Yemen Matters

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The embattled president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, surprised both his countrymen and the international diplomatic community by returning earlier this week to his capital, Sana’a. For the past three months, Saleh had been recuperating in neighboring Saudi Arabia after an assassination attempt nearly killed him.

Despite international pressure on Saleh to continue his exile, and allow his country to reach a peaceful transfer of power in his absence, he has returned to a country, and a capital, that remains divided and openly violent.

Yemen, the impoverished neighbor of wealthy Sunni monarchy Saudi Arabia, has spent this year torn apart by civil war. Al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos and uncertainty in recent months to increase its foothold in the country. In Saleh’s absence, his son, Ahmed, has been leading security forces against protestors, with violence escalating in recent days.

Given the success of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in maintaining an upper-hand over protestors in that country, Saleh loyalists no doubt feel that there is still everything to play for in Yemen.

The earlier ouster of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and the recent toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, may prove to be the exception rather than the rule. Other regimes in the Middle East and North Africa have managed to push back the tide of discontent. And, of course, Iran stands as a clear example that vicious reprisals, together with diplomatic silence from the United States and other Western leaders, can be a very effective strategy for maintaining power.

Does Saleh’s return mean that a political solution to the unrest is off the table?

Saleh quickly went on national television to advocate for new elections within three months. However, many Yemeni, including most of the opposition, doubt his sincerity. During his three decades in office, Saleh has shown tremendous resilience and tenacity. Opposition leaders who hoped his extended medical leave in Riyadh was the precursor to a formal resignation and a quiet retirement have been clearly disappointed.

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia has a strong interest in the quick return of peace to his neighboring country. Saleh has indicated repeatedly that he has no intention of immediately resigning, but has stated that he would be willing to step down as part of a larger peace settlement. Hopefully, King Abdullah’s sanctioning of Saleh’s return home was based on a belief that a meaningful peace agreement was possible between the warring parties that would stop the spiraling pattern of violence and bloodshed. In the past week, around 150 people have been reported as killed in the fighting, with pro-Saleh forces using live ammunition on protesters.

Should Yemen continue its slide into anarchy and chaos, a failed state there could serve as a safe haven for terrorist activities, as well as the base for “Somali style” piracy and the disruption of trade and traffic through the Red Sea.

How should Saudi Arabia react to the unrest in Yemen?

The dilemma facing the Saudis has both domestic and international components. In addition to securing stability in its neighbor, Saudi officials must remain mindful of the possibility of widespread dissent in their own kingdom. Upheavals earlier this year in Bahrain show that monarchies are just as susceptible to popular uprisings as other types of governments in the region.

Perhaps with this in mind, in a timely, although tentative, show of support for liberalism, King Abdullah this week announced his decision to permit women to both vote and run in local election in 2015. No such participation, however, will be possible in next week’s polls. Local elections, first held in the kingdom 6 years ago, determine one-half of the seats on the 285 local councils, while the other half are appointed by the king.

However, it will remain unlawful for women to either drive or travel without a male chaperone. Still, the electoral concession at least demonstrates that the Saudi royal family understands the growing desire for freedom and openness spreading through that part of the world.

Saudi women’s rights campaigners have celebrated the decision, seeing it as a further step towards full gender equality. Significant progress has been made in the last four decades, with literacy for Saudi women now standing at 78%, up from a mere 2%.

Although overwhelming military force can be used to combat dissent, reforms and concessions can win hearts and minds at much lower costs. Even limited reforms can work to dissipate anger and resentment among the discontented in the kingdom, where two-thirds of the population is under 30 and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

Peaceful transitions are almost always preferable to those brought about by a gun or a sword. Unchecked, anarchy in Yemen could spread, and the consequences to Saudi Arabia and the other countries in the region would be disastrous.

Sending a team of highly-trained Navy SEALS to assassinate an old man in his pajamas in easy compared with navigating the convulsions and upheavals that are erupting now across the Middle East. U.S. and Western leaders must engage diplomatically with their counterparts in these countries to foster and support these transitions. The consequences of turning our eyes away and avoiding such engagement would be felt for many years to come.

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