LONDON (Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure to have his wounds treated in Saudi Arabia offers Yemen a precious chance to halt a slide into civil war and achieve a peaceful transition of power. Much could go wrong.
Young protesters eager to add Saleh to the list of toppled Arab autocrats have greeted his exit with euphoria, but they fear a come-back by the wily leader, who was wounded along with other senior officials in an attack on his palace on Friday.
Vice-President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, now Yemen’s acting leader, was quoted by the state news agency Saba on Monday as saying Saleh was recovering and would return within days.
The future of Yemen is uncertain. Lying next to Saudi Arabia and vital maritime oil routes, it hosts a virulent al Qaeda wing exploiting feeble state control in an impoverished nation riven by rivalries among tribal leaders, generals and politicians.
“If Saleh remains out of the country and if his sons and nephews don’t begin instigating or taking provocative action, Yemen can avoid all-out war,” said Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen.
“At the same time, we have come dangerously close in the last couple of weeks to what could easily be classified as a civil war, so it’s too early to say. It could go either way.”
The attitude of Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally played an equivocal role in Yemeni politics, could be decisive.
“The Saudis will seize the opportunity ... to extend his medical recovery into a political rest,” said Yemen expert Khaled Fattah. The risk of Yemen descending into Somalia-style anarchy was “a nightmare for Saudi national security.”
The kingdom took Saleh in for urgent hospital care on what a Saudi official termed humanitarian grounds. “We don’t interfere in his decision (to stay or return),” the official said.
That may be Riyadh’s public stance, but the United States and its European allies will be quietly pressing the Saudis to ensure that Saleh’s absence from Yemen becomes permanent.
The Saudi cabinet said on Monday that Gulf states would pursue effort to broker an agreed transfer of power.
“I don’t think the Saudis or his people want him back,” said a Western diplomat. “He doesn’t have regional support. I’d be surprised if he came back and it’s too nice a let-out for him.”
Saleh, however, initially delayed traveling because he was seeking assurances from Saudi King Abdullah that he would be able to return after treatment, a Yemeni government source said.
Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s main aid donor and has also long funded Yemeni tribes to maximize its own influence, but it has struggled to manage the crisis in its neighbor, failing to get Saleh to sign a Gulf-brokered plan for him to relinquish power.
“I‘m not sure Saudi Arabia is the infallible snake charmer that people on the outside believe it to be,” Johnsen said.
After nearly 33 years in power, Saleh has left the Arab world’s poorest nation close to chaos and economic collapse.
A shaky truce has calmed Sanaa after two weeks of fighting between Saleh’s forces and a powerful tribal federation in which more than 200 people were killed and thousands forced to flee.
The president may have handed over to his faceless deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but some of his sons and nephews remain in charge of well-equipped military and security units.
They have the firepower to challenge General Mohsen Ali, a Saleh kinsman who defected to the opposition with his troops, or to take on the Hashed tribesmen who have fought Saleh loyalists.
Others who will demand a say include a disparate axis of Islamist and leftist parties, as well as the youthful protesters who want a “new Yemen” -- a civil state ruled by democracy, not the corrupt patronage politics that stamped Saleh’s rule.
“There is no single institution or individual in Yemen who is capable of exerting control,” said Fattah.
“Yemen’s formal structures such as political parties and government institutions are in no position to shape events. The divided military, on the other hand, is a reflection of tribal coalitions and elite struggle, not state power,” he added.
A possible roadmap for transition would involve forming a national council of tribal elders, generals, clerics and opposition politicians -- including representatives of rebels in the north and south -- as well as the emerging youth movement.
The opposition coalition has endorsed the vice-president’s assumption of power as a first step in the transition, ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.
For many Yemenis, the turmoil since January has compounded a struggle for survival in a land where rapid population growth has further stressed scarce water, food and other resources.
“In the very short term, the priority is demilitarization of public life, summoning all military units back to barracks and pulling tribal militia from the streets of Sanaa,” Fattah said.
Many people, including those internally displaced, may need humanitarian relief until basic services can be restored.
Any new government will struggle to rescue Yemen from economic disaster or to satisfy 23 million people seeking relief from crippling poverty, corruption and failing public services.
“The top priority will be creating jobs,” said Johnsen. “This is going to be very difficult. The next government will really have its hands full. It will have to make very difficult decisions which will anger many portions of the population.”
Ironically, the single most effective way to reduce unemployment in Yemen, would be for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil producers to open their doors to Yemeni migrant workers.
Johnsen said the United States and Europe could try to convince the Gulf countries fretting about instability in Yemen that this would serve their own interest, as well the West‘s.
“That would be a tough sell for the Obama administration, given historic Saudi fears about letting Yemenis in.”
Additional reporting by Jason Benham in Riyadh and Samia Nakhoul in London; editing by Myra MacDonald