Monday, April 11, 2011

Comment: Gulf calls time on Yemen ruler

By Roula Khalaf

April 11 2011

After declaring the regime of Muammer Gaddafi illegitimate and paving the way for a tough Arab League position against Tripoli, the Gulf Co-operation Council is taking on another Arab leader: Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Treading more gently than it did when it bluntly called for change in Libya, the GCC has stepped into the Yemen fray with a plan for a smooth transition and a more respectable way out for Mr Saleh.

A statement on Sunday by GCC foreign ministers was appropriately ambiguous, in that it called for an end to the Saleh era without an explicit demand that the ruler of 32 years step down. Instead, the president of the Arab world’s most impoverished nation and one of the most volatile of states was told to hand power to his vice-president while the opposition leads a new government that would prepare a constitution and elections.

As they have watched their region be swept by unprecedented turmoil, with some regimes toppling and others on the brink, the Gulf states have been trying to create a shield around themselves. They have backed each other – politically, financially and even militarily – when one of their own has been hit by popular protests, such as in Bahrain and Oman. And they have sought to protect themselves from the ripple effects of revolts beyond their borders.

Siding firmly against Colonel Gaddafi was a relatively easy task. The mercurial Libyan leader has few friends in the region and his downfall would be cheered as loudly by the ruling establishments as by the masses.

Giving up on Mr Saleh in a country much closer to home, however, is trickier. But it is a necessary sacrifice to put a lid on an uprising that could not only inspire other Gulf societies but also provoke a security headache for regional governments.

Not surprisingly, both sides in the Yemen standoff were sounding a confused note on Monday. Some in the opposition welcomed the GCC plan, while a spokesman for opposition parties rejected it; state media fumed against it while Mr Saleh sent a more conciliatory message. As Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, says: “Many people are both rejecting and accepting the plan.”

True, Mr Saleh, a long-time master at manipulating political and social forces to maintain his power, is now a lonely man, spurned by a large section of the population, deserted by leading military and tribal allies, and most recently abandoned by regional and international powers.

The loss of support from Saudi Arabia, a heavyweight in the GCC, a powerbroker in Yemen and a leading financial backer of his government, was a particularly painful blow and it was quickly followed by a shift in the US position. Long reluctant to turn against a president that it had bet on in the fight against al-Qaeda – the Yemeni branch of the terrorist network is seen by the US as its most active – Washington has now backed the GCC initiative.

Yet no one doubts that Mr Saleh will try to prolong his stay. He still exerts significant military authority through his control of powerful security forces. It is a card he has been using to ensure an eventual exit on his own terms.

The risk of increased violence and lawlessness in a country where government authority has always been weak is what troubled outsiders most and has driven the regional push for a smooth and early transition. But with both sides in the Yemeni standoff still needing more convincing to sign up to the neighbours’ initiative, the country could be in for even more turbulent days ahead.

“One thing is clear: the longer this goes on, the worse it will be for Yemen, for the international community and for the security threat out of the country,” says Mr Johnsen.

Source: The Financial Times

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