June 12 (Bloomberg) -- From a new stone tower on the border with Yemen, Saudi soldiers send out patrols in search of smugglers carrying drugs or weapons. They’re also trying to turn back a growing wave of illegal migrants drawn to the biggest economy in an Arab world rocked by political turmoil.
Dozens of observation points have gone up in the past 12 months in the southern province of Jazan, along the 1,100-mile (1,800 kilometer) border with Yemen. In the al-Arda district there are 20, some positioned on mountain ridges, others yards from where Yemenis herd goats through sandy scrub-patched land. Lieutenant-General Meladaan al-Meladaan, whose command covers a stretch of 84 kilometers, says his patrols catch as many as 70 people a day from Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia and Bangladesh, and new technology will soon make them more effective.
Tightening the border is part of drive to bolster security by Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, whose promotion to the post last year was a milestone in the shift of power to a younger generation of Saudi royals. He’s seeking to keep trouble out of the kingdom and money inside it, ensuring that militants can’t infiltrate, and that Saudis rather than illegal migrant workers get the benefits of the $500 billion investment program King Abdullah announced to avert domestic unrest.
“The Saudis view the region surrounding them in upheaval, and are in the middle of fortifying their homeland,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in a phone interview. “They are taking these precautions to protect the kingdom from outside influences, both human and contraband.”
The $730 billion Saudi economy is set to expand 4.4 percent this year, the fastest in the Gulf Cooperation Council after Qatar, according to the International Monetary Fund. Driven by King Abdullah’s stimulus, growth was even faster last year, at 6.8 percent.
Guarding the border in Jazan is made tougher by the geography. The province, one of four in the south, runs along the Red Sea and through desert and rugged mountains.
“This is a very difficult area to patrol,” al-Meladaan said, sitting in the Border Guard’s regional headquarters in al-Arda. “The border area is mountainous. It will be easier as we install the new system.”
He said the Saudi Border Guards are installing motion detector cameras, infra-red systems and GPS technology to link their patrols. On Prince Mohammed’s watch, similar technology has been deployed to protect Abqaiq, the world’s largest oil processing facility, and to monitor car traffic flows on the kingdom’s 173,000 kilometers (108,000 miles) of roads.
The Jazan border patrols caught 17,460 infiltrators in the last month of the Islamic calendar, and seized items including 496 kilograms (1,093 pounds) of hashish, 15,600 kilograms of fireworks and 2,691 head of cattle, the official Saudi Press Agency reported today.
In the first six months of the Islamic year, Saudi security forces caught 126,000 people trying to sneak into the kingdom for work, said Brigadier General Abdullah Bin Mahfouz, a spokesman for the Jazan border guard.
Mohammed Chancel, 26, was one of them. “I wanted to find a better job in Saudi Arabia,” he said in the central guard post of Al-Diyar district, where he’s being held with several other Bangladeshis.
After flying to the Yemeni capital Sana’a six months ago on a tourist visa, and working illegally for $120 a month, Chancel says he paid as much as 3,000 riyals ($800) to be smuggled into Saudi Arabia. His captors may have benefited from the new lookout posts built in Al-Diyar under Prince Mohammed’s plan.
Another security post was holding a Somali with an injured leg, shot by border guards after he tried to evade them with his drug haul. Smugglers can make as much as 500 riyals per kilogram of hashish they get across the border.
The guards caught 2,930 people in the six-month period smuggling hashish, the leafy narcotic khat or whiskey into Saudi Arabia, where some such offenses carry the death sentence. They also seized 4,025 weapons, including machine guns.
Appointed as interior minister in November by King Abdullah, Prince Mohammed, born in 1959, is leading the push to adopt advanced technology to better secure the country. The son of former Crown Prince and Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who died in June last year, Mohammed had previously worked closely with the U.S. as he spearheaded the Saudi fight against al-Qaeda, which has attacked oil installations in the kingdom.
‘Shut to Infiltrators’
Prince Mohammed “is someone who has gone to the level of the streets to understand a problem,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. His counter-terrorism program is “credited with saving the royal family and the country from al-Qaeda.”
Saudi Arabia has been attacked from across the Yemeni border in the past. In late 2009, Saudi forces battled Shiite Houthi rebels for months after they seized land inside the kingdom. Al-Qaeda militants based in Yemen, the home of Osama bin Laden’s ancestors, attempted to assassinate Prince Mohammed in Jeddah in 2009.
King Abdullah’s program seeks to create jobs for a youthful population. About a quarter of Saudis aged 20 to 30 are out of work, and while the kingdom has largely avoided the wave of Arab unrest that began in 2011, there have been scattered protests and growing criticism of authorities on social media.
New airports, ports and roads across the Arabian Peninsula are part of the plan. In Jazan, a new road is being cut through the mountains to the Yemen border, and bulldozers from the Saudi Binladin Group are leveling the land under the border guard’s protection. The government has also relocated almost 100 villages to create a deeper security zone in the district in Jazan where Saudi forces battled Houthi rebels.
Bin Mahfouz says the aim is for the frontier to be “shut to infiltrators” within four years.
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