Although previously supportive of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to allow his return. Instead, Riyadh faces a difficult and potentially contradictory task: attempting to maintain its influence in Yemen while ensuring a stable future for the country.
Saudi Arabia has sought to influence events in Yemen by keeping the central government weak. In part it has done this by developing close relations with key players – senior government officials and tribal sheikhs – and then playing them off against each other.
Nor has Riyadh hesitated to impose its will on Sana’a. In 1994, for instance, when Saleh supported Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia expelled almost a million migrant Yemeni workers.
But this approach has become increasingly difficult. Yemen’s population, the largest in the Arabian Peninsula, is impoverished, divided and heavily armed.
A number of the more powerful factions, such as the Ahmar sheiks or the forces loyal to General Ali Mohsen, may not be acceptable to the Yemeni majority. Similarly, forces loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood are seen as potential challengers to the Saudi regime, which increasingly needs to consider its own succession.
Nor is the spectre of a new political order, so enthusiastically pursued by many youthful demonstrators, and which would see the creation of a government of national unity, likely to please Riyadh. Such a democratic outcome runs counter to Saudi conservatism.
Saudi Arabia, therefore, faces a dilemma: how does Riyadh maintain its influence, while ensuring that Yemen does not become a failed state. A fractured Yemen, or a country involved in a civil war, could be seen as a victory for Iran. It could also provide the basis for an expanded al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. Such outcomes could threaten Saudi Arabia’s own stability.
Major General John Hartley AO (Retd)
FDI Institute Director and CEO