Analyst Reva Bhalla examines the factors that will determine the fate of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the context of the Saudi Kingdom’s interests.
A crisis in Yemen is rapidly escalating and threatening to flare up a second front that could destabilize the Saudi Kingdom. Now there are three key factors in determining President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s stay in power. Those three factors are: the army, the tribes and the mood of the Saudi royals.
Let’s begin in the army. The army in Yemen is split and a standoff is occurring that’s centered on presidential palace in the capital city of Sanaa. Now what’s happening there is the Republican Guard, which is commanded by the president’s son, has been taking up defensive positions around the palace. Surrounding those forces are the forces that are loyal to Gen. Ali Mohsen, who is the half brother to the president, the commander of the northwestern division and commander of the First Brigade. Now Ali Mohsen, today, acted against the president and said that his forces are being deployed to protect the protester, thereby signifying the biggest split within the army yet. With the army splitting, the potential for clashes between pro and anti-Saleh security forces is now escalating.
Then come the tribes. Yemen at its core is a tribal society and the biggest threat from within the tribal sheikh to Saleh comes from Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar who rules the leading tribal grouping in the country, the Hashids and is also the leader of the main opposition group in the country within the Islac party. Now Sheikh Al-Ahbar is very politically ambitious. He sees this current crisis as his opportunity to unseat Saleh and take political authority overYemen. But at the same time, there are a lot of other tribes, especially within the Bakil tribal confederation, which are rivals to the Hashids, that do not want the al-Ahmars to take power. So Saleh at least has some room to maneuver in trying to play these tribal rivalries off of each other.
The third factor is in the Saudi Kingdom. The Saudis have always viewed Yemen as a subordinate neighbor and a constant source of instability within the region. The Saudis prefer to keep the Yemeni state weak, while maintaining strong alliances with the country’s tribes, who generally respond to the highest bidder. The Saudis have not been fully backingSaleh during this political crisis in Yemen, but they haven’t fully abandoned him either.Remember that the Saudis are already dealing with a threat of Iranian destabilization campaign in the eastern Arabia region and has deployed forces to Bahrain for that reason. Now on top of that, the Saudis are having to worry about Yemen. Particularly, they’re looking at the situation in northern Yemen, where Huthi rebels could invigorate Ismaili and Shiite communities in the Saudi Kingdom.
In addition, the Saudis have to worry about a separatist rebellion in Yemen’s south, and on top of that they have to worry about on-going al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula activity inYemen, where Yemen can be used as a launch-pad for more strategic attacks in the SaudiKingdom. And on top of all that the Saudis now have to worry about the potential for Civil War in Yemen breaking out. The Saudis are still likely figuring out a contingency plan forYemen, but it’s very unlikely that they’re going to be sticking out their necks for Saleh at this point. A strategy will need to be developed to replace Saleh and contain as much of the fallout as possible before the threat of a Civil War in Yemen can transform into a reality.