Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is facing down mass protests and defections with backing from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, who are betting it’s safer to let a key ally against al-Qaeda leave on his own terms.
Like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Saleh justified his violent crushing of anti-government protests by arguing his downfall would lead to anarchy and a greater threat from Islamic terrorists. The difference is Saleh, who called Yemen a “time bomb,” has support in Washington and Riyadh.
This year’s wave of Arab unrest has shown the U.S. is willing to dump longtime partners like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as well as more recent ones like Qaddafi. In Yemen, the poorest Arab state and already a base for al-Qaeda attacks, Saleh’s army, government and much of his tribal base have abandoned the president, yet the U.S. is reluctant to do so. The standoff adds to the risk of a Libya-style conflict as violence escalates.
“Two weeks ago, it was really looking like game over for Saleh, then all of a sudden he seemed to have gotten a second wind,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University. “The only two foreign voices that matter for Yemen are the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. They are scrambling now with the reality that Saleh’s days may be numbered.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week 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.”
Saleh’s treatment of the protest movement, now in its third month, has hardened. The shooting of 46 protesters by police and snipers in the capital, Sana’a, on March 18 sparked a wave of defections from the regime.
This week, at least a dozen protesters were killed in the town of Taiz when they battled with police, and in Sana’a there were reports that soldiers from a rebel-led division clashed with Saleh’s supporters.
Saudi Arabia, holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, this week invited Yemen’s government and opposition to Riyadh as part of an effort by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to resolve the crisis and preserve “stability and security” in Yemen. The official Saudi Press Agency said Saleh, 68, welcomed the mediation. He had earlier offered to stand down provided there was a transition plan, and then said he would make no more concessions to opposition “arm-twisting.”
The prime minister of GCC member Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jaber Al Thani, said the group is hoping to broker an accord that would involve Saleh stepping down, according to the state-run Qatar News Agency. The Joint Meeting Parties, Yemen’s main opposition coalition, welcomed its invitation to join the Riyadh talks and called Saleh’s departure “the key solution.”
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 October, Dubai police said they intercepted two parcel bombs en route from Yemen to U.S. synagogues.
When a blast at a weapons factory in the south last week left about 100 people dead, the government pointed to al-Qaeda and the opposition charged Saleh with fomenting chaos and then posing as the only bulwark against it.
“If there is a complete breakdown of order in Yemen, al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula could have more freedom of operation,” Gregory Gause, a professor at the University of Vermont, said in response to e-mailed questions.
The U.S. gives Yemen $300 million a year mainly in military aid. It has done less to tackle the social problems that help militants flourish, said Will Picard, co-founder of the Yemen Peace Project, which is based in California and Sana’a and aims to promote dialogue between the countries.
The government in Washington “looks at Yemen through one lens, the lens of counter-terrorism,” Picard said. “It’s always going to be harder to impress Congress with water catchment systems and pre-natal health clinics than with predator drones and covert strike teams.”
Saudi Arabia 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.
Al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing tried to assassinate the top Saudi anti-terrorism official, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, in 2009. The same year, Shiite Houthi insurgents in northern Yemen seized a sliver of Saudi territory and killed a Saudi soldier, prompting retaliation with air attacks.
King Abdullah sent troops into Bahrain, another neighbor, last month to help quash Shiite-led protests. The risk of military intervention in Yemen, though, is that “it is very easy to get in but would be very difficult to get out,” Alani said. “It’s like Afghanistan with the geography, a tribal system and a heavily armed society.”
Yemen is the second most-heavily armed in the world, after the U.S. on a per-capita basis, with 54.8 guns per 100 people, according to the Small Arms Survey 2007 by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies. Tunisia, where protesters ousted their president in January and triggered the season of uprisings, placed last in the study.
‘Factions in Uniform’
The challenges also stretch beyond security. The country faces water shortages, declining oil output and a society where more than half the 23 million people are under 20 years old. About 40 percent of Yemen’s population, forecast to almost double by 2030, lives on less than $2 a day.
Yemen also lacks a unified military that could oversee a transition. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the First Armored Division, has joined the opposition and his troops clashed with government supporters in Sana’a this week.
“We don’t have a military, we have tribal factions in uniform,” Abdul Ghani Aryani, an independent political analyst, said from Sana’a. “They cannot be a safeguard for social order and stability. They are only a source of threat.”