Defining International Borders in the Rub’ al Khali

For most of the post-war 20th century, anyone looking at a map of the Arabian Peninsula would be greeted by something like this:


Courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

Notice the almost total lack of defined boundaries in the southern half of the peninsula surrounding the Rub’ al Khali desert ; just vague indications of where jurisdictions lie (the above map from 1974 doesn’t even attempt to make a separation between Oman and the United Arab Emirates, for example).  As the even-increasing hunt for petroleum resources beneath the sands ramped up throughout the latter part of the century, it became increasingly necessary to define jurisdiction over these lands in order to determine which countries would obtain access to these resources.  As well, defining borders assisted in promoting national security and defence.  By the mid-1990s, defined lines were finally present on the southern Arabian map.  Below, a look at how each border came to be defined.

Saudi Arabia/Qatar

Saudi Arabia and Qatar initially reached a border agreement back in 1965.  The agreement, however, was never legally ratified, and was eventually thrown out completely in 1992 when Qatar accused Saudi troops of attacking a Qatari border post, killing two border guards and kidnapping a third.  Saudi Arabia claimed this was the result of a conflict between rival Bedouin tribes and not a deliberate action.  Traditionally closely tied, relations warmed up again soon enough, and a technical committee was assembled to fix the boundary both on land and at sea for good.  Negotiations concluded in 1999, and a treaty was signed in 2001.  As far as land boundaries are concerned, it is superficially the same de facto boundary agreed upon in 1965.

Qatar/United Arab Emirates/Saudi Arabia

Those looking at a map of the UAE today may wonder what border with Qatar is involved, since the two countries do not touch.  The issue of whether or not the two countries legally share a border has been up in the air since 1974, when Saudi Arabia obtained a second corridor to the Persian Gulf through the emirate of Abu Dhabi that included the section bordering Qatar.



Note the difference along the border with Qatar between these maps from 1984 and 1995.  Courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

From an official standpoint, the Saudi/Emirati border remains officially undefined even though an agreement was reached in 1974 under the Treaty of Jeddah.  The issue is that the agreement was reached between Saudi Arabia and the emirate of Abu Dhabi on behalf of the UAE, as opposed to the UAE government itself which has never actually ratified the agreement (this is still the de facto border shown on most maps these days).  Again, also of issue is that this agreement affects the Qatari border due to the small 40-km (25-mi) Khor Duweihin corridor that Abu Dhabi gave to Saudi Arabia under the 1974 treaty.  Saudi Arabia registered the treaty at the United Nations in 1993, but the UAE has yet to do so.

United Arab Emirates/Oman

The UAE and Oman finally defined their border in 2002.  Prior to this, the only defined borders were the various exclaves of Oman lying within or next to UAE territory (a legacy of the two countries’ time under British protectorates).  Immediately after the delineation of the border, the UAE began constructing a barrier along the Omani border primarily for the purpose of keeping out illegal immigrants, drugs, and terrorists.  This is a source of some consternation due to the new problems for Oman in trying to access Omani exclaves, and in the case of Al Ain (UAE) and Buraimi (Oman), a pair of neighbouring cities that previously had a large amount of interaction and co-dependency.


At no point in time did Oman ever come to a defined border agreement with South Yemen. Soon after the reunification of Yemen in 1990, Oman and the new Republic of Yemen signed a border agreement in October 1992.  There was still an issue with this arrangement as Saudi Arabia claimed part of the territory involved, but ultimately nothing came from it.

Oman/Saudi Arabia

The two countries first agreed on a border in 1990.  This past December, Oman and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to construct a massive border control complex on the Omani side of the border.  This came after the announcement of the first overland vehicle route between the two countries. 

Saudi Arabia/Yemen

The last indeterminate boundary in Arabia was that between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Negotiations began in 1992 similar to Yemen’s talks with Oman (delayed due to Yemen’s siding with Iraq in the Gulf War), but in this case there was a far longer border to demarcate.  The only part of the border that had been determined previously was the 1934 Taif line that ran from the Red Sea a short distance into the Asir Mountain highlands.  Due to the 1994 Yemeni civil war, this agreement took some years to reach, and serious negotiations only began in 1996.  Like the 1974 agreement with Abu Dhabi, the ultimate 2000 agreement with Yemen was also called the Treaty of Jeddah.  This treaty employed tribal allegiances of villages in order to determine the western part of the border in the more mountainous regions; from there, the border follows a series of geometric lines to the border with Oman.

The net result of all of the above negotiations is a map that currently looks like this:

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While this looks finite, the ultimate final delineation depends on the UAE government ratifying the Saudi Arabia-Abu Dhabi border agreement at some point, and Qatar, whose southeast border is affected by this agreement, also acceding to it.

Further Reading

Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (2011).  Background Note: United Arab Emirates.  U.S. Department of State, 29 December 2012.  Available at  Accessed 27 January 2012.

Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (2012).  Background Note: Oman.  U.S. Department of State, 5 January 2012.  Available at  Accessed 26 January 2012.

Curzon (2010).  The Bizarre Emirati Borders.  Coming Anarchy, 16 January 2010.  Available at  Accessed 30 January 2012.

International Estimate (2000).  The Yemeni-Saudi Border Treaty.  The Estimate12(13).  Available at  Accessed 30 January 2012.

Muscat Daily (2011).  Pact for Rub al Khali border complex signed.  7 December 2011.   Available at  Accessed 27 January 2012.

People’s Daily (2001).  Qatar, Saudi Arabia Sign Border Agreement.  22 March 2001.  Available at  Accessed 30 January 2012.

Saudi Arabia (1993).  No. 30250: Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates Agreement on the delimitation of boundaries (with exchange of letters and map). Signed at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 21 August 1974.  United Nations Treaty Series 1993 29-35.  Available at  Accessed 27 January 2012.

Schofield, R. (1999).  Negotiating the Saudi-Yemeni international boundary.  The British-Yemeni Society, 31 March 1999.  Available at  Accessed 27 January 2012.

Whitaker, B. (2000).  The Treaty of Jeddah, 2000.  al-bab, 12 June 2000.  Available at  Accessed 27 January 2012.

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