Saudi Arabia's Delicate Dance On The Fate Of Yemen
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Thousands of anti-government protesters in Yemen demonstrate against
President Ali Abdullah Saleh last month. Saudi Arabia wants Saleh to step
down, but also worries that his departure could lead to chaos.
October 14, 2011
Saudi Arabia, which places a premium on stability, appears to be sending
mixed messages these days on what it wants from its volatile southern
On one hand, the kingdom is demanding that Yemen's President Ali Abdullah
Saleh step aside after months of protests against his more than 30 years of
On the other hand, Saudi officials did not publicly object when Saleh
saudi-arabia> returned to Yemen last month from Saudi Arabia, where he
received three months of medical treatment following a failed assassination
Saudi officials and experts say King Abdullah had little choice but to let
Saleh return home. They note that he's the president of a sovereign country,
not a Saudi citizen whom the king has authority over.
Map of Yemen and Saudi Arabia
"Remember there is a big difference between having interest in what happens
in a country and dictating what happens in that country," says Usamah
al-Kurdi, a member of the king's advisory council. "No way will they prevent
a head of state from going back to his country. Otherwise it would have, in
my opinion, unbelievable repercussions."
Yet the kingdom is sticking to its demand that Saleh step down, says Jamal
Khashoggi, a television executive who is also close to the royal family.
He says the day after Saleh left, King Abdullah once more called on Yemen to
adopt a proposal drafted by the governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council,
or GCC. The proposal requires Saleh to step aside and for nationwide
elections to be held a short time later.
In exchange, the Yemeni president would receive immunity from prosecution.
"He did make promises that he will go back to Yemen to sign the GCC
agreement and to push for reconciliation. Obviously he did not," says
Saleh wriggled out of that promise by adding untenable conditions of his
Relying On Saleh For Stability?
Yet Saudi Arabia may be somewhat relieved that Saleh is hanging on, some
analysts say. They explain that the Saudis, like their U.S. counterparts,
have relied on the Yemeni leader to fight al-Qaida and keep at least some
semblance of order in his impoverished nation.
"With Saudi Arabia, they are walking a very thin line in asking Saleh to
move aside, knowing that the opposition itself is very fragmented," says
Fernando Carvajal, an expert on Yemen from the University of Exeter in
Britain. If Saleh goes, he says, Yemen "may turn into complete chaos."
Saudi King Abdullah (above) has called on Saleh to accept a power-transfer
deal. Yet he also could not prevent Saleh from returning to Yemen after
medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, officials said.
Carvajal and others say Saudi officials are struggling with what to do next.
They don't want the crisis in Yemen to spark a civil war. Nor are they
thrilled about Yemen joining a growing number of Arab nations replacing
dictatorships with democracy that might add to the pressure for political
reform in Saudi Arabia, Carvajal says.
"The priority for the kingdom at the moment is how do we stop this tsunami
from spreading through the [Arabian] Peninsula," he says.
Carvajal also notes that a generational schism has emerged within the royal
Saudi family over the kingdom's decades-old approach to Yemen that helped
foster its dependence on a richer and more powerful neighbor.
That approach included hefty development projects as well as millions of
dollars in patronage payments to certain tribal leaders to gain their
loyalty and to help protect the long and porous border the kingdom and Yemen
Prospect Of A Free Yemen
Saudi analyst Khashoggi argues that those payments didn't prevent al-Qaida
from attacking Saudi Arabia. Nor can Saudi Arabia fix the situation by force
as it did with nearby Bahrain, where it sent in troops, he says.
In Yemen, "you need a NATO army to go and stabilize the situation if you
want to stabilize the situation. We might end up with another Somalia, God
forbid," Khashoggi says.
However, if things go well, Saudi Arabia and Yemen could benefit from a new
approach, he adds.
"If we in Saudi Arabia continue to have a close relationship with Yemen,
[and] at the same time encourage a transparent government, a democratic
government, an accountable government in Yemen - that could improve the
economy in Yemen. [The] people of Yemen can stay in Yemen and prosper in
Yemen," he says.
Hani Wafa, a newspaper editor in Riyadh, says the ongoing violence and
foundering economy in Yemen are increasing the number of Yemenis illegally
crossing into Saudi Arabia.
"They're looking for maybe food even, [a] job, to beg. This is a problem for
us," he says.
And that problem, he adds, could grow much larger.
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Received on Fri Oct 14 2011 - 11:54:18 EDT