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.

You May Like

Photogallery Belgian Security Measures Foreshadow New Normal for Europe

Rising threat of terrorism, disaffected Muslim populations and open borders, along with refugee, migrant crisis, are creating perfect storm for Europe, which some analysts fear continent is ill-suited to weather

Competing Claims of Responsibility for Mali Hotel Attack

Malian authorities ask public for help in identifying gunmen killed in attack, amid conflicting claims of responsibility from multiple jihadist groups active in the country

Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs