News Analysis / James M. Dorsey: Saudi Arabia’s Yemen dilemma
Yemenis and Arabs celebrated President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure over the weekend as a badly needed albeit tenuous victory in the six-month-old Arab revolts against authoritarian rule.
Mr. Saleh is the first embattled leader to leave his country since the revolt moved into its second phase as he and the beleaguered heads of government in Syria and Libya employed brutal force to cling to power at whatever price.
In contrast to Egyptian and Tunisian presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine Abedine Ben Ali who were forced out of office by mass anti-government protests, Mr. Saleh travelled to Saudi Arabia lasts weekend for treatment of wounds he suffered in an attack on his presidential compound.
Mr. Saleh has yet to indicate whether he intends to return to Yemen as president or whether the attack has convinced him that it is time after 33 years to hand over the reins of power. Some Saudi officials suggest that the president, who has several times backed out of a deal negotiated by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that would eased him out of office, has every intention of returning to Yemen.
Mr. Saleh’s return would constitute a setback for protesters who have been demanding his resignation for the last three months and armed tribesmen who fought his security forces in what amounted to a struggle for power.
Saudi Arabia, which has bankrolled Mr. Saleh as well as the tribesmen for years, is likely to play a key role in determining whether the president returns in a move that could push Yemen into chaos and anarchy or retires in the kingdom. Mr. Saleh’s retirement would pave the way for his vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to prepare for elections within 60 days in accordance with the Yemeni constitution.
Mr. Saleh’s presence in the kingdom poses a dilemma for the Saudis. On the one hand, the Saudis signaled their desire to see him resign by negotiating a deal that would have seen him leave office within 30 days. On the other hand, if Mr. Saleh opts to relinquish power and remain in the kingdom, his resignation would boost protesters’ determination not only in Yemen but also elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. He would become the third autocratic leader in less than six months to have been forced out of office by mass anti-government demonstrations.
Elections would help Yemen fill the power vacuum created by Mr. Saleh’s departure and satisfy Saudi Arabia’s twin goals of ensuring that turmoil in Yemen does not spill across its 1,500-kilometer-long border with Yemen and thwarting protesters hopes of initiating real political and economic change to replace repressive rule, nepotism and corruption. With the opposition to Mr. Saleh divided and largely unprepared for early elections, the polls are unlikely to fulfill the protesters aspirations.
Determined to ensure that their demands are met, tens of thousands of people remain on the streets of the Yemeni capital Sana’a and other cities despite Mr. Saleh’s departure. Their expectations have been raised by their leaders projecting the president’s presence outside of the country as a stepping-stone for his resignation.
Recent fighting in the capital between military units loyal to Mr. Saleh and the tribesmen has however in many ways transformed the battle in Yemen from peaceful protests for change into an armed struggle for power.
That has put the protesters at a disadvantage as various forces -- including powerful relatives of Mr. Saleh who remain in control of key military units as well as the security service, the tribesmen, a powerful dissident military commander, the vice president, and the country’s official opposition, which angered the protesters by accepting the deal proposed by the GCC -- vie for power in Mr. Saleh’s absence.
Concern about the outcome of the power struggle and Yemen’s immediate future extends far beyond the Gulf. The US and Europe alongside Saudi Arabia fear that a Yemen that descends into chaos and anarchy could threaten oil supplies. Home to an Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen straddles the narrow Strait of Bab al-Mandab, which links the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea through which some 3.2 million barrels per day of oil pass a day. On the opposite shores of the strait is Somalia where another Al Qaeda affiliate controls large swaths of territory.
Nonetheless, Mr. Saleh’s departure presents Saudi Arabia with no good choices. The president’s return would raise tensions, increase the risk of Yemen’s descent into chaos and anarchy, and strengthen opposition resolve to force him out of office.
Similarly, a transition to a post-Saleh era could prove messy and meet resistance from military units commanded by the president’s relatives. Yemeni government sources said Monday that the Republican Guard commanded by Mr. Saleh’s son, Ahmed Saleh, had taken control of the city of Taiz, the scene of a brutal crackdown on protesters in recent days.
Bringing Yemen back from the brink will require a great deal of diplomatic skill and finesse. It could also mean that that the kingdom will have to break with a pillar of Saudi foreign policy established by its founder King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saudi who famously advised his sons on his deathbed to keep Yemen weak.
(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])