News / Middle East

Saudis Worried About Instability in Yemen

Elizabeth Arrott

Few nations are more worried about the potential chaos in Yemen than its wealthy neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia. The conservative kingdom has resisted much of the change roiling the Arab world, but may make an exception if it means a more stable Yemen.  

Saudi Arabia is not a natural ally of the vanguard of Yemen's political uprising.  One prominent pro-democracy activist in Sana'a says Yemeni youth regard the kingdom with suspicion.

Adel Abdu Arrabeai argues that because Saudi Arabia has no standards for a democratic and civil state, any meeting of the minds would be impossible.  Added to that doubt is a widespread perception that President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been able to count on Saudi support.

Tom Finn, a freelance journalist in Sana'a, said "One major reason that Yemen has been perhaps different from the other Arab Spring [movements], especially from the longevity of the protest, is that I think Ali Abdullah Saleh is still somehow convinced that at least he has the backing of Saudi Arabia, which is also an incredibly strong regional power."

Throughout the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia showed a preference for the status quo, whether lending support for the now-ousted presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, or sending tanks to help Bahrain put down its popular uprising.

But with Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors have taken a different approach. The Gulf Cooperation Council came up with a plan to ease President Saleh out of office, and provide a peaceful transfer of power.

Mr. Saleh says he agrees to the plan in principal, but keeps finding a reason not to sign.  Some observers believe that if Saudi Arabia was serious about removing the Yemeni leader, it missed a major opportunity. They argue that when Mr. Saleh went to Riyadh in June to recover from an assassination attempt, the Saudis should have made him to stay.

But the director of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Stephen Steinbeiser says the legality  of detaining Mr. Saleh was likely only part of the Saudis' calculations to let him return late last month. "They probably felt that the president was really the only one who could quell growing violence, especially in the immediate days leading up to his return, and he still had the credibility of most people to broker a transition deal, whatever that might look like eventually," he said.

That GCC initiative could eventually undercut not only the suspicion of the student activists, but also a long standing argument about Saudi Arabia's view of Yemen: that the kingdom never minded a bit of instability in its poorer neighbor, if only because it made manipulation easier.

But any vulnerability of Yemen has turned to a liability in recent years, when Saudi-based terrorists were pushed out and joined their Yemeni counterparts to form al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.  

Political analyst Steinbeiser says the attraction of a weak neighbor might have been appealing in the past. "At this point I think the Saudis realize there are bigger problems than having a very strong Yemen or something like that, if they see that as a problem. These problems of terrorism or fundamentalism are far more severe and perhaps far more imminent," he said.

Al-Qaida is not the only force that Saudi Arabia worries could exploit the unrest.   Much has been written about Iran trying to gain a foothold on the Arabian peninsula. There are potential ties between Shi'ite Iran and related religious groups in Yemen, in particular the rebellious Houthis in the north.

Several political observers in Yemen believe the threat is overblown, but should it come to pass, Steinbeiser says staunchly Sunni Saudi Arabia and others wouldn't hesitate to act. "I think that the other Gulf countries would be very, very concerned about this and I think we would see them intervene, with Saudi Arabia's full backing, to thwart any potential interference from Iran in Yemen if it were as overt as that," he said.

A democratic Yemen may not be the first choice of the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia, but to many Saudi eyes, some of the alternatives would be far worse.

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