Three men sprint across the sand-swept asphalt road along the frontier between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Colonel Abdullah Bin Mahfouz gets a glimpse of them from his car, before they disappear into the desert bush.
The 28-year veteran of the Saudi Border Guard shrugs. “Our intelligence will pick them up,” he says. “We expect anything, any time. It’s very difficult.”
People, drugs and weapons are flooding into Saudi Arabia after 10 months of unrest drove Yemen close to civil war. Saudi authorities, concerned instability may spill into the world’s biggest oil exporter, are stepping up security, building a chain of border watchtowers and installing nighttime scanners at hilltop bases. They are also backing a peace accord to stop Yemen from becoming a failed state that could threaten tankers in the Gulf of Aden and create a base for al-Qaeda attacks.
Jazan, where Mahfouz works, is one of four Saudi provinces on the border, which runs through desert and rugged mountains for 1,100m, almost as long as the Texas-Mexico frontier. In Jazan alone, authorities say they detained 239,000 illegal immigrants in the past year, up 37 percent from last year. They didn’t give estimates for how many got through.
“You can’t imagine how many Yemenis are right now in Saudi Arabia looking for work,” Khalid al-Dakhil, a political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, said in a phone interview. “The economic situation in Yemen is so miserable. If you got a civil war, with the poverty in Yemen, then you can imagine how bad it is going to be for Saudi Arabia.”
That, he says is why the kingdom’s rulers have been “so unreasonably patient with Ali Abdullah Saleh,” Yemen’s ruler for three decades and the target of protests. “The Saudis realize that Saleh is a nasty guy,” he said. “But what can you do about it? He wants to fight, and if you give him a fight, he has nothing to lose. But Saudi Arabia has so much to lose.”
Al-Qaeda militants based in Yemen, the home of Osama bin Laden’s ancestors, have attacked the kingdom in the past, attempting to assassinate a top anti-terrorism official in 2009. A series of attacks on Saudi oil installations and their foreign workers helped double oil prices in the two years through February 2006.
Saleh agreed last month to relinquish power after months of wrangling over a Saudi-brokered accord, though there are indications he’s still exerting political influence. The agreement failed to end fighting between the security forces, where key positions are held by Saleh relatives, and army units that have defected to the opposition.
Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Sana’a and other cities on Dec 16 to demand that the immunity offered to Saleh under the Gulf Cooperation Council accord be removed and the president punished for killing protesters. The army and opposition militias are due to withdraw from the streets of the capital this week under the agreement.
At the al-Mahdaf border-guard center, more than 100 men caught that morning were being held in a tree-shaded outdoor detention center and fingerprinted. Most will then be released.
“We return them and the Yemeni border guards let them go,” said Captain Ibrahim al-Safhe said. “They come right back.”
Zain Mohammed Munji, 20, admitted it was at least his second crossing and said he was looking for work. “There are no jobs in Sana’a, and prices have gone up a lot,” he said. Daif al-Shwaih, 23, said he’d made four previous illegal trips to Saudi Arabia, staying as long as three months and earning 50 riyals ($13) a day as a labourer.
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