Analysis: Yemen crisis puts Saudi in powerbroker's bind

DUBAI Sat Jun 18, 2011 12:27pm EDT

1 of 2. Anti-government protesters march during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz June 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

DUBAI (Reuters) - Fearing both civil war and sweeping political reform as results of the crisis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is struggling with its role as regional kingmaker.

While publicly backing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, still in a Saudi hospital after being wounded in fighting in the capital Sanaa after months of protests aimed at ousting him, Riyadh has also tried to broker a succession on its own terms.

That has entailed forging relationships with tribal chieftains, politicians and army officers long cultivated by the Saudis as counterweights to Saleh's 33-year rule, but they are too many and too fractious to provide a ready-made successor.

And the very process of negotiating a political exit for a neighboring ruler it no longer supports has raised talk of representative government, feared by the kingdom that is the world's top oil exporter.

"It (Saudi Arabia) will try to stop a move to any real democratic system in the country," political analyst Ahmed al-Zurqa said. "This is the problem."

The Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) mediated three aborted deals with Yemeni opposition parties under which Saleh would step down and be spared prosecution for misconduct including bloody crackdowns on protesters who took to the streets as pro-democracy activism swept the Arab world.

Each time, Saleh backed out at the last minute.

His last demurral, in May, triggered two weeks of fighting with the al-Hashed tribal confederation led by the al-Ahmar family, culminating in a June 3 attack on Saleh's palace.

That may have sealed Saleh's fate for the Saudis, said Sheila Carapico, a Yemen expert and political science professor at the American University of Cairo.

"We don't even know if he'll be well enough to go back (from Saudi Arabia), but apart from that, I think they've lost faith in him," she said.

SON, NEPHEWS NOT JUMPING SHIP

Saudi and Yemeni state media still stress Riyadh's relationship with Saleh. Wary that Yemen could slip into further chaos, Saudi Arabia has begun shipments of a grant of 3 million barrels of oil to alleviate fuel shortages now gripping Yemen.

At the same time, flirtation with his enemies is evident.

Sadeq al-Ahmar, a leading al-Hashed figure, said after a round of clashes which devastated parts of the capital that he was keeping a truce only out of respect for Saudi King Abdullah.

Opposition parties ranging from socialists to Islamists of both the Sunni and Zaydi Shi'ite sects, and which signed off on the GCC deals, lost credibility with "Arab Spring"-inspired youths who have emerged as a separate Yemeni constituency.

"We believed, and still believe, that the Gulf states do not want the youth revolution to succeed in Yemen, so that its effects won't spread to the other states of the region," said democracy activist Omar Abdelqader.

The opposition parties have participated in negotiations with Yemen's acting leader, Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in which the absent president's fate was not broached.

U.S. diplomats helped broker those talks. But with Washington apparently preparing to pursue attacks on al Qaeda in Yemen with more use of CIA-operated drones, analysts believe it may have satisfied its needs in Yemen, and will leave kingmaking to the Saudis.

"I don't think the U.S. has a policy on Yemen," Carapico said. "One part is we back the Saudis and whatever they want is good enough for us, and then the other part of it is we really, really don't like al Qaeda."

The balance of forces on the ground suggests no single contender will simplify the task of succession by emerging stronger than the others.

Though Saleh's ruling party suffered high-profile defections, several of his relatives -- including a son, Brigadier-General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, who leads the Republican Guard -- retain command and seem to have achieved military parity with the president's enemies.

"I don't think you're going to see many more people jumping ship at the moment," said James Spencer, a defense and political risk consultant. "Saleh's son and nephews have hung on ... Ahmed Ali has made it clear he's not going to go meekly."

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa, Andrew Hammond and Isabel Coles in Dubai; Editing by Dan Williams)

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