Saudi Arabia Brokers Yemeni Power Transfer

The oil kingdom convinced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. The Saudis will maintain their influence in Yemen.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen
President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen

Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to transfer power in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday in a deal that was brokered by the oil kingdom and its smaller Gulf neighbors.

Last week, Saleh told France 24 that he would step down “within ninety days” of reaching agreement with Yemen’s neighboring states. Since the uprising began in his country in February, the president has repeatedly promised to relinquish power only to change his mind every time.

Wednesday’s agreement sees Saleh transferring power to his vice president within a month in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Presidential elections should be scheduled within three months.

This summer, the Yemeni president was severely injured in a bomb attack on his palace. He spent months recuperating in Saudi Arabia where former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has also lived since his regime was swept away in a popular uprising earlier this year.

Saudi Arabia has a long history of interfering in Yemen’s affairs. The country is divided along ethnic and political lines. The main opposition party Islah is conservative and Islamist while many of the young protesters in Yemen’s streets call for democracy and free elections.

The Hashid tribal federation, the second largest of its kind in Yemen, is probably the most powerful group within the Islah party. It is based in the north and northwest of Yemen where a guerrilla campaign has been waged against the government for many years. The Saudis built a wall along their southern borders to contain this uprising and conducted airstrikes in the area to prevent rebels from crossing the border into their kingdom.

The northern insurgency is distinct from the separatist threat in the central south of Yemen that is fueled by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, currently perceived as the most powerful branch of the infamous terrorist network.

Saleh has maintained for years that the two conflict are intertwined; that Al Qaeda was coordinating tactics with the northern insurgents while Iran was masterminding the plot from afar. The United Kingdom and the United States have backed Saleh’s government with arms and funds to crush the Al Qaeda presence but it’s unclear whether he hasn’t diverted those resources to combat the more existential threat to his regime which is the Hashid presence in the north.

The Saudis were quick to side with Saleh when riots erupted in his capital but they now appear to be more sympathetic toward the opposition. Both were acceptable to the kingdom — Saleh and the Hashid have depended on Riyadh for financial support. The only outcome that it may not be prepared to accept is democratic chaos that will divide Yemen again.