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Saudi Arabia's Delicate Dance On The Fate Of Yemen

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Saudi Arabia, which places a premium on stability, appears to be sending mixed messages these days on what it wants from its volatile southern neighbor, Yemen.

On one hand, the kingdom is demanding that Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh step aside after months of protests against his more than 30 years of rule.

On the other hand, Saudi officials did not publicly object when Saleh returned to Yemen last month from Saudi Arabia, where he received three months of medical treatment following a failed assassination attempt.

Saudi officials and experts say King Abdullah had little choice but to let Saleh return home. They note that he's the president of a sovereign country, not a Saudi citizen whom the king has authority over.

"Remember there is a big difference between having interest in what happens in a country and dictating what happens in that country," says Usamah al-Kurdi, a member of the king's advisory council. "No way will they prevent a head of state from going back to his country. Otherwise it would have, in my opinion, unbelievable repercussions."

Yet the kingdom is sticking to its demand that Saleh step down, says Jamal Khashoggi, a television executive who is also close to the royal family.

He says the day after Saleh left, King Abdullah once more called on Yemen to adopt a proposal drafted by the governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. The proposal requires Saleh to step aside and for nationwide elections to be held a short time later.

In exchange, the Yemeni president would receive immunity from prosecution.

"He did make promises that he will go back to Yemen to sign the GCC agreement and to push for reconciliation. Obviously he did not," says Khashoggi.

Saleh wriggled out of that promise by adding untenable conditions of his own.

Relying On Saleh For Stability?

Yet Saudi Arabia may be somewhat relieved that Saleh is hanging on, some analysts say. They explain that the Saudis, like their U.S. counterparts, have relied on the Yemeni leader to fight al-Qaida and keep at least some semblance of order in his impoverished nation.

"With Saudi Arabia, they are walking a very thin line in asking Saleh to move aside, knowing that the opposition itself is very fragmented," says Fernando Carvajal, an expert on Yemen from the University of Exeter in Britain. If Saleh goes, he says, Yemen "may turn into complete chaos."

Carvajal and others say Saudi officials are struggling with what to do next. They don't want the crisis in Yemen to spark a civil war. Nor are they thrilled about Yemen joining a growing number of Arab nations replacing dictatorships with democracy that might add to the pressure for political reform in Saudi Arabia, Carvajal says.

"The priority for the kingdom at the moment is how do we stop this tsunami from spreading through the [Arabian] Peninsula," he says.

Carvajal also notes that a generational schism has emerged within the royal Saudi family over the kingdom's decades-old approach to Yemen that helped foster its dependence on a richer and more powerful neighbor.

That approach included hefty development projects as well as millions of dollars in patronage payments to certain tribal leaders to gain their loyalty and to help protect the long and porous border the kingdom and Yemen share.

Prospect Of A Free Yemen

Saudi analyst Khashoggi argues that those payments didn't prevent al-Qaida from attacking Saudi Arabia. Nor can Saudi Arabia fix the situation by force as it did with nearby Bahrain, where it sent in troops, he says.

In Yemen, "you need a NATO army to go and stabilize the situation if you want to stabilize the situation. We might end up with another Somalia, God forbid," Khashoggi says.

However, if things go well, Saudi Arabia and Yemen could benefit from a new approach, he adds.

"If we in Saudi Arabia continue to have a close relationship with Yemen, [and] at the same time encourage a transparent government, a democratic government, an accountable government in Yemen — that could improve the economy in Yemen. [The] people of Yemen can stay in Yemen and prosper in Yemen," he says.

Hani Wafa, a newspaper editor in Riyadh, says the ongoing violence and foundering economy in Yemen are increasing the number of Yemenis illegally crossing into Saudi Arabia.

"They're looking for maybe food even, [a] job, to beg. This is a problem for us," he says.

And that problem, he adds, could grow much larger.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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