Arab League keeps distance over Yemen

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The Independent Online
AN ARAB League mission has travelled from Saudi Arabia to the Yemen capital, Sanaa, in the north, to seek an end to the conflict between the north and south. This follows the despatch of envoys from north Yemen to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and from south Yemen to Muscat and Cairo, in moves aimed more at lobbying support for their respective positions than seeking Arab mediation. But despite the wringing of hands about an internecine conflict in a brotherly Arab state, the Arab world is unlikely to intervene.

The Arab world is divided into two camps. One would like to intervene on humanitarian grounds; the other seeks to preserve the union at any cost. Egypt floated the idea of sending peace-keepers, but this was rejected by the north.

It is a long time since Yemen represented a strategic asset. The British occupied Aden in 1839. Aden became a bunkering station, supplying ships first with coal, and then with oil. After the British left in 1967, the port facilities were taken over by the Soviet Union. Yet although Yemen sits on one side of the Bab al-Mandab straits at the mouth of the Red Sea, few strategists fear that the civil conflict will lead to the straits' closure. This would block the Suez Canal route, and shipping to Aqaba and Eilat. But the Yemenis are not engaged in a conflict with the outside world, and have no wish to close the straits.

The conflict gave a brief fillip last week to the world oil price. However, Yemen is only a small producer, outside Opec, with production of less than 350,000 barrels a day. The conflict has more implications for exploitation of oil in the country, with foreign companies reviewing arrangements.

The country watching the conflict most closely is Saudi Arabia. On Monday the Saudi government issued a call for both sides to cease hostilities. The Saudi Defence Minister, Prince Sultan bin-Abdel Aziz, said Riyadh was engaged in 'constant and serious' contacts with other Arab countries to contain the conflict and said Saudi Arabia had 'blessed' the four-year-old union.

Prince Sultan was less than straightforward. He has long been in charge of Saudi Arabia's policy towards Yemen. Saudi Arabia has supported two different political forces: the Islamic Islah party of Sheikh Abdallah al-Ahmar, and the former socialists of southern Yemen. They have always been against a strong, united and democratic Yemen in the Arabian peninsula.

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