By Vivian Salama and Mourad Haroutunian -
Yemen’s embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh has lost the backing of his closest allies in the Arab world who urged him to pass power to his vice president to ensure the country’s “unity, safety and stability.”
The Gulf Cooperation Council called for the transition of power to Vice President Abduraboo Mansur Hadi and the creation of an opposition-led national unity government, Abdel Latif al Zayyani, secretary general of the GCC, told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh late yesterday. The group renewed its invitation to Saleh's government and Yemen’s opposition to hold GCC-brokered talks in Riyadh.
“It has seemed more and more likely over the past week that Saleh would have to pass on power, whether in the two months that the opposition has called for or by the end of the year as the ruling party has said,” Abdul Ghani Aryani, an independent political analyst, said in a telephone interview from Sana’a. “With the GCC formally backing the transition, it will probably be at some point in between.”
In Yemen, the poorest Arab country, anti-government protests mirroring those across the Middle East and North Africa are entering their third month. Saleh’s army, government and much of his tribal base have abandoned him as violent clashes between security forces and protesters calling for his removal escalated. At least 662 Yemenis, including 24 children, have been killed since Feb. 18, the United Nations Children’s Fund said yesterday.
Saleh, 68, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, became leader of North Yemen in 1978 and has ruled the Republic of Yemen since the north and south merged in 1990. Yemen is the ancestral home of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It was the site of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors, and the breeding ground for plots including the attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound plane in December 2009. In November, al- Qaeda claimed responsibility for two parcel bombs sent from Yemen to U.S. synagogues. Al-Qaeda's Yemen-based wing also tried to assassinate the top Saudi anti-terrorism official, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, in 2009.
The GCC includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. Bahrain has been the scene of deadly crackdowns since the Muslim Shiite majority began protests against the Sunni monarchy on Feb. 14. Saudi-led GCC forces arrived in Bahrain on March 15 in support of the administration. Demonstrations have also taken place in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman, inspired by those that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt this year.
Yemen lies along the southern border of Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer. Oil has risen 23 percent so far this year as protests gather pace in the Middle East, and traded near a 30-month high of more than $112 a barrel today.
Yemen recalled its ambassador to Qatar yesterday following remarks by the Gulf country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jaber Al Thani that the GCC’s mediation effort aimed at reaching a deal that would involve Saleh’s departure. Yemen also revoked the license of Qatar-based Al Jazeera television yesterday because of a “sabotage scheme aimed at inciting strife,” state-run Saba news agency reported.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said March 27 that he saw the possible fall of Saleh as a “real problem.” Mark Toner, acting deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said on April 4 that while Saleh must respond to public demands, “it’s not for us to impose a solution.”
Yemen received a loan of about $200 million from the Arab Monetary Fund, a subsidiary of the 22-member Arab League, the fund said Dec. 27. The fund has provided 22 loans to Yemen valued at about $808 million so far.
Saudi Arabia, which is home to the GCC secretariat, funnels about $1 billion a year to Yemen in an attempt to keep the country “contained” and buy tribal support, according to Mustafa Alani, director of the security and terrorism program at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
Saudi Arabia’s “plan, as ever, is to maximize their own influence in Yemeni politics so as to protect Saudi interests,” said Will Picard, co-founder of the Yemen Peace Project.
Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace ranked Yemen 15th of 60 countries on their 2010 Failed States Index, saying only Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan are in worse shape among nations in Asia and the Middle East.