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Saudi Arabia is calling the shots in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is calling the shots in Yemen.

By Zayd Alisa
July 5, 2011

Saleh, Yemen’s dictator for 33 years has not been seen, since he travelled to Saudi Arabia for treatment, nearly a month ago. His closest aids have found themselves in a catch 22 situation. If Saleh does not appear on television he would be completely written off as Yemen’s invincible leader, but, on the other hand, if he appears battered and bruised, this would dishearten his supporters and play into the hands of his opponents. Thus, in a desperate bid to buy him some time they propagated the message that he would appear on television within 48 hours. This ill-conceived attempt harmed Saleh’s own credibility.
The emphatic victory of peaceful protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, in toppling their deeply entrenched dictators has inspired the Yemeni people to take to the streets demanding the overthrow of Saleh. The Yemeni popular uprising has not only intensified, but, against all the odds, has strenuously preserved its peaceful credentials. The protesters have fiercely rejected all the major concessions offered by Saleh, insisting he must step down. Saleh has, however, remained adamant that he is the elected leader and he will not relinquish power. He has been fighting tooth and nail to cling on to power depending on the elite military and security forces, trained and equipped by the USA, and headed by his sons and nephews. He also relies on the USA backing as a key ally in the war on terror. But, most significant, to him is the unequivocal support from Saudi Arabia, which is, in reality, calling the shots there.

The Saudi regime was rattled by the popular uprisings sweeping the region. It offered refuge to, Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator, and has fiercely refused to extradite him to stand trial. The Saudi king gave his ringing endorsement to, Mubarak, Egypt’s tyrant, urging Obama to allow Mubarak to oversee the transition and threatening to bankroll him if the USA halted its aid. The toppling of Mubarak’s regime was a devastating strategic blow to Saudi Arabia, which considered it an indispensible bulwark against Iranian influence.

In a stark warning to his people, the Saudi king emphasised that protests are strictly prohibited and those participating would face dire reprisals. The religious institution, which relies on government funding to propagate and export its extremist Wahhabi Salafi ideology, backed up the king’s position by issuing a fatwa declaring that protests are anti-Islamic.

The Saudi king ordered his forces to invade Bahrain to prop up the brutal dictatorship of Al-Khalifa. The Saudi forces unleashed a ferocious and murderous onslaught on the peaceful popular uprising calling for democracy and political reform. These forces have carried out a systematic and premeditated campaign of cold-blooded murder against the Shiaa majority in Bahrain to unnerve its own Shiaa population, who form the overwhelming majority in the oil rich Eastern Province. The Saudi regime sought to instigate and foment sectarian strife to deflect attention from its overarching goal of quashing the protests and holding at bay any moves towards political reform or democratic change.

Saleh, has been Saudi Arabia’s staunchest and most obedient ally. In 2009 Saudi Arabia driven by deep fears from the growing strength of the Houthis along its southern border pushed Saleh to wage war against them, but he failed miserably in crushing them. Saleh, not only, allowed the Saudi army to launch a vicious war on his own people, but, he got it off the hook, when it was facing defeat and humiliation. He insisted that any ceasefire must involve the Houthis withdrawal from Saudi territories.

Barely two days after the Saudi invasion of Bahrain, the Saudi regime strongly pressured Saleh to stage a brutal crackdown on the peaceful protesters at the heart of, Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. This was, apparently, a desperate attempt by Saudi Arabia to divert attention away from its invasion of Bahrain, and to quell all the protests in its backyard garden.

The killing of 52 unarmed protesters marked a major turning point in the Yemeni popular uprising. It badly backfired, on Saleh, leading not only to the dramatic intensification of protests, but more importantly the loss of his legitimacy as president of Yemen. On the external front, the USA called for an immediate transfer of power, while the Saudi regime signalled to its allies, not just to abandon Saleh, but to back the protesters. Those allies include General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, commander of the 1st armoured division and Sadeq Al-Ahmar, leader of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation.

Although the Saudi-led initiative to resolve the Yemeni crisis was at the beginning principally designed to provide Saleh with desperately needed breathing space to bolster his position, but due to the protesters outright success in galvanising more support, the Saudi regime became increasingly convinced that Saleh has turned into a huge liability, but the Saudi regime was adamant not to allow the protesters to prevail. In Saudi Arabia’s eyes the removal of Saleh through its own initiative would, not just preserve its unrivalled position as king-maker, but also severely undermine the protesters. The Saudi initiative grants Saleh immunity from prosecution in return for stepping down and handing over power to his deputy. Although, Saleh has twice before reneged on signing the deal, his third refusal marked a new turning point in the conflict as it was accompanied by allowing his armed loyalist to surround the UAE’s embassy, where all the Arab and foreign diplomats were gathered. What Saleh did was, according to Arab culture, the ultimate insult to the Saudi regime which led the initiative. Saleh was acutely aware that his actions would not pass unpunished, thus, he decided that the most effective defence is a swift offensive against all of his opponents. His forces unleashed a fierce attack on Sadeq Al-Ahmar’s home, which provoked a heavy response form Al-Ahmar’s followers. Saleh’s forces also opened fire on General Ali Al-Ahmar’s 1st armoured division. In addition, his forces mounted a savage crackdown on the peaceful protesters in Taiz, which has been viewed as the stronghold of protests. Saleh believed that the most effective way for his repeated warnings to be taken seriously, both locally and internationally, was by deliberately igniting the civil war and allowing the hugely feared franchise of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to occupy Zinjibar. Therefore, enabling him to practically illustrate the immense risks his departure would cause, as well as, demonstrating his emphatic resolve in crushing both threats. He ultimately hoped to win back the USA endorsement.

On Friday the 3rd of June Sale’s palace was rocked by explosions that targeted him during prayers. The startling precision of the bombing and the accuracy of timing, strongly indicated that the perpetrators were highly professional. The presence of John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser in Saudi Arabia has fuelled speculation about who pulled the trigger on Saleh. There is, however a widespread suspicion, in Yemen, that Saleh has been severely punished for defying Saudi Arabia. Although, Saleh has repeatedly emphasised that he would neither leave Yemen nor power, but the severity of his injuries forced him to leave. His decision to go to Saudi Arabia reflected, not only his firm conviction of its decisive role in Yemen, but also a last ditch attempt to influence it. Furthermore, it highlighted that if push comes to shove, Saleh, would take refuge in Saudi Arabia: bastion and dumping ground of dictators.

Despite Saleh’s absence, his sons and nephews have refused to transfer real power to his deputy Vice-President Hadi, who is now the acting leader. It is inconceivable that Saudi Arabia or the USA would permit Saleh to return to Yemen, but instead, the Saudis will put him under unprecedented pressure by waving the prospects of assets freezing, travel ban and more ominously charges of crimes against humanity to force the rest of his family to leave Yemen. Despite a meeting with the acting leader, the protesters calls to form an interim council have fallen on deaf ears, thus deepening their fears that the Saudis are trying to ostracise them and inevitably, highjack their revolution. What is abundantly clear after four months of relentless protests that any solution which bypasses Yemeni protesters is absolutely futile and would ultimately hasten the slide into an all out civil war.

ENDS

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