Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Saudis prepare to abandon troublesome Yemen

By Abeer Allam in Riyadh and Roula Khalaf in London

March 22 2011

Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has turned to neighbour Saudi Arabia to mediate an end to a crisis that he himself has warned could turn into a “civil war” now that pivotal members of the military have defected.

But, if the strongman who has ruled over Yemen for 32 years is hoping for Saudi backing, analysts say he is likely to be disappointed.

Saudi Arabia would like to see a quick and smooth transition of power in Yemen, where Mr Saleh has been clinging to power in spite of weeks of protests and the dramatic narrowing of his support base, say analysts close to the government in Riyadh. And the kingdom is now concerned that the situation could devolve into a Libyan scenario in which Mr Saleh uses his presidential guards against the people and the army, transforming a revolt against the regime into a civil war.

“For Saudi Arabia, the end results for any mediation will be to guarantee stability and a smooth transition of power,’’ says Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi analyst. “The kingdom will not fight for Saleh. ... We have very bad experiences with him. The man’s survival makes no difference.”

While Riyadh and its Gulf neighbours have intervened on the side of Bahrain’s ruling family, which has launched a crackdown against a Shia uprising, the attitude towards Yemen is shifting to the support of the revolt against Mr Saleh.

The Saudi-backed al-Arabiya channel, which had played down the Bahrain revolt, on Tuesday used the headline “Change in Yemen,’’ instead of “Turmoil in Yemen,’’ to describe the protests.

“The situation has escalated and there is a consensus among Yemeni protesters and army, even his own tribe, to oust Saleh,’’ said Abdullah al-Askar, deputy chairman in the foreign affairs committee of the Shura Council, the con­sultative body in Saudi Arabia.

“In light of that, Saudi Arabia would not interfere to impose Saleh on his people. If it was requested to mediate, then it would be to facilitate a peaceful exit to save his face.’’

Saudi Arabia is one of the outside powers with the greatest influence in Yemen, a country that has troubled Riyadh policymakers, not least because it has been a haven for extremists driven out by the Saudi campaign against al-Qaeda.

Saudi security officials complain of an influx of al-Qaeda militants, explosives, illegal immigrants and drugs through the 1,800km long border with Yemen and consider the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a main threat to the kingdom.

Despite repeated tensions with Mr Saleh, including his 1990 support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait, Riyadh has poured billions of dollars into impoverished Yemen and joined in Mr Saleh’s military campaign against the Houthi rebels in the north of Yemen in late 2009.

But the kingdom has also been increasingly frustrated by Mr Saleh.

Prince Mohammed bin Naif, Saudi Arabia’s deputy interior minister, told US diplomats in 2009 that Yemen had become a “dangerous failed state” and that cash assistance to the government tended to end up in Swiss bank accounts, according to leaked diplomatic cables.

Western analysts say Riyadh has also maintained close ties with Yemeni tribes, some of whom are also on Saudi payroll, as well as with army chiefs.

Yemen’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mohammed al-Ahwal, sided with the protesters on Monday, demanding the ousting of Mr Saleh.

The Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al Awsat reported that Abu Bakr al-Qarbi, Yemeni foreign minister, arrived in Riyadh on Monday with a message from Mr Saleh.

Osama Nogali, Saudi foreign ministry spokesman, stressed on Tuesday that it was the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council that was mediating in the Yemen ­crisis.

“The kingdom is keen on consultations between all parties within the GCC frame and will not act unilaterally. Yemen is the GCC’s immediate neighbour and stability in Yemen is very important to the stability of the Arabian Peninsula.’’

Analysts said Prince Naif had stepped in to tackle the Yemen file, which has been traditionally handled by the ailing Crown Prince Sultan.

Source: Financial Time

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