A possible US shift calling for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to be eased out may signal that his days in office are numbered, but it is Yemen’s neighbour Saudi Arabia that is likely to decide his fate.
Saudi Arabia, a conservative Muslim absolute monarchy, does not want to see people power bring political change on its borders. It has long been Saleh’s main financial backer, and Saleh may not stand down until Riyadh calls him out.
“I don’t think the United States is a player, they have much less influence … the only country Saleh cares about is Saudi Arabia,” said analyst Barak Barfi of the New America Foundation.
“If the US cuts off military aid, it hurts them as much as Saleh and he knows it … The Yemenis need pressure from Riyadh.”
The United States has long seen Saleh as a pivotal ally in its fight against al-Qaeda; he has allowed strikes on suspected bases in Yemen and has pledged to fight militancy in return for billions of dollars in military aid.
But on Monday, the New York Times said Washington had “quietly shifted positions” and concluded Saleh was “unlikely to bring about the required reforms and must be eased out of office”.
Sources close to talks between Saleh and the opposition, some held in the presence of the US ambassador, told Reuters that Washington gave Saleh an ultimatum last week to agree to a transition deal or have the United States urge him to step down.
Asked on Monday if the United States believed Saleh must go, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner replied: “That’s not necessarily a decision for us to make”, and said Washington was talking to government and opposition in the hope of achieving a “peaceful solution”.
Yet Saleh stepped up rhetoric over the weekend, telling a crowd of supporters he would defend Yemen with “blood and soul”.
Saleh has also appeared unmoved by a string of defections by key tribal, military and political backers.
On Monday, his security forces stepped up violence in a crackdown on protesters who were calling for his resignation, killing at least 15 in the city of Taiz and wounding hundreds.
“After today, it’s over. We’re only counting down now,” said Yemeni political analyst Ali Seif Hassan.
“My fear is, if he doesn’t go soon, there won’t be a chance for a peaceful transition, which will mean a lot of bloodshed as southern separatists and Houthis [northern Shi’ite rebels] fight with Islamic fundamentalists to fill the vacuum.”
Even before the wave of pro-democracy protests against his 32-year rule, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi’ite insurgency in the north.
Frustration with Saleh’s intransigence may push Yemenis, many of them heavily armed and with experience of wars and insurgencies, closer to a violent power struggle that could give al-Qaeda’s regional wing more room to operate.
All of these factors spark concern for stability in a country that sits on a shipping lane through which more than three million barrels of oil pass each day.
“Saleh wants to go down with the ship. That means the situation will get more precarious, possibly with worse violence on both sides,” said Theodore Karasik, a security analyst of the Dubai-based Inegma group.
“The Americans don’t want Yemen to sink into a Libya situation — that would give al-Qaeda too much breathing space.”
Saudi pressure for change may now be on the way.
The Gulf Cooperation Council has resisted Sana’a’s effort to lure it into a mediating role, but on Monday GCC foreign ministers meeting in Riyadh invited the Yemeni government and opposition representatives to talks in Saudi Arabia on an unspecified date.
The GCC groups Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
Some diplomats in Saudi Arabia have suggested Riyadh is considering throwing its weight behind General Ali Mohsen, a powerful military leader who credits himself with bringing Saleh to power, but defected to protesters weeks ago.
Mohsen has said he is not interested in taking the reins, but some feel he would appeal to Riyadh, should it seek a power transition.
“The Saudis have two problems: They don’t like Saleh but they don’t like the idea of revolutions bringing change. So Mohsen may be an option,” said Hassan. “But really, Saudi movements are in the black box; we still don’t know.”
Violence shows weakness
Saleh is a clever operator who has survived many tussles with rivals, and skilfully used bribes and favours to keep tribal and political backers loyal.
Local analysts say his party’s ability to draw big support rallies at weekends emboldens him, even as hundreds of thousands demand his resignation.
But keeping his allies’ loyalty has become more difficult as Yemen sinks into an economic crisis.
More than 40% of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day while a third face chronic hunger. Dwindling water and oil supplies are also problems.
“He’s losing support by the day. After the killings today in Taiz, he’ll lose more,” said Hassan. “But he still has support from his relatives, and they create these large rallies to show him crowds of support, and it’s misleading him.”
If Saleh takes that as a signal to push harder against the rising pressure from the US administration and the opposition, it may hasten his demise.
“The more pressure, the more he seems to respond with violence and intransigence. We saw that first on March 18, when there was one of the worst massacres in recent Arab memory,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Centre in Doha, referring to a sniper attack on protesters in Sanaa that killed at least 52.
“Today, we’ve seen additional violence. I think this actually suggests his days are numbered. Sometimes the use of violence can suggest strength. But other times it suggests weakness,” he said. “We’re talking about the latter here.” – Reuters