On the brink

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As I write this, gun battles are raging in Sanaa between military units loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and other units that have joined the opposition. Yemen now teeters on the verge of civil war.

During the last nine months, a significant populist movement has formed and has demonstrated peacefully in Sanaa and elsewhere with the aim of ending Saleh’s 33-year rule over Yemen and bringing about genuine political and economic reforms. This movement has been joined by some of Saleh’s former close allies, including General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and the sheikhs of the Hashid tribal confederation, Sadiq and Hamid al-Ahmar (no relation). The commitment of the latter to genuine reform remains an open question, given their long complicity with Saleh’s corrupt rule, but the demonstrators need their armed protection from the regime’s thugs who kill with impunity.

To further complicate matters, a southern opposition movement has coalesced with secessionist tendencies and a northern group, called the Huthis, who are also bitterly opposed to Saleh, has been revitalized and is now in control of much of the far north of the country. Al-Qaeda also has a small presence in various towns of the east and south, and it too wishes to seize control of parts of the country. In short, the central government, always a rather weak presence, has virtually ceased to exist and Yemen is riven by a diversity of political actors all of whom have ready access to weapons of all calibers.

In the recent fighting, at least 70 civilians were killed by the Republican Guard troops and internal security forces that remain under the command of Saleh’s sons and nephew. These are units that were trained by the United States as part of the global war on terror but are now clearly being used for the sole purpose of keeping Saleh and his family in power.

For his part, Saleh is convalescing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he has been since June because of a bomb attack on his palace in which he was badly injured. Thus far, Saleh refuses to resign his office or delegate any power to his hapless vice-president, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi. This is because Saleh, like so many other heads of state in the Arab world, is an authoritarian dictator who desperately clings to power despite a generous offer made to him and his family by the Gulf Cooperation Council of a life of luxury with immunity from judicial prosecution. Saleh’s record of deliberately keeping his country weak, underdeveloped, divided and without institutions is indicative of the type of leader he represents. And the persistent insistence of the opposition on his immediate resignation is because Saleh has no credibility given his past record of mendacity and subterfuge. He is seen as trying to temporize with the aim of outwitting or exhausting his opponents, and he appears willing to drag the country into a civil war so as to stay on in power.

In itself, the situation in Yemen is a tragedy. But what gives it urgency is that if civil war were to break out (i.e., a Somalia-like situation), the negative effects on Saudi Arabia, the Horn of Africa and beyond are certain to be of global and geostrategic significance. At 24 million people, Yemen is the most populous nation in Arabia and perhaps one of the most heavily armed in the world and it is quickly running out of underground water and oil reserves. In other words, the effects of a civil war cannot be contained within its borders, and the fact that al-Qaeda is regrouping there is indicative of this.

The only country that has the resources and influence to halt Yemen’s slide into chaos is Saudi Arabia. Yet it appears unable or unwilling thus far to do much about the situation. Why is this?

First, there are no easy or ready solutions for Yemen’s problems, and even the Saudis with their deep pockets and long and intimate connections throughout Yemen are at pains to find an alternative to Saleh. The obvious candidates, the Ahmar tribal sheikhs or General Ali Muhsin, represent a continuation of the Saleh system of rule and not a break with the past. Hence these alternative candidates, even though now in opposition, are unlikely to prove acceptable to many of the forces arrayed on the ground such as the southerners, the Huthis or the youthful demonstrators. Second, no single person or institution within the Saudi government is in charge of policy towards Yemen. This is because Crown Prince Sultan, who historically was in charge of this file, is very ill and no one has fully taken over his role.

The Saudi leadership appears divided over what to do in Yemen, with the interior ministry, under the control of Prince Nayef and his son Muhammad, focusing exclusively on the threat from al-Qaeda, and King Abdullah looking at Saleh’s prospects vis-a-vis those of the Ahmars. No one appears to be looking at the full picture by, for example, taking stock of the various possible scenarios that may unfold. One of these is the breakup of Yemen, and not necessarily into the neat division of north and south as was the case before unification in 1990.

Saudi Arabia will eventually adopt a coherent policy; there are inklings that this is beginning to take shape. One such indication is a revision of Saudi Arabia’s views regarding the Huthis, with whom the kingdom fought a war in December 2009-January 2010. The Huthis have impressed the Saudis by controlling the Yemeni side of the border and stopping all contraband and illegal infiltration into Saudi Arabia. Time is short, however, and it is crucial that Saudi Arabia arrive at a policy that brings some stability to Yemen before it is too late–which unfortunately might already be the case.

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