While trying to figure out why our troops are in Saudi Arabia recently, 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 current conflict? –D. Davis, Chicago

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. I notice the CNN weather-droids mention it with the same matter-of-fact tone they use to refer to Cleveland, as though you actually have some clue what they’re talking about. Unless you’re the kind of person who knows that before 1932 Saudi Arabia was called “the Kingdom of the Hijaz and of the Nejd and its Dependencies” (I knew, of course), ’tain’t likely.

The neutral zones date back to 1922. The father of modern Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman ibn Faysal ibn Turki Abd Allah ibn Muhammed al-Saud, 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 obviously pretty fluid.

The British weren’t about to put up with that kind of bush-league attitude and insisted on fixed boundaries or else, their main concern being simplicity of administration. This led to considerable wrangling with the 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 freaking borders, the British finally convinced the relevant parties that 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 (the name of the agreement the Brits and the Arabs came up with), 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. By and by the Kuwaitis and Saudis decided to hell with the nomads, let’s divide this sucker up. To date this has not occurred with the Saudi-Iraq zone. As I look at the map, however, I notice that it’s square on the route of any likely flanking attack on Iraq by allied ground forces. One wonders whether the zone’s neutral status will survive the present war.


This is how we sixth-grade wisenheimers in Dallas public school got around the “antisquirt groove” in Halsey Taylor water fountains [December 21]. We just stretched the skin between thumb and forefinger flat and slipped it in the groove. Squirt-a-rama! –Jim Thompson, Dallas

The history of warfare is the eternal struggle between offensive and defensive capabilities. I’m sure strategists at Halsey Taylor will read your comments with interest.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.