Analysis: Saleh puts ball in GCC and US courts with embassy siege in Yemen capital
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is playing for high stakes.
The embattled Yemeni president upped the ante Sunday by allowing armed gunmen to surround the embassy of the United Arab Emirates in the capital Sana’a where the ambassadors of the United States, Britain, the European Union, the six GCC nations – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman – and GCC secretary general Abdullatif al-Zayani had gathered in expectation that Mr. Saleh would finally sign a GCC-mediated agreement that would have eased him out of office.
Mr. Saleh earlier delayed signing the agreement that had already been inked by opposition leaders on Saturday, saying he would only sign it at a public ceremony in the presidential palace. That too may have only been a diversionary tactic. Thousands of Mr. Saleh’s supporters blocked roads leading to a building where Mr. Saleh was meeting with senior officials of his ruling party in a bid to prevent him from leaving his compound to sign the agreement.
Mr. Saleh’s bold sabotage of the deal throws down a gauntlet for Saudi Arabia and the United States. The siege of the UAE embassy, even if Mr. Saleh tries to distance himself from his loyalists, is virtually certain to kill the GCC proposal. It is hard to see how there can be any confidence that Mr. Saleh would stick to the agreement’s terms even if he were as yet to sign it.
If Mr. Saleh hopes that the siege will allow him to negotiate better terms, it is equally hard to see how the GCC and its Western backers in the wake of the siege can agree to anything less than his immediate departure.
Under the current proposal, Mr. Saleh would have remained in power for 30 days after which he would have handed over power to his vice president.
Similarly, the granting of immunity from prosecution to Mr. Saleh and his family as part of the agreement is likely to be even more unacceptable to Yemenis than it was prior to the embassy siege and a difficult pill to swallow for the GCC and its Western backers.
By apparently sabotaging a solution to Yemen’s three-month old crisis sparked by mass anti-government protests demanding the president’s departure after 33 years in office, Mr. Saleh has increased the risk of Yemen descending into chaos. He has also put the credibility of Saudi Arabia, the GCC and the United States on the line.
The collapse of the GCC-negotiated deal would constitute an embarrassment, particularly for Saudi Arabia, which in recent months has deployed its diplomatic and financial clout to blunt the anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in a bid to shield the kingdom and the Gulf from turmoil. Increased turmoil and chaos in Yemen or a Yemen ruled by an unpredictable, embattled leader on Saudi Arabia’s border threatens that core goal of Saudi policy.
US President Barack Obama’s credibility is on the line given that he hesitated for months before expressing support for Mr. Saleh’s departure as part of the GGC-sponsored agreement.
Mr. Obama cushioned his demand that Mr. Saleh complies with the terms of the GCC proposal by referring to the president as a friend of the United States. Many Yemenis read Mr. Obama’s statement as saying that in line with their perception of Saudi intentions, Mr. Obama wants to see Mr. Saleh go but not a change of regime that could result in weakened Yemeni resolve to fight Islamist militants. That reading will be reinforced if Mr. Obama fails to respond forcefully to the embassy siege.
For now, Saudi Arabia and Mr. Obama face the problem of how to respond to Mr. Saleh’s apparent refusal to voluntarily leave office. While it is not immediately clear what options the kingdom and the United States have at their disposal, forcing Mr. Saleh out of office will not be sufficient to persuade a majority of Yemenis that Mr. Obama backs real political and economic change in Yemen.
But in the wake of his broad-ranging policy speech last week, in which he called for political and economic change across the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Obama will have to show to Yemenis that the United States is not just interested in the fight against Al Qaeda but also in supporting their political and economic aspirations. He will also have to demonstrate that he will not allow a recalcitrant, unpopular leader challenge his authority and violate international diplomatic codes.
To do so, Mr. Obama will have to help Yemen build truly democratic institutions once Mr. Saleh is gone. That could put Mr. Obama at odds with Saudi Arabia if the kingdom indeed is reluctant to see a Western-style democracy flourish in the country.
(James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])