Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

Good Fences and all that:Saudi and Yemen (Updated)

Essentially, Saudi Arabia has to make a choice: is it worse to have chaos and civil war in Yemen or to have yet another regime fall in the Middle East with all potential implications for Bahrain and at home?

While most of the media is understandably focused on the parliament vote today in Yemen, which provided the flimsiest and likely fraudulent of covers for Salih’s decision to implement emergency law, I have been thinking about two other things.

First, is something I’ve harped on at Waq al-waq before as well as to those unlucky enough to stumble into a conversation with me around town.  And that is the declining number of old wise men around President Salih in Yemen.  As the older generation of politicians, advisers, and shaykhs with clout – men like Yahya al-Mutawakkil, Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar, Abu Shuwarib, and many others – have died off in recent years their seats at the table have not been filled, leaving a wisdom gap around the president.

Salih trusts many of his younger advisers, but not enough to substitute their judgment for his. This means that the number of individuals who can influence and advise Salih has shrunk dramatically.  No longer is he listening to older men who can influence his thinking (not always successfully), now he is talking with younger men, who are dependent on him for their position. 

Not surprisingly both the quality of advice Salih has received in recent years has declined as has his tendency to take advice when it is offered.  This isn’t good for the current stand-off in Yemen. Remember all the people who tried to mediate before the 1994 Civil War? 

Secondly, I have been thinking a great deal about Saudi Arabia.  Everyone knows that Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, despite being fired as foreign ministry, still traveled to Saudi Arabia over the weekend to sound out Riyadh on their continued support for Salih. 

It is anyone’s guess—at least I don’t know—what took place in those meeting, but they are likely to be determinative going forward. 

Essentially, Saudi Arabia has to make a choice is it worse to have chaos and potential civil war in Yemen or to have yet another regime fall in the Middle East with all that will mean for Bahrain and political stirrings at home? 

How Saudi answers this question will have a major impact on events in Yemen.  Of course, this being Saudi Arabia, nothing is simple.  It has been unclear to me for quite some time whether the kingdom actually had a unified foreign policy towards Yemen. 

For a long time current Crown Prince Sultan ran much of the Yemen portfolio, but his illness and the ineptness of his son Khalid in the war against the Huthis, as well as Muhammad bin Nayyif’s impressive record against AQAP has meant that more and more has been taken out of their hands.  Plus on something as important as this King Abdullah is going to want to have the final say.  So what exactly happened?

Well, for that you would have to ask one of the many talented Saudi watchers, nearly all of whom are smarter than I am.  But if Salih’s ranting speech yesterday was any indication he thinks he has Saudi support, at least for the moment.  Whether he actually does or not is very much an open question.

Plus, as should be clear from the above, this support if it does exist may not be unanimous.  Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar has a lot of friends in Saudi as well.  But it is unclear if his assurances to safeguard their interests in Yemen will make the prospect of another regime collapse any more palatable to Riyadh.   

Other notes: Also as some of you know, I’ve given up on Waq al-waq’s attempts to keep track of all the military defections and resignations.  I got stuck on the phone Monday and missed many of them on al-Jazeera.  Thankfully some of the Arabic papers have been doing a much better job than I have and I’ll try to post their lists soon.

Update:  Also today I have a more in-depth piece on the protests in Yemen up at Foreign Policy.  Read it here.

The ICG reduces Salih‘s choices to fight or flight. 

Ginny Hill of the Chatham House also explores Saudi interests in Yemen, quoting a adviser (unnamed of course) to an unnamed prince as saying that Saudi Arabia doesn’t care about democracy in Yemen as long as the country is “stable.”

That, in my opinion, is disingenuous at best.  Saudi Arabia cares very much.  Also, it wants Yemen to be stable, but not too stable, you know. 

And you know those smart Saudi watchers I mentioned earlier?  Well, Toby Jones is one of them, and he also has a new piece up at Foreign Policy today.  You can read his here

For the past few years one of the more intriguing questions about Yemen has been: what is Muhammad bin Nayyif (Saudi Arabia’s deputy Minister of the Interior) thinking about his […]

Up Next