News that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been forced to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia will be very welcome in Washington. However, the United States still lacks an effective policy for ensuring long-term stability in that volatile, fractured country.
Since the turmoil in Yemen began, the US has been primarily relying on efforts by the Saudis and their Gulf Cooperation Council partners to secure Saleh’s departure from office as the beginning of a transition toward greater stability. For many weeks, the president refused to finally commit to a GCC proposal in which he would step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Now that he’s in Saudi Arabia, there is no doubt that the post-Saleh era in Yemen has begun.
But it’s not clear at all that this means an end to the bitter power struggle among Yemen’s elites that has divided the government and military, leading to his serious injuries. Saleh’s vice president is now nominally in charge, but his sons and nephews are still in place in their key military and intelligence positions. It’s not yet in the least evident what kind of reconciliation or agreement can be secured between the remaining regime forces and opposition groups such as the powerful Al-Ahmar clan and dissident generals.
For this, the United States is likely to continue to rely primarily on efforts by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to heal the rifts and restore a modicum of unity among the country’s elites and military. Washington was angered and alarmed by Saleh’s increasing use of American weaponry and US-trained counterterrorism forces in his internal power struggle with rivals within the elite, and will certainly expect that to stop given his removal.
American interests in Yemen are driven, above all, by concerns about the activities of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni affiliate of the loose-knit terrorist network. This organization has proven uniquely interested in and able to launch attacks directed against the American homeland. That includes the failed “Christmas bombing” over Detroit two years ago and an effort to send explosive packages onto American-bound international aircraft.
There has been increasing alarm in Washington in recent weeks that al-Qaeda and other terrorist forces have been exploiting the chaos in Yemen to gain space to operate – possibly even re-creating the kind of area of wide-ranging impunity that other groups used to enjoy in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Washington does not have any major stake in the outcome of power struggles within the Yemeni elite, but it has a strong interest in a stable and united Yemeni government committed to denying terrorists an operating base.
The US has also sought to avoid Yemen turning into a fully-blown failed state, a kind of Somalia on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and on the coasts of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Like the Saudis, Americans fear that such a failed state could prompt instability in much of the region, especially in Saudi Arabia itself. Therefore, Yemen has been one of the few cases in the “Arab Spring” in which Saudi and US interests have aligned almost entirely. This confluence of interests, along with the very limited options and influence the United States has on its own, has informed Washington’s reliance on Riyadh in trying to come to grips with this serious challenge.
That Saleh has now been forced to flee his country provides the two powers with a fortuitous and unexpected opportunity to move quickly to restore stability in Sanaa and move Yemen away from its seemingly inexorable drift toward failed-state status. It is precisely the kind of fortunate incident – removing a leader who is a clear impediment to progress – that has eluded NATO forces in Libya.
How the regime will fare in his absence and what the prospects for reconciliation among Yemeni elites are remains to be seen. So does the reaction of the thousands of peaceful street protesters seeking change. But it is strongly in the interests of everyone with a stake in Yemen’s future to move quickly to take advantage of the opportunity to reverse the drift toward anarchy and institute both reconciliation and reform measures.
From the beginning of the Arab Spring, it has been clear that, with Syria, Yemen has presented the greatest potential for regional disruption. Along with efforts by groups like al-Qaeda to promote and exploit chaos in the country, Houthi rebels and other insurgents, and a simmering North-South division that could again erupt into civil conflict, the anxiety-inducing factors in Yemen are uniquely alarming.
One can therefore expect Washington to give enthusiastic support to Saudi and GCC efforts to stabilize the situation and reverse the drift toward chaos. The chances of success for this exceptionally important but extremely difficult project are difficult to gauge, but the stakes could not be higher for Washington and Riyadh alike.