hole, the oil riches concealed underneath, and the route of a successful conquering army. In the pastiche statexxiv, the national boundary has to manage the tension between all these different meanings.

But borders are not simply physical. If the nation state's borders denote the physical territory over which it has the right to exercise sovereignty, there are a second set of borders, which denote which types of people will be treated as subjects of that sovereignty, and in what way. Saudi Arabia's state religion has created, in part, a form of Islam that is in necessary contradiction with its physical borders. As the jihadi's expand and push out to other countries, supported by the same ideology that supports the Saudi state, the physical borders of the country feel themselves come under threat. Jihadi's trapped within one border by another. Saudi Arabia trapped between borders, between conflicting responsibilities. You can bet that the lines of sand will be redrawn yet.


iiOkruhlik, G. 2005: The Irony of Islah (Reform). The Washington Quarterly. 28:4. pp. 153-170. p.158.









xiBoth of these provinces are still felt to be 'Yemeni' by a large proportion of the population in Yemen.


xiiiWilkinson. J. C. 1983: Traditional Concepts of Territory in South East Arabia. The Geographical Journal. Vol. 149. No. 3, pp. 301-315.




xviiiWilkinson. J. C. 1991: Arabia's frontiers: the story of Britain's boundary drawing in the desert. London: Tauris.



xxiThe UAE ministry of information and culture show another map ( which reflects the status quo.

xxiiThough many Saudi maps still show the oasis as within its territory: