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Neighboring Yemen is mad at Saudis

Published Oct. 18, 2005

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has criticized Saudi Arabia for inviting American-led forces into the kingdom and he accused Riyadh of trying to undermine his country's stability by enacting measures that have forced more than 500,000 Yemenis to leave Saudi Arabia and return home. Saleh, in an interview Thursday, also said that the United States, the Soviet Union and several Arab countries, had tried _ unsuccessfully so far _ to persuade the Saudi monarchy to retract steps it had taken against the estimated 2-million Yemenis living and working in the kingdom.

(Officials in Washington confirmed Saleh's account.)

While he challenged the need for the American military presence in the Persian Gulf, Saleh described his country's relations with Washington as "good."

Describing President Saddam Hussein of Iraq as "an excellent Arab leader" and "a fine Arab nationalist," Saleh discussed his relationship with Hussein, whom Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have accused him of supporting.

Saying his country was neutral, he added that he had had conversations with Hussein and other Arab leaders in an effort to "contain the crisis" started by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2.

He acknowledged that his efforts had failed, but said he believed that an "Arab solution" to the crisis was still possible and that war was unlikely.

The 48-year-old Saleh, who took power 12 years ago, made these and other comments about the gulf crisis in a three-hour interview in the garden of his heavily protected compound.

Saleh also discussed his decision last May to unify the 9-million people in his pro-Western, poor and capitalist country with the people of Southern Yemen, which had been pro-Soviet and ruled by Marxists.

The two countries had been divided for 23 years when they announced last year that they would unite.

Given the bloodshed between the two nations as well as invasions of Yemen by Southern Yemen in 1972 and 1979, Arab and Western diplomats alike were surprised by the announcement. Saudi Arabia paid for American military equipment that was sent to Sana during the latter invasion.

Yemen, with a total population of 12-million, is one of the poorest but most populous countries in the Gulf. Remittances _ money sent home by Yemeni workers, mostly in Saudi Arabia _ are estimated at $2-billion a year, representing the nation's largest source of income.

Saleh, a small wiry man with a warm, determined gaze and direct manner, spoke in Arabic, through an interpreter. He seemed animated and relaxed in the interview, smiling occasionally.

He wore a dark gray business suit rather than the traditional Yemeni flowing robes. But he fingered a string of jade worry beads as he spoke, sipped tea quickly and smoked six Rothman cigarettes half-way down.

Saleh's remarks revealed bitterness toward Saudi Arabia, his northern neighbor. Yemen has had long territorial and other disputes with the kingdom, but has received substantial financial aid from it.

His remarks reflect the extent to which Iraq's seizure of Kuwait has reshaped the political and demographic map of the Middle East and has intensified traditional rivalries and tensions.

In strong comments, Saleh called Saudi Arabia "undemocratic" and accused it of conniving for years to destabilize his country.

His anger toward Saudi Arabia, as well as his unhappiness with Washington for supporting Riyadh by sending troops to the kingdom, was palpable.

First Saleh accused Saudi Arabia of "deliberately distorting" Yemen's policy toward the Gulf crisis by portraying it as pro-Iraq.

"The Yemeni policy is firm and steady," he said. "We are not supporting any side; we are not aligned. We are not with Iraq, and, of course, we don't approve of the invasion of Iraq. Yet at the same time, we don't approve of a foreign presence in the region."

Even before the crisis, he asserted, Saudi Arabia had tried to destabilize Yemen by making payments of unspecified amounts to well-armed tribal sheiks in northern Yemen, near the Saudi border, to counter the central government's influence and instigate trouble.

Just before the Yemen unification in May, he asserted, Saudi Arabia tried to bribe Southern Yemen to back out. He accused Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Sultan of trying to pay Southern Yemeni officials to scuttle the merger when he visited Aden, which was the capital of Southern Yemen, two weeks before the scheduled union.

Saleh identified three basic sources of tension between Riyadh and Sana _ a decades-old border dispute; the unification of the two Yemens, which presents the Saudis with a united Yemeni front on the border dispute and other issues, and Yemen's decision that its new nation should be democratic and have a freely elected parliament and multiparty system.

Some 31 political parties have been formed here, a referendum on the constitution now being drafted is scheduled for next month and more than 25 newspapers are being published.

"They are completely terrified by our freedom and democracy in Yemen," Saleh said, referring to Saudi Arabia.

He criticized Saudi Arabia for suspending residency and other privileges for Yemenis working there in response to what the Saudis perceive as Yemen's support for Iraq in the current Gulf crisis.

As of Wednesday, he said, 500,020 Yemenis had crossed the border back into Yemen, at a recent average rate of 30,000 a day. Many were forced to sell their businesses and property at a loss when their working permits were not renewed. Because of the slowness of border procedures, he said, several elderly people died at the border and some 13 still-births had occurred.

Saudis have denied that Yemenis were being deprived of possessions and mistreated at the border.