In 2019, the Saudi kingdom deployed the al-Afwaj Regiment, a new security force under the Ministry of Interior supporting the Saudi Border Guards. This regiment is tasked with preventing smuggling, trafficking, and infiltrators. Two years prior, a Green Berets team of the US Special Forces arrived in Saudi Arabia to train Saudi ground troops responsible for securing the border. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence analysts are cooperating with the Saudis in Najran to locate Houthis’ missile sites in Yemen. 

Saudi Arabia and Yemen share a critical borderland. Although officially demarcated in 1934 by agreed international border, this shared territory represents a single ecosystem for tribal kinships and connections, informal economy, architecture, and cultural heritage. For instance, the prominent Khawlan bin ‘Amr tribal confederation found its tribes divided after 1934 between the two countries. Descendants of the ancient tribes of Tihama—the coastal area bordering the Red Sea—and Asir still inhabit the Saudi-Yemeni west.  Some of them have been named “flower men” for donning flower garlands on their heads. 

This borderland encompasses agricultural areas neighbouring the Red Sea (Hajja in Yemen and Jizan in Saudi Arabia), as well as provinces with harsh mountains and  eastward  the desert: Asir and Najran in Saudi Arabia, and Saada and al Jawf in Yemen. The south of Saudi Arabia and the far North of Yemen have always been peripheral to the two political centres, Riyadh and Sanaa, thus maximizing governments’ threat perception. Moreover, the area is predominantly Shia inhabited. In Saudi Arabia, Ismailis (which comprise roughly 400,000 people in Saudi Arabia’s population, as about 10-15% of Saudi’s society is Shia) populate Jizan, Asir, and Najran in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Zaydis—many of whom belong to or support the Houthi movement—inhabit Saada and al Jawf in Yemen. Approximately 20,000 Zaydis are located in Saudi Arabia’s southern border regions. Saudi Ismaili areas developed a certain degree of political autonomy as a result of their longstanding socio-economic marginalization and distinct culture that is distant from the Najd-based official Saudi culture. The rise of the Houthi movement in the Yemen’s Saada governorate developed into  self-governance and de facto autonomy capitalizing  on the chaos of the popular uprising in Sanaa in 2011and the Houthis’ take-over of the capital in 2015.

The history of the Saudi-Yemeni frontier is one of a contested border. Jizan was the center of the Idrisi Emirate founded in 1908 by Muhammad Ali Al Idrisi, who rebelled against the sovereignty of the Ottoman empire. The area was later absorbed by the nascent state of Saudi Arabia as part of the Mecca Treaty signed in 1926. In 1934, war erupted between Saudi Arabia and the Zaydi Imamate of Yahya in the North of Yemen. The Imam ruled the community traditionally, meaning he was both a religious and political leader. The agreement of 1934 (signed in Taif) not only demarcated the border, but also allowed the kingdom to obtain the temporary sovereignty on Jizan, Asir, and Najran to be renewed every twenty years with visa concessions for the local population. Saudi Arabia thereafter began a politics of patronage toward borderland residents in order to ensure their loyalty and reduce possible insurgencies. This approach proved to be successful. Pro-Riyadh tribes established a makeshift buffer zone in the 1960s to seal the Saudi frontier.1 When the civil war between Yemeni republicans and Saudi-backed Yemeni loyalists of the Imam erupted in the Zaydi Imamate (1962-70), Egypt sided with the republican side and also deployed their own soldiers from 1962 to 1967. The republicans thus won the war at last.  

The Treaty of Jeddah, signed in 2000, consolidated the balances shaped by the 1934 agreement and established a five kilometres demilitarized security corridor. In the 2000s, the kingdom sought to secure the frontier from the rising jihadi threat of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This group was officially founded in 2009, although al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi cells were active in the area earlier. The joint Yemen and Saudi Border Guard, comprising of locals, served as a regular army unit to counter smuggling (weapons and the qat drug) and illegal migration. The Border Guard—a faction of the formal armed forces—was the institutional shape rallying the auxiliary tribal forces who patrolled the frontier for decades.  This example reveals the extent to which security hybridization between formal and informal groups represents here the rule, not the exception. In 2003, Saudi Arabia also started to build a border fence, although local discontent blocked its construction by the beginning of 2013. 

But a shift towards a more securitized approach occurred during the sixth Saada war (from August 2009 to February 2010) between the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s security forces. During the war, Saudi Arabia opened its territory to the Yemeni army to counter Houthis cross-border raids. Riyadh started airstrikes, deployed ground forces to cope with Border Guards’  weakness and reported unwillingness to counter the Houthis, and imposed a naval blockade on the North of Yemen. Several hundred troops from the Jordanian Special Forces were also drawn in to aid the Saudis in temporarily defusing the border threat. 

During the popular uprising against Saleh in 2011,. the Houthis exploited the surge of military forces in Sanaa to clean the governorate from remnants of the central government and, most of all, to expel tribal chiefs loyal to Saleh and to the Saudis. With the reality of Houthis’ self-governance in Saada, Saudi Arabia not only deployed police and border guards at the frontier, but it also restarted the construction of the border fence. 

In such a framework, two parallel—and sometimes entrenched—disputes have emerged along the contested Saudi-Yemeni border. First is the ongoing the struggle between Riyadh and the borderland tribes who still oppose the building of a physical and militarized fence. Second is the fight between the Saudis and the Houthis of Yemen, who are now allied with Iran. To add more uncertainty, social relations within the borderland are tense. Ismailis remain marginalized in the Saudi kingdom in terms of religious practices, decision-making, and services provisions. For instance, while Saudi Ismailis can serve in the military, they are unable to reach high ranks due to their lack of military education. This is largely due to the fact that many Saudi officer colleges are unwilling to admit Ismailis.

Social restrictions heightened after clashes broke out in Najran in 2000 as the Saudi authorities attempted to shut down Ismaili mosques and detain worshippers. Furthermore, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have promoted “Sunnization” and/or “Wahhabization” policies vis-à-vis the local Shia community. This was especially the case after 1979 and the politicization of the Shia trend following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In the South of the kingdom, tens of thousands of Southern Yemenis who left the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, the socialist-oriented government of the South of Yemen before the 1990 unification) were naturalized. These Yemenis, most of whom were Wahhabis, migrated from PDRY to Najran province in the 1980s. There, they received welfare provisions—albeit still second-rate to Saudi Ismailis—and found jobs in the education and judicial sectors. Since the 1980s, Saudi-sponsored Salafi mosques and madrasat—such as the prominent Dar al Hadith of Dammaj, Saada—were opened to counter the Zaydi Shia revivalism in north Yemen. President Saleh, who was supported by Riyadh, encouraged the doctrinal convergence between Zaydi Shia and Shafei Sunnism in Yemen as a regime security tool. 

Finally, the conflict’s implications in Yemen and the Saudi military intervention in 2015 have widely affected the Southwestern regions of Saudi Arabia. Since 2015, more than half of the fallen Saudi soldiers in Yemen came from the west, namely Jizan. The Saudi state is employing social aid tools for impoverished local communities, such as state compensation to injured soldiers and families of fallen militaries. Even more, the regime is providing education projects and reparations to Saudi civilians displaced due to towns evacuations beginning in 2009, as well as damages from rockets and missiles launched by the Houthis against the kingdom. 

Yemen’s protracted conflict shows no signs of a decisive victory. Most recently, the Saudis have opened intermediation of Oman informal talks with the Houthis. Khaled bin Salman Al Saud, the Saudi Vice Defense Minister and younger brother of MBS, has been gradually repositioning Saudi’s posture on Yemen from full confrontation to de-escalation. For this reason, there might be room for abatement on the border. However, the road to de-securitization will be fraught with extensive militarization, troubled social relations, and rising threat perceptions.  This is especially the case since  the Houthis’ alliance with Iran and with the Shia militant network tightened after 2015. As such, the Saudi-Yemeni borderland has become a security complex. 

Eleonora Ardemagni is an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)and a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Milan. She is the author of “The Huthis: Adaptable Players in Yemen’s Multiple Geographies”.

Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).