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Cablegate: Growing Saudi Alarm Over Threats From Yemen

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DE RUEHRH #1396/01 2941350
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O 211350Z OCT 09
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TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 1741
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S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 02 RIYADH 001396
NOFORN
SIPDIS
E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/19/2019
TAGS: PREL MCAP MOPS PHUM PTER SA YM IR LY
SUBJECT: GROWING SAUDI ALARM OVER THREATS FROM YEMEN
REF: A. SANAA 01937
B. RIYADH 1343
RIYADH 00001396 001.2 OF 002
Classified By: Ambassador James B. Smith,
reasons 1.4 (b) & (d).
SUMMARY & COMMENT
------------------
1. (S/NF) In meetings this week with Ambassador Smith, senior
Saudi officials voiced growing alarm over the deteriorating
security situation in Yemen. The Foreign Minister assessed
that the Houthi insurgency could not be resolved through
negotiations. Assistant Minister of Defense Khalid bin
Sultan described the Al-Qaida presence in Yemen as Saudi
Arabia’s biggest external threat. Neither FM Saud nor Prince
Khalid shared details regarding the precise nature of the
Saudi response to the threat, but their comments support our
analysis (ref b) that the Saudi approach is focused on
reinforcing border security, containing the Al-Qaida threat,
and supporting, to the extent possible, the government of Ali
Abdullah Saleh. The SAG remains convinced that interference
from Iran and others is making the situation worse. Khalid
bin Sultan commented that one constant regarding Saudi policy
towards Yemen was the need to preserve the country’s unity.
2. (S/NF) FM Saud’s comment that a negotiated settlement
with the Al-Houthis was "impossible" suggests that the Saudi
government is unlikely to press the ROYG for a peaceful end
to the Saada conflict, and will likely be responsive to
additional ROYG requests for financial assistance. It is
less clear whether the SAG is prepared to provide weapons
recently requested by Saleh. However, while it appears that
the Saudis are willing to provide some logistical support
along the border to ROYG forces, and have on at least one
occasion exchanged fire with Houthi forces along the border,
we do not/not see evidence that the SAG has any intention of
further involvement. Embassy continues to assess that border
security --in particular, the interdiction of terrorists
planning operations inside the Kingdom-- is the key Saudi
concern and that the Saudi government will refrain from
becoming involved in operations inside Yemen. End summary &
comment.
SAUD AL-FAISAL: NEGOTIATED HOUTHI SETTLEMENT IMPOSSIBLE
--------------------------------------------- -----------
3. (C) During an introductory meeting on October 17,
Ambassador Smith asked Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal
for his assessment of the situation in Yemen. Describing the
government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh as "weak"
and embattled, Saud said the situation was compounded by
defiance of the tribes which had formerly supported the
government in the North, the infiltration of terrorists and
the Al-Qaeda network, and interference by Iran and
unspecified "others." Elections in Yemen had only
exacerbated the country’s tribal divisions, Prince Saud
argued, and made dealing with the country’s overwhelming
social and development problems even more difficult. Saudi
Arabia had a large aid program with Yemen, but had been
unable to overcome "tribalism."
4. (C) Unless Saleh received help in confronting the Houthi
insurgency and placating Southern secessionists, his
government could collapse, which would be a "nightmare" for
Saudi Arabia. Acknowledging SAG concern regarding the Saada
War, Prince Saud nevertheless said he felt that no negotiated
settlement was possible with the Houthis.
KHALID BIN SULTAN: YEMEN IS BIGGEST EXTERNAL THREAT
--------------------------------------------- ------
5. (S/NF) In a separate introductory meeting with the
Ambassador on October 19, Assistant Defense Minister Prince
Khalid bin Sultan echoed the concerns voiced by the Foreign
Minister. Beyond the Saada War, the growing Al Qaida
presence within Yemen’s deteriorating security situation now
represented Saudi Arabia’s most serious external threat.
Yemen was "a much better ground for Al Qaida" -- they had
freedom to buy weapons, the tribes often shifted alliances
and they were near the Saudi border. Prince Khalid said he
had asked for a greater exchange of information with US
military intelligence, in particular "what was going on in
the Al-Houthi/Al Qaida relationship."
6. (C) Adding to Saudi worries was their conviction that Iran
was supporting the Houthi insurgency. "We understand that
you disagree," Prince Khalid noted, adding that Libya was
RIYADH 00001396 002.2 OF 002
"also sending money." The Houthi situation was very
dangerous. There had been an exchange of fire between the
Saudi Coast Guard and suspected Al Houthis an hour before the
meeting (about noon on October 19). (COMMENT: Prince Khalid
used the word "Coast Guard" in English, but could have meant
to say "Border Guard." It is unlikely that the Coast Guard
would have been involved in a skirmish in the Saada border
area, and also unlikely that the Houthis would have been
engaged on the Yemen/Saudi border at the coast. End
comment.)
7. (C) Discussing what could be done about the situation,
Prince Khalid noted that his father, Crown Prince Sultan,
understood the tribes very well, since he had held the file
since 1962. The late King Abdulaziz had conquered Yemen
twice, with Saudi forces commanded by then-Prince Faisal.
That experience taught the Al Saud that Yemen could only be
governed by Yemenis. Acknowledging worries about Yemeni
President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ability to manage the multiple
challenges from the South, AQAP, and the Houthis, Prince
Khalid concluded that Saudi Arabia had "no alternative but to
support him (Saleh)." The answer was to keep Yemen united
and improve economic conditions.
DETAILS ON SAUDI SKIRMISH WITH HOUTHI FORCES SKETCHY
--------------------------------------------- -------
8. (S/NF) Beyond Prince Khalid’s confirmation that the Saudi
Coast (or Border) Guard had indeed exchanged fire with Houthi
forces, Embassy has been unable to obtain further details
regarding the October 19 incident. Press reports described
Houthi allegations that Saudi forces had fired into the
Yemeni Al-Hassama district, which is situated near the border
in Houthi-controlled areas (NOTE: The Al-Hassama district is
located approximately at 16.48N/43.14E. End note.)
YEMENI REQUEST FOR WEAPONS?
---------------------------
9. (S/NF) As noted in ref a, Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister for
Defense and Security Affairs Dr. Rashad Mohammed Al-Alimi
delivered a letter from President Saleh to King Abdullah in
Riyadh on October 18. This was followed by the announcement
by the Saudi Press Agency that Crown Prince Sultan had
received a call from President Saleh in Agadir, during which
the two men reviewed the latest developments and discussed
bilateral issues. Sensitive reporting suggests that Saleh
was pressing for additional assistance, including weapons.
Additional details will shortly be available in sensitive
channels. It appears that the SAG is weighing the request
within the context of the assistance promised by the Arab
League and GCC. FM Saud had earlier suggested that
consultations on Yemen were ongoing.
SMITH

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