News / Middle East

Limited US Options in Yemen Raise Saudi Role

Saudi Arabia becoming increasingly logical partner in fighting Yemen-based al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula group

Authorities in Yemen concede U.S. drones are operating in the country, but say they are only for intelligence gathering, not attacks. [file photo]
Authorities in Yemen concede U.S. drones are operating in the country, but say they are only for intelligence gathering, not attacks. [file photo]

The United States has been pursuing counterterrorist measures in Yemen for years, but extremists continue to find a safe haven in the impoverished Arab nation.  Their recent attempt to send bombs through air cargo packages was foiled reportedly with Saudi help, raising hope that Yemen's neighbor to the north may be one of Washington's best partners in tackling local terrorists.

Members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula could hardly ask for a better home base.  Yemen's government exerts little control beyond the major cities, while in the countryside, shifting tribal allegiances and lack of infrastructure make it extremely difficult for outsiders to know what is going on.

Those are the kind of conditions the United States is trying to extricate itself from in Afghanistan, and most military experts recoil at the idea of sending American troops into a similar ground war in Yemen.  

The White House this week is reported to be considering drone attacks against the local al-Qaida affiliate.   Witnesses to air strikes in the Yemeni hinterlands say unmanned aircraft have already been used.   

Authorities in Yemen concede U.S. drones are operating in the country, but say they are only for intelligence gathering, not attacks. Whatever the source of air strikes, anger over civilian casualties has helped create a backlash.

Princeton University Yemen specialist Greg Johnsen has advised the U.S. and British governments on Yemeni issues. "As far as purely military options go, there are not a great deal the U.S. has, which will yield the type of results that the Obama administration would like to see in the quick amount of time that U.S. politics typically demands," Johnsen said.

Alleviating the poverty that helps terrorists thrive would take even longer, although the United States and others have been trying.    

Enter Saudi Arabia, geographically, ethnically, and linguistically suited to infiltrating local al-Qaida cells.   Saudi leaders are also motivated, with the prince driving the kingdom's anti-terrorism program engaged in a show-down with al-Qaida that Greg Johnsen compares to one from the American Wild West.  

"This is an organization that went after a Saudi Prince, [assistant Interior Minister]  Mohammed bin Naif, came very, very close to assassinating him in August 2009.  And in fact, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula views Mohammed bin Naif as its enemy," Johnsen says, "really as its number-one enemy, sort of Pat Garrett to al-Qaida's Billy the Kid."

Add to that Saudi Arabia's vast wealth and close U.S. ties, the two just signed a $60-billion military deal, and it becomes an increasingly logical partner in fighting the Yemen-based group.    

The importance of such ties was raised this week by Britain's former foreign minister, David Miliband.  Speaking in Abu Dhabi, Miliband said the air cargo incident was a "stark demonstration of the vital need for real-time cooperation."

But as Johnsen notes, there are limits to the Saudi efforts. "Saudi Arabia is certainly very active in combatting al-Qaida.  They have a number of different strategies in place in which they are hoping to limit and roll back, eradicate the organization.  Not all of them have been successful at this time," he said.

Part of the problem is the complicated relations between the two governments, made worse by the drubbing Saudi forces took at the hands of Yemen's Houthi rebels along the border last year.    

Yemen Post
newspaper editor Hakim al-Masmari sees Saudi contempt for its southern neighbor in the way Riyadh handled the air-cargo bomb incident.   

"Why did not Saudi Arabia inform Yemen directly and then inform Washington at the same time?  But Yemen, being the last country to know about it, that shows there are negative feelings toward Yemen," al-Masmari says, "and the intention of Saudi Arabia was not to fight terror, but to damage Yemen's reputation."

Princeton University's Johnsen believes the United States and others should bear in mind that power structures in Yemen and Saudi Arabia are neither transparent nor monolithic, a situation that can easily lead to such mixed messages.

"This is a very complicated, very murky picture and it is not only murky on the Yemeni side, where you have different tribal sheikhs who are receiving salaries, stipends from individuals within Saudi Arabia, but it is also murky on the Saudi side," Johnsen states, "where you have a number of different princes who are jostling for position within the bureaucracy in Saudi Arabia."

Even with these drawbacks, the United States is expected to strengthen its ties with Saudi Arabia against what they both see as a growing threat coming out of Yemen.

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