A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's up with the "neutral zones" near Saudi Arabia?

February 1, 1991

Dear Cecil:

While trying to figure out what was going on with Iraq and the Middle East, I looked up the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia-Iraq area in my 1966 atlas. I found two large areas along the border called "neutral zones." What does this term mean? Do Romulans live there? Do the zones have any relevance to the Gulf War and our subsequent difficulties in the region?

Cecil replies:

Time to get a new atlas, sport. One of the neutral zones was divvied up in 1969 between the countries adjoining it, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. But the other one, between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, is still there. During the first Gulf War the CNN weatherdroids mentioned it in the same matter-of-fact tone they used to refer to Cleveland, as though you had some clue what they were talking about. Unless you were the kind of person who knew that before 1932 Saudi Arabia was called "the Kingdom of the Hijaz and of the Nejd and its Dependencies" (I knew, of course), not likely.

The neutral zones date back to 1922. The father of modern Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman ibn Saud Al Faysal, known to the West as Ibn Saud, had managed to consolidate much of the central Arabian peninsula under his rule. To keep the peace, the British, then the dominant foreign power in the region, called the local potentates in to settle on national boundaries.

Fixed boundaries at the time weren't a big Arab priority. The desert nomads were organized along feudal lines, with local tribes proclaiming their loyalty to one or another overlord. The territory of said overlord basically consisted of whatever his tribes happened to be camped on at the moment. Since the tribes moved around a lot, the situation was pretty fluid.

The British weren't about to put up with that kind of attitude and insisted on fixed boundaries or else, their main concern being simplicity of administration. This led to considerable wrangling with Arab leaders, since almost any boundary was likely to cut some tribe off from its traditional grazing lands or water sources. Another problem was that some of the nomads were fickle and quarrelsome. Once the borders were firmed up, any vengeful excursion across national frontiers might well be regarded as an act of war.

To avoid these problems while still getting their precious borders, the British finally convinced the relevant parties there should be two neutral zones, one between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the other between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the latter bordering the gulf coast. (The Saudi-Iraqi zone was mainly the domain of a troublesome tribe called the Zafir.) As spelled out in the Protocol of Uqayr, no government could build fortifications or station troops in or near the zones, or near the border generally.

Border disputes continued for many years thereafter but the neutral zones endured until oil was discovered under the one between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Kuwaitis and Saudis promptly decided never mind the nomads, let's divide this baby up. To date this hasn't occurred (officially, anyway) with the Saudi-Iraq zone. I imagine things will be resolved eventually, but right now those most concerned have other things on their minds.

Drawing the line

Dear Cecil:

Your recent column on the neutral zones of the Arabian peninsula said the Iraq-Saudi zone was still in existence. On the contrary, the zone was divided in 1981. This was done to stabilize the border after the Iranian revolution and the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war "impelled Saudi Arabia and Irag to see closer relations," according to one book on the subject.

Dear Richard:

I was afraid somebody was going to bring this up. Strictly speaking you're right — the zone was divided by treaty between Iraq and Saudi Arabia on December 26, 1981. However, for unknown reasons the treaty was never filed with the United Nations and nobody outside Iraq and Saudi Arabia was officially notified or shown the text giving the new map coordinates. So legally speaking the U.S. government has to act as though the neutral zone still exists. Practically speaking, though, it's well aware that it doesn't.

The Office of the Geographer at the U.S. State Department, which provides the official word on international boundaries for all U.S. government maps, continues to show the diamond-shaped neutral zone with a line running through the middle and the words, "de facto boundary as shown on official Iraqi and Saudi maps (alignment approximate)." Similar notes appear on U.S. maps showing the rest of the Saudi-Iraq border (which was basically straightened) and the Iraq-Jordan border (which was made more crooked). The de facto borders are believed to be accurate within 150 meters, or perhaps a city block — no big deal to you and me, but a constant irritant to government cartographers used to pinpoint precision.

Iraq's borders aren't the only ones up in the air. According to maps I got from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (amazing what you can find out these days with a little pull and a fax machine), the boundaries between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are either in dispute, undefined, or defined but undisclosed. If you want to stay out of trouble next time you visit the Arabian peninsula, don't take any long walks in the desert.

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