Saudi Arabia meets challenges of regional protests. Analysis: James M. Dorsey


Saudi Arabia is facing multiple challenges to its bid to restore stability in the Middle East and North Africa by seeking to maintain the status quo.

Anti-government protests in Morocco persuaded King Mohammed VI to announce far-reaching constitutional changes that could be a first step towards a constitutional monarchy. The move challenges Saudi efforts to shield Arab monarchies, most of which are in the Gulf, from protests sweeping the region that have already toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

Saudi leadership is also being put to the test much closer to home in neighboring Yemen. The Saudi dilemma is illustrated by a power vacuum in the country racked by four months of protests demanding the resignation of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a tense ceasefire between pro-Saleh security forces commanded by the president’s relatives and powerful tribesmen and the Islamist takeover of towns in southern Yemen.

Mr. Saleh has been in hospital in the kingdom for the past two weeks for treatment of severe wounds he suffered in a devastating attack on his presidential compound in the capital Sana’a. Aides to the president insist that he will soon return to Yemen to resume his duties. Saudi officials have made contradictory statements on whether he indeed will return. Yemen’s vice president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, despite meeting opposition leaders in US-brokered talks, insists that Mr. Saleh remains president and that no resolution to the country’s crisis can be resolved without him.

Saudi officials recognize that Mr. Saleh’s return would exacerbate the crisis and could send Yemen spiraling into chaos and anarchy. Replacing Mr. Saleh is however easier said than done. A host of Yemeni figures, many of whom have long enjoyed Saudi financial largesse, are lobbying the kingdom to support them as potential successors.

They include members of Mr. Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), dissident military commander General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and tribal leaders like Sadeq al-Ahmar, the head of Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation.

The candidates would serve Saudi Arabia’s goal of preserving the status quo in Yemen to the degree possible. The problem is they would unlikely be able to restore stability.

Protesters, who have been on the streets of Sana’a and other Yemeni cities for months, see many of the contenders as cohorts of Mr. Saleh who would seek to preserve his corrupt system of government and stall efforts to make Yemen a true democracy. The protesters insist that the power vacuum should be filled by a handover of power to a transitional presidential council approved by the people that would hold a referendum on constitutional change and lead the country to free and fair elections.

“We ask our neighbors in Saudi Arabia to stop hindering the rule of law and healthy economic development through the purchase of politicians and tribal leaders. We also call on the Saudi government to stop pursuing policies that undermine the people’s desire for democratic change. Saudi initiatives that aim to remove the president while keeping the old regime and its security apparatus intact risk unleashing a civil war, which would no doubt have dire consequences for Saudi Arabia as well as for Yemen,” said Tawakkol Karman, a leader of Yemen’s democratic youth movement, writing in The New York Times.

Ms. Karman made a similar appeal to the United States.

A possible solution to the Saudi dilemma in Yemen may be snap elections that would favor entrenched political forces that unlike the protesters and emerging political forces have organizational and logistical structures in place.

A push for snap elections would however ignite a debate similar to that in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia on whether development of a democracy is best served by early elections or the organization of polls only after constitutional reform that would give new forces often created around a Facebook page with no physical infrastructure a chance to organize.

In a possible sign that snap elections may be where Saudi thinking is going and an effort to pressure the Saudis, some 100 influential Yemeni religious clerics, dissident military officers and tribal leaders called for the Mr. Saleh’s ouster because he is unfit to return to his post and elections within 60 days.

The petitioners include Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, the spiritual leader of the country’s fundamentalist Islamic opposition party, Islah, and Yemen’s most influential cleric who is on the US terrorist list for his alleged support of Al Qaeda. Also among the signatories are top military commanders, powerful tribal chiefs and members of Mr. Saleh’s GPC.

Yemen and Morocco constitute a test of Saudi Arabia’s ability to steer developments even if the situations in both countries are radically different.

If Morocco is an attempt to embark on limited reform from the top down in a bid to satisfy protesters’ demands, Yemen is a case where the push for change is from the bottom up. Protesters constitute in both cases a joker powerful enough to act as spoilers. They create minefields the kingdom is finding difficult to navigate.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, 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])