Jizan, Asharq Al-Awsat – Officials from the Saudi border guard in Jizan province – a district located in the farthest south-western corner of Saudi Arabia, adjacent to the Yemeni border – did not exaggerate when claiming that at least one infiltrator is arrested every “five minutes” in the border region.
If you happened to visit the border region of Tawal – where the largest official border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Yemen is located – you would find a constant stream of infiltrators being arrested. You would also be able to see dozens of infiltrators camped out on the Yemeni border, no more than a few meters from the Saudi border guards, waiting for an opportunity to infiltrate Saudi Arabia; however the Saudi authorities have no right to arrest them as they are still technically on Yemeni soil.
It seems that the infiltration problem is one of the biggest issues that Saudi Arabia is facing with regards to Yemen, and it has even been suggested that this “infiltration” phenomenon may turn into a case of “temporary migration.”
According to the latest official statistics, the number of foiled infiltration attempts over the past two years stands at 695,000. This is due to the huge number of Yemenis who attempt to cross the border into Saudi Arabia.
This is something that prompted the Saudi authorities to undertake a set of security precautions in the Tawal region – which shares a 53.5 km border with Yemen – in order to limit the number of infiltration attempts being recorded along the border.
However, no phenomenon such as this exists without a root cause, and perhaps the deplorable economic and security conditions in Yemen are behind the latest influx of infiltrators attempting to gain entry into bordering Saudi Arabia.
Of the massive number of Yemeni infiltrators caught illegally trying to enter Saudi Arabia, the majority are merely trying to find a simple job to earn some money and return home to Yemen in the same manner that they arrived in Saudi Arabia i.e. illegally. Many Yemen infiltrators seek job opportunities in Jizan, which is a 35,000 square km province in south-west Saudi Arabia.
Jizan has a population of around 1.5 million, and is made up of 13 governorates, and 31 municipalities; it experiences a hot and humid climate throughout the year. Jizan’s inland areas, which are located relatively far from the sea and adjacent to high ground, experience a semi-continental climate; moderate in winter and hot in summer. In the mountainous areas, some of which are as high as 2000 meters above sea level, the temperature is extremely low in winter and moderate in summer.
Jizan is considered to be the gateway between land and marine trade in southern Saudi Arabia; the port of Jizan is the third largest in Saudi Arabia in terms of capacity. Jizan is also considered to be the south-western gateway for the country’s imports. Due to its geographic location, Jizan also serves as a rest stop for Yemeni pilgrims on their way to and from Mecca.
All of these features make Jizan a popular destination for infiltrators and smugglers coming from Yemen. As a result of this, the northern parts of Yemen have been suffering a state of tension due to the Huthi control of this region.
According to official statistics obtained by Asharq al-Awsat during its visit to the Saudi-Yemeni border, more than 82,000 attempted infiltrators have been prevented over the past seven months, in comparison to 273,000 attempted infiltrations prevented in 2009, and 340,000 in 2008.
The border area that lies within the jurisdiction of Tawal – comprising six border checkpoints – is considered an infiltration hotspot, and is located nearly 80 km from the city of Jizan.
The ages of the arrested infiltrators vary significantly. When Asharq al-Awsat asked a group of infiltrators seized by the Saudi border guards their age, the youngest answered that he was 15 years old whereas the oldest said he was 50.
However, a border guard officer who accompanied Asharq Al-Awsat on its tour of the Saudi –Yemeni border reported that some infiltrators are even younger than this.
The Saudi authorities do not keep the infiltrators they arrest in custody unless they are proven to be implicated in other crimes, such as smuggling.
However, before releasing Yemeni citizens who illegally attempt to enter Saudi Arabia, the Saudi authorities take their fingerprints and keep their data in an official registry.
Lieutenant Colonel Salem al-Shehri, head of the Department of Planning of the Saudi Border Guards stationed in Jizan, stressed to Asharq al-Awsat that in the case of an infiltrator being caught for a second offence, he is subject to the punishments stipulated by the “Border Security Regulations.”
Those wishing to cross into Saudi Arabia illegally usually spread out along the border [on the Yemeni side] and wait for hours or even days for an opportunity to sneak in. Certain geographic factors, such as the natural terrain in the Tawal border region, also facilitate successful infiltration.
Lieutenant Colonel al-Shehri informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “some infiltrators were using the floodwater drainage pipelines to cross into Saudi soil. This was something we were alerted to, and we acted accordingly.”
The huge number of trees present in this region also aid illegal border crossing into Tawal, as these can be used by infiltrators as cover.
However, according to Lieutenant Colonel al-Shehri, who accompanied Asharq al-Awsat on a tour of the Saudi-Yemeni border, the situation is different today. The border guard forces responsible for securing this area have taken precautions to ensure that the entire area is subject to vehicle patrols and surveillance, with surveillance cameras being deployed along the border region.
Those who infiltrate Saudi Arabia via Tawal are usually doing so with honest intentions. However, this does not negate those who exploit the border villages in order to smuggle illegal commodities into Saudi Arabia, such as the illegal drug Qat.
A recent report revealed that between 2008 and today, over 6 million kilograms (6,000 tonnes) of Qat has been seized on its way into Saudi Arabia. Arms, explosives, ammunition, alcohol and drugs are also high on the list of contraband seized en route from Yemen into Saudi Arabia.
Over the past two years, the border guard authorities have confiscated 3,600 bottles of whiskey, 6 million kg of Qat, 4,086 kg of hashish and 387,000 narcotic pills. The number of smugglers arrested since January 2008 stands at 10,000.
Yet just as there is smuggling activity from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, there is also illegal trafficking in the opposite direction. However, this is not the smuggling of forbidden goods; but rather the trafficking of foodstuffs. This is due to the high prices that such goods can fetch in Yemen; therefore there is also an active smuggling industry from Saudi Arabia into Yemen.
The Saudi-Yemeni border has also witnessed other attempted smuggling operations, stopping a total of approximately 80,000 head of cattle from illegally crossing the border, in addition to 4,949 vehicles.
Saudi Arabia and Yemen share 802 km of inland and coastal borders. 7 Saudi security divisions are entrusted with maintaining and securing the 43 border checkpoints along the Saudi – Yemeni border. 210 land and costal patrols patrol this region around the clock in order to tighten border security.
Borders of this magnitude inevitably witness numerous trafficking and infiltration attempts, and in the case of the Saudi – Yemeni border, this is something that has developed into a significant problem. There is also the issue of “integrated” border villages, which is something that contributes to the infiltration and smuggling process.
All along the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia there are many shared villages, and the region of Jizan is believed to host the highest proportion of these villages.
These ‘border villages’ are considered to be a major obstacle, hindering efforts to tighten the border security against both infiltration and smuggling. Such villages have also posed a dilemma with regards to Saudi efforts to get rid of the Huthi presence [on Saudi soil], or the “armed infiltrators” as they were referred to during the recent military campaign against them.
Since 9 April 2010, a governmental commission called the “Border Commission” has been surveying the border villages present on Saudi territory in order to determine the number of houses and properties present on the Saudi Arabian side of the border.
Lieutenant Colonel al-Shehri also confirmed to Asharq al-Awsat that until now, “7 border villages have been surveyed. Of these villages, a total of 643 houses have been evacuated.”
Following his visit to the scene of the recent border operations against the Huthi rebels, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz decreed that 10,000 accommodation units be constructed for the residents of villages that were evacuated during the conflict between the Saudi Arabian army and Huthi infiltrators.
During the Huthi invasion of the Saudi border at the end of last year, villages along the border in the region of Khoubah were completely evacuated; however some border villages in southern Saudi Arabia remain.
Saudi Arabia was keen to evacuate all of its border villages during and after its clashes with the Huthi rebels along the border, especially as the Huthi rebels laid a large number of land mines in the border areas. As a result of this, the local residents are in significant danger for the foreseeable future and it would be extremely dangerous for the evacuated religions to return to their homes.
In an effort to counter this, a joint force of the police, mujahedeen [volunteer fighters], and Jizan troops have been formed and given the task of securing the evacuated villages and preventing any potential infiltration.
The previous Saudi-Yemeni border demarcation resulted in some Saudi Arabian villages being officially classified as being inside Yemeni territory, and vice versa.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Salem al-Shehri, this problem caused by the new border demarcation was in the process of being resolved “prior to the [Huthi crisis.” He informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “there is a joint Saudi Arabian – Yemeni commission assigned to account for the property, operating on the Saudi – Yemeni border…this was in order to account for the Yemeni property on Saudi soil, and the Saudi property on Yemeni soil.” However al-Shehri added that this commission was forced to cease its operation after the armed conflict with the Huthi rebels began, and it has yet to resume its operations.
The Saudi border forces established certain checkpoints along the border with Yemen, to enable members of the Saudi villages located on Yemeni land to enter. These checkpoints contain records of names of Saudi families living on the Yemeni side. The checkpoints do not permit border crossings for those whose name are not recorded at that checkpoint.
The Saudi border guard authorities have deployed 120 checkpoints along the border, including checkpoints in al-Ardha, al-Dayer and al-Tawal, all designated to facilitate the entry of Saudi Arabian families [into Saudi Arabia] whose land or property have been designated to be on the Yemeni side.