Middle East Institute blog
Saudi Arabia, in a blow to embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has rejected a request by its erstwhile ally to mediate a resolution of the Yemeni crisis and signaled that it is looking for a peaceful transition of power in the country.
Saudi favoring of Saleh’s departure is fuelled by concern that Yemen could become another Libya with US-trained military units commanded by Saleh’s son and nephew battling the regular armed forces led by popular General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar as well as protesters demanding the president’s resignation. It contrasts starkly with the kingdom’s intervention in Bahrain on behalf of the island’s minority Sunni Muslim rulers. Saudi rulers fear the spillover effect of escalating tension in Yemen on already restive Ismailis in their southwestern Jizan and Najran provinces and hope to limit the spread of the wave of protests further into the Gulf by easing the country’s power transition.
The Saudi decision spotlights the kingdom’s role in Yemen where it is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution. Saudi Arabia demonstrated its degree of penetration into Yemeni society in November when it tipped off Western intelligence about a plot by Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to place parcel bombs on US-bound cargo flights on the basis of information it obtained from informants in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also has close ties to Yemen’s senior military brass, including Al-Ahmar.
Going forward, stabilization of a post-Saleh Yemen will in part depend on Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners in actively bridging the country’s multiple fault lines and boosting economic development. For Saudi Arabia this will have to entail breaking with past policies of playing both ends against the middle. Saudi Arabia filled voids in Yemen with significant cash dispensations that bought the loyalty of segments of the population. In doing so, Saudi Arabia effectively contributed to a weakening of Saleh’s writ and the emergence of alternative power structures. Saudi sponsoring of proselytizing by Salafis and Wahabis contributed to an environment of intolerance and religious dogmatism and was a driver of the recent Shiite Houthi rebellion in the north.
To support a post-Saleh Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners will have to offer their poor stepbrother some prospect of membership or close association with the group albeit on tough conditions, a perspective the GCC has so far refused to entertain. In fact, Yemen’s economic woes have been exacerbated by repeated expulsions over the past two decades of Yemeni workers from the Kingdom and other Gulf states heavily dependent on foreign labor. GCC states will have to put in place labor agreements that regulate the migration of labor and put a halt to the illegal movement across the Saudi border of Yemenis desperate for economic opportunity.
A political marriage between the Gulf states and Yemen is nonetheless likely to prove difficult for the conservative GCC members. In many ways, Yemen and the GCC states have little in common beyond geography and their Arab identity. Yemen is, at least in name, a republican democracy that ousted its royals in the 1960s; GCC members are all authoritarian monarchies that have forgotten that they once wallowed in the same abject poverty Yemen suffers today. Gulf leaders, and particularly Kuwait, have moreover never really forgiven Saleh for his support of Iraq during the 1990 Gulf war in which US-led forces reversed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. To persuade the GCC to be more welcoming, Yemen’s post-Saleh government will have to improve the security situation, narrow the economic divide with the Gulf states, and significantly reduce the country’s addiction to qat, a plant stimulant classified by the World Health Organization as a drug that is consumed by a majority of Yemenis.
In lieu of granting Yemen full membership, the GCC is likely to look at ways of improving employment prospects in a country whose economic problems were multiplied in the early 1990s when Saudi Arabia expelled some one million Yemeni workers in retaliation for Yemen’s support of Saddam. The expulsion deprived Yemen of badly needed remittances that were often invested into small and medium-sized enterprises constituting the backbone of the Yemeni economy. GCC member states are discussing allowing Yemeni workers to return once the country puts its political turmoil behind it – a move that would be welcomed by segments of Gulf society concerned about the high number of foreign, non-Arab workers in their countries.
But twenty years have passed, and many of today’s Yemeni workers lack the skills Gulf states require. One way GCC states may compensate for this deficiency would be to grant Yemenis access to the same professional and technical training available to Gulf nationals. GCC states are also likely to fund job creation programs in Yemen. The Yemeni government recently estimated that Yemen needs to create four million new jobs in the next ten years.
A report by the London School of Economics published weeks before anti-government protests began sweeping the Middle East and North Africa suggested that stabilizing Yemen was a key GCC interest because the country’s problems constituted a warning of problems that could emerge elsewhere in the Gulf. “Yemen is the canary in the coal mine. It is an indication of what can go wrong when a country fails to develop political legitimacy and build a sustainable, productive non-oil economy,” said Coates Ulrichsen, the author of the report. “The challenges to government authority in southern and northern Yemen demonstrate how existing socioeconomic discontent and regional marginalization can fracture and fragment social cohesion. Similar fissures and unequal patterns of access to resources exist in the GCC states and could become transmitters of conflict in the future.”
That is a conclusion the GCC states may have also come to in regards to Yemen, but it is not one they appear to have drawn for their own countries. Saudi policy towards Yemen is primarily motivated by a desire to contain problems rather than a realization that domestic policies are at the root of the protests in Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world and addressing home grown sources of discontent is the only recipe for ensuring long-term stability.