As I write this, gunbattles are raging in Sanaa between military units loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and other units that have joined the opposition. Yemen now teeters on the verge of civil war.
During the last eight months, a significant populist movement has formed and has demonstrated peacefully in Sanaa and elsewhere with the aim of ending Saleh’s 33-year rule and bringing about genuine political and economic reforms. This movement has been joined by some of Saleh’s former close allies, including General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and the sheikhs of the Hashid tribal confederation, Sadiq and Hamid al-Ahmar (no relation with Ali Muhsin). The commitment of the Hashid sheikhs and Ali Muhsin to genuine reform remains an open question, given their long complicity with Saleh’s corrupt rule. However, the demonstrators need their armed protection from the regime’s thugs who kill with impunity.
To further complicate matters, a southern opposition movement has coalesced with secessionist tendencies, while a northern group, the Houthis, who are also bitterly opposed to Saleh, has been revitalized and now controls much of the far north of Yemen. Al-Qaeda also has a small presence in various towns of the east and south, and it too wishes to seize control of parts of the country.
In short, the central government, always a rather weak presence, has virtually ceased to exist. Yemen is riven by a diversity of political actors, all of whom have ready access to weapons of all calibers.
In recent fighting, over 100 civilians have been killed by Republican Guard troops and the internal security forces that remain under the command of Saleh’s sons and nephew. These are units that were trained by the United States as part of the global war on terror, but are now clearly being used for the sole purpose of keeping Saleh and his family in power.
For his part, Saleh has just returned from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was taken last June after being badly injured in a bomb attack on his palace. Thus far, Saleh has refused to resign his office or delegate any power to his hapless vice president, Abd Rabu Mansur al-Hadi. Saleh, like so many other heads of state in the Arab world, is an authoritarian dictator who has desperately clung to power, despite a generous offer made to him and his family by the Gulf Cooperation Council that he would be allowed to lead a life of luxury with immunity from judicial prosecution. Saleh has returned wanting to exact revenge and this bodes ill for the future of the country.
Saleh’s record of deliberately keeping his country weak, underdeveloped, divided and without institutions is indicative of the type of leader he represents. The persistent insistence of the opposition that he immediately resign comes from the fact that Saleh has no credibility given his past record of mendacity and subterfuge. He is seen as trying to temporize with the aim of outwitting or exhausting his opponents, and he appears willing to drag the country into a civil war to stay in power.
In itself, the situation in Yemen is a tragedy. But what gives it urgency is that if civil war were to break out (for example, a Somalia-like situation), the negative effects on Saudi Arabia, the Horn of Africa and beyond are certain to be of global and geostrategic significance. With some 24 million people, Yemen is the most populous nation in the Arabian Peninsula and perhaps one of the most heavily armed in the world. It is also quickly running out of underground water and oil reserves. In other words, the effects of a civil war will not be contained within Yemen’s borders, and the fact that Al-Qaeda is regrouping in the country is indicative of this.
Only Saudi Arabia has the resources and influence to halt Yemen’s slide into chaos. Yet the kingdom appears unable or unwilling thus far to do much about the situation. Why is that?
First, there are no easy or ready solutions for Yemen’s problems. Even the Saudis, with their deep pockets and longstanding and intimate connections throughout Yemen, are at pains to find an alternative to Saleh. The obvious candidates, the Ahmar tribal sheikhs or General Ali Muhsin, represent a continuation of the Saleh system of rule, not a break with the past. Hence these alternative candidates, even though they are now in opposition, are unlikely to prove acceptable to many of the forces on the ground, such as the southerners, the Houthis, or demonstrating youths.
Second, no single person or institution within the Saudi regime is in charge of policy toward Yemen. Crown Prince Sultan, who historically was in charge of the file, is very ill and no one has fully taken over his role. That Saleh has been allowed to return to Yemen is indicative of policy paralysis in Riyadh.
The Saudi leadership appears divided over what to do in Yemen. The Interior Ministry, under the control of Prince Nayef and his son Mohammad, has focused exclusively on the threat from Al-Qaeda. King Abdullah has looked at Saleh’s prospects vis-a-vis those of the Ahmars. No one, however, appears to be looking at the full picture, for example by taking stock of the various possible scenarios that may unfold. One of these is the breakup of Yemen, and not necessarily into the neat division of north and south as before unification in 1990.
Saudi Arabia will eventually adopt a coherent policy; there are inklings that this is beginning to take shape. One such indication is a revision of Saudi Arabia’s views regarding the Houthis, with whom the kingdom fought a war in December 2009 and January 2010. The Houthis have impressed the Saudis by controlling the Yemeni side of the border and stopping all contraband and illegal infiltration into Saudi Arabia.
Time is short, however, and it is crucial that Saudi Arabia arrive at a policy that brings some stability to Yemen before it is too late – which unfortunately might already be the case.
Bernard Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and director of the Transregional Institute for the Study of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter, and has been updated by the author.