A Saudi border guard scanned the border with Yemen near the Saudi city of Jizan. The Saudis look for refugees, smugglers and insurgents entering from the south.
Faisal Mehdi for The New York Times
A Saudi border guard scanned the border with Yemen near the Saudi
city of Jizan. The Saudis look for refugees, smugglers and insurgents
entering from the south.
ON THE SAUDI-YEMENI BORDER — The five Yemeni men, all of them rail-thin,
clutched their knees as they sat staring across the sand at the narrow
road, which separates the Arab world’s poorest country from its richest.
The New York Times
Guards near Jizan watch for drug smugglers and Al Qaeda.
Faisal Mehdi for The New York Times
Yemeni men, seen through a wire barrier, watched and waited for a chance
to enter Saudi Arabia through the desert border.
“They’re waiting for us to move on,” said the Saudi border guard with a
weary smile, as he sat watching from the front seat of a gleaming S.U.V.
“Waiting so they can try to cross.”
This remote 1,100-mile frontier, once a casual crossing point for
Bedouins and goats, has become an emblem of the increasingly global
threats emanating from Yemen: fighters from Al Qaeda,
Shiite insurgents, drugs and arms smuggling and, well under the world’s
radar, one of the largest flows of economic refugees on earth.
Every day hundreds of illegal migrants are caught and sent back to
Yemen, Saudi officials say, including many who have come from Africa and
across Yemen’s deserts fleeing war and hunger.
The porousness of the border is essential to Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based
branch, which has become a major terrorism concern for the United States
as well as Arab countries. Al Qaeda draws recruits from Saudi Arabia,
where they can cross and recross without being noticed, and it has sent
militants across to try to kill Saudi leaders in their efforts to
topple the oil-rich kingdom.
In response, the Saudi authorities have embarked on a
multibillion-dollar effort to strengthen the border, evacuating scores
of villages that once straddled it and building elaborate defense
networks to keep intruders out.
Earthen berms now prevent cars from crossing, and layers of concertina
wire line the roads, some of it strewn with the rags and dried blood of
desperate migrants who still try to get through. Floodlights and thermal
cameras focus on different parts of the border at night, and
intelligence units stand ready to interrogate anyone who is deemed
“They adapt very quickly to every strategy we have,” said Lt. Muhammad
Qahtani, a seven-year veteran of the border patrol. The migrants wear
their shoes backward to confuse trackers, or strap sponges to their
soles to leave no footprints at all. They trek through arid mountains
where the border is loosely patrolled.
Many smugglers are heavily armed and will fight to the death when
surrounded, Lieutenant Qahtani said, because they know convicted drug
traffickers are usually beheaded in Saudi Arabia.
In some ways the border here resembles the one separating the United
States from Mexico, another desert barrier between rich and poor
But this border has become far more volatile lately. A year ago Yemeni
rebels killed a Saudi border guard, setting off a short war that
delivered a humiliating blow to the Saudis’ well-financed but
At least 133 Saudi soldiers were killed over three months, and the
fighting raised alarms across the Sunni Arab world about the possibility
that Iran might be supporting the Yemeni rebels — who subscribe to an
offshoot of Shiite Islam known as Zaydism — and turning this border into
another front for sectarian conflict.
Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch has repeatedly boasted about its ability
to infiltrate the border and outwit Saudi Arabia’s network of informants
in the area. Last year, a suicide bomber crossed here and later came
close to assassinating Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who runs Saudi
Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts. In October 2009, Yusef al-Shihri, a
leading Qaeda operative who had been detained at Guantánamo Bay, was
killed in a gun battle after crossing the border from Yemen disguised as
Border security here involves far more than fences and patrols. Some
tribes straddle the border, and they — and the Yemeni government —
protested fiercely when Saudi Arabia first began reinforcing the border
in 2003, saying they needed free access for grazing. That dispute seems
to have eased, and the Saudi government is now refining an old policy of
subsidies to border tribes with a view to security, analysts say.
“The Saudis realize they need to work with tribal leaders and make sure
their livelihood depends on how good they are at keeping the border
safe,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at
Princeton who has written extensively on Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
“There’s also cross-border trade, and there is a debate inside Saudi
Arabia now on how hard the border should be.”
In the past, many Yemenis complained that Saudi Arabia’s support for
various tribal and political figures in Yemen seemed aimed at keeping
their southern neighbor divided and weak. Now, as Yemen’s instability
and the threat of terrorism grow worse, Saudi Arabia appears to be
reassessing its approach to Yemen and its longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, diplomats say.
“They are trying to be more systematic,” said a Western diplomat in the
Saudi capital, Riyadh. “Their manipulations are now aimed at supporting
Saleh, because he’s the only game in town.”
The border was officially demarcated only in 2000. Much of it remained
so informal that many villages on the border’s western edge, near the
Red Sea, were half-Yemeni, half-Saudi. Those days ended last year with
the war, when the Saudi government evacuated 78 border villages and
extended the network of fences it had begun building several years
The area is an eerie wasteland now — scores of houses, some of them
pockmarked with bullets from the war, sit empty and silent. At the top
of the mountain where the fighting started last year, Saudi soldiers man
a .50-caliber machine gun, gazing across at the unmarked ridges that
form the border with Yemen.
Inside the border patrol headquarters in the port city of Jizan,
photographs line the wall showing contraband captured by the patrol
guards: truckloads of rocket-propelled grenades, huge bricks of hashish,
stacks of machine guns.
Drug smuggling has risen by almost a third in the past two years, Saudi
officials in Jizan say, with more than 7,000 pounds of hashish seized so
far this year. The most dangerous smugglers of all are those who drive
through the Empty Quarter, the Texas-size sand desert that dominates the
southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, patrol officers say.
But far more numerous are the illegal migrants, hundreds of thousands of
them annually in recent years. Most are caught and sent back to Yemen
after being held in crowded border detention centers for a day or so.
Many have crossed the sea to Yemen from Somalia or Ethiopia, risking
death on rickety boats in shark-infested waters.
Most of the survivors make the arduous journey through Yemen’s arid mountains only to be turned back at the Saudi border.
“Some of them say, ‘If you give me something to eat, I will go back,’ ”
said Lieutenant Qahtani, the border patrol officer. “You can only feel
pity for these men.”