The Saudis Take Charge in Yemen

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With the Obama administration’s feeble attempts having failed, the task of brokering a peaceful end to Yemen’s civil war has fallen to Saudi Arabia. Wires are reporting that Riyadh has got the warring sides—President Ali Abdallah Saleh and the Ahmar clan—to agree a truce after days of bloodshed.

Reuters is reporting that Saleh will travel to the Saudi capital receive treatment for neck and chest wounds. The president was hurt on Friday, when an attack on his palace in Sana’a killed seven people, all of them said to be his bodyguards. The Ahmar clan, which leads the powerful Hashed tribal confederation, is also expected to send a representative to Riyadh to hold talks with Saudi mediators. The most likely candidate is Sadiq al-Ahmar, the clan’s political face.

While most Yemenis will welcome the cessation in fighting that has rocked their country, there will be questions about where any Saudi-brokered deal leaves the youth movement that began peaceful anti-government protests two months ago. Although the Ahmars have said they support the young protesters and their demands for greater freedoms and the end to Saleh’s three-decade rule, the violence has sidelined their cause somewhat.

Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s mighty neighbor and primary trading partner, has looked on in alarm as the little nation at the heel of the Arabian Peninsula has spiraled out of control. The US, which has long regarded Saleh as a key ally in the war against Islamic terrorism (the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda, known as AQAP, is highly active and has tried several times to mount attacks in the US) has done little more than urge him to respond to the youth movement’s demands.

Riyadh is concerned about AQAP, too: the group has tried to assassinate members of the Saudi royal family. But it also worries about a rebellion in northern Yemen, along the Saudi border, by a Shi’ite group known as the Houthis. The Saudis, who regard Shi’ism as a heresy, worry that the Houthi uprising may spread into their territory.

So when they meet the Saudi arbitrators, Saleh and Ahmars will each want to show that they will best serve Riyad’s interests by bringing the Houthis to heel and keeping AQAP at bay.

Saleh will point out that he commands the loyalty of much of the armed forces, including crack troops led by his son and nephews. But the Saudis hold a low opinion of ther president: WikiLeaks revealed last fall that the Saudi interior minister told US diplomats Saleh had little control over his country.

The Ahmars, however, are a relatively unknown quantity. Although Sadiq al-Ahmar is an experienced politician, he hasn’t held any major public office. But his position as the Hashed chief gives him clout and credibility, and many of the leaders of the youth movement regard him as an alternative to Saleh.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear who will run Yemen in Saleh’s absence: his prime minister and two deputy prime ministers were also hurt in the bombing of the palace, and are already in Riyadh receiving treatment.

For the US, the latest development are a mixed blessing: the Obama administration will likely be relieved that the Saudis have taken ownership of the Yemen problem, something the White House was reluctant to do. But Saudi interests don’t dovetail neatly with the US’s. Riyadh is more concerned with the Houthis than AQAP, whereas Washington regards the terrorist threat more important than the Shi’ite rebellion.