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Austrian Academy of Sciences
Institute for Social Anthropology

The Boundary Dispute

Part of Yemen’s difficult legacy is its international border with Saudi Arabia, which spans about 1,800 kilometers from the Red Sea to the border triangle with Oman. For a long period, this border has connected and at the same time separated one of the richest and the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula.

In recent years, this gap became particularly visible, as Yemen witnesses processes of destruction and falling apart, whereas intensive high investment building projects are implemented in Saudi Arabia. While these two realities on each side of the border seem to be opposed to each other at first glance, their close correlation becomes obvious by tracing the historical relationship of the two countries.

Watchtower between the tribal territories of Razih and Munabbih.

Since the first establishment of this border in 1934, the delineation of the boundary has been defined in the form of bilateral contracts between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the most important being the Treaty of Taʾif (1934) and the Treaty of Jeddah (2000). Nevertheless, the border issue remains controversial in many respects, particularly from the point of view of the local borderland residents, most of whom adhere to tribal customs and traditions. In order to secure the cooperation of the Yemeni borderland tribes, the Saudi Kingdom granted them extensive legal rights to cross the border without restrictions. Since 1934 border tribes played an active and important role in securing and controlling the border. In recent decades, however, Saudi Arabia began to consider the permeability of the border as a serious threat to the integrity and security of the Saudi state. In the late 1990s, Saudi security concerns led to efforts to implement, secure, and fortify the previously largely unimplemented border through the construction of a border fence. These endeavors resulted in fierce opposition from the local borderland tribes.

This PhD thesis aims to explore the evolution of the boundary from a social anthropological bottom-up perspective. It examines the historical circumstances that paved the way for implementing the borderline between the rivaling states of Yemen and Saudi Arabia and how this frontier has been developed and transformed throughout history. The focus of the research lies on the impact of the borderland tribes since the early 20th century until today on the shaping and reshaping of the emerging borderline.

Researcher: Lisa Lenz