Back to Sanaa: Saleh’s Saudi Mandate

A Yemeni boy holds a portrait of Yemen's President Ali Abdallah Saleh as he walks past another one of Saleh with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz during a pro-regime rally in Sanaa after the noon Friday prayers on 16 September 2011. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Huwais)

By: Jamal Jubran

Published Sunday, September 25, 2011

Paved by his son’s military crackdown, embattled president Ali Abdallah Saleh returns to Yemen with an apparent Saudi mandate to regain control of the streets of Sanaa and end the standoff between his forces and the opposition.

Sanaa - Yemenis were both astonished and dismayed by Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s early return to the country this weekend after his lengthy medical absence in Saudi Arabia.

Questions surround the manner and timing of Saleh’s homecoming, and its relation to the temperament of his Saudi hosts, who took him in nearly four months ago for medical treatment after he was seriously injured by a bombing at the Yemeni presidential compound.

The Saudi regime officially claims that Saleh returned to Yemen in order to resolve domestic issues and prepare for the forthcoming elections. Yet just over a week ago, Saudi officials announced that Saleh was poised to authorize his vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) peace initiative, which stipulated Saleh’s relinquishment of power. The US State Department in turn expressed optimism that the deal would soon be signed. Other Saudi officials anonymously assured the media that Saleh would not be returning to Yemen.

Sources tell al-Akhbar that Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin-Abdulaziz pushed for Saleh’s return to Yemen. According to these sources, bin-Abdulaziz, who is also the second deputy prime minister, discussed the fate of Saleh’s presidency with King Abdullah. The two agreed that Saleh should be allowed to return to Yemen. They concluded that despite his many faults, which the Saudis have accommodated over the years, Saleh remains Saudi Arabia’s safest bet in Yemen. The decision was based primarily on Saudi interests. They believed that Saleh’s ousting might lead the Yemeni situation to spiral further out of control. The two also hope to keep power in the hands of a figure who is beholden to Saudi Arabia and can be relied upon to uphold Saudi interests and bidding.

A key factor, according to the sources, was last year’s Houthi rebellion in northwestern Yemen, which necessitated Saudi military intervention. The Saudis believe that the Houthi conflict could flare up again as a result of wider regional conditions. The Houthi rebels have rearmed since their last bout against the Saudis; and given the Saudi army’s poor past performance against the rebels, they would prefer that Saleh’s forces, rather than their own, take on the Houthis in any future showdown.

The Saudi kingdom is therefore reluctant to see Saleh exit quietly. In this regard, the Saudis seem at odds with the US. Washington prefers a quick resolution that would shift the focus toward more pressing matters, both locally – the targeting of al-Qaeda elements in Yemen – and regionally – attending to the intractable crisis in Syria.

Saleh’s secretive arrival still seems unusual. He touched down at Aden airport aboard a Saudi royal aircraft and was picked up by helicopter on the tarmac and flown to Sanaa. The air traffic controllers at the Aden airport were kept in the dark about his arrival. Instead, they were told that a Saudi delegation was flying in. Leaders of the ruling General Peoples Congress (GPC) party were caught equally off-guard. They had planned welcoming rallies for the president’s homecoming, if and when it were to happen. There was talk that his return would coincide with a public holiday. Yet Saleh’s unannounced arrival in the morning’s early hours two days before the country’s national day had the feeling of a covert mission. “Nobody in the top echelon of the GPC knew Saleh was coming, not even the assistant secretary-general, Sultan al-Burkani,” GPC sources told al-Akhbar. Burkani went on local TV two days before holding an olive-branch to the opposition. This gesture was viewed by many as confirming earlier Saudi and US assurances that Saleh would soon step down.

However, it appears that the Saudis believe Saleh’s return is necessary for a ceasefire to take hold between pro- and anti-regime forces in Sanaa. Earlier in the week, GCC Secretary-General Abdul Latif al-Zayani failed to broker a truce between the various political players that would lead to implementation of the GCC peace deal. Opposition leaders refused to meet al-Zayani as long as regime forces continued killing protesters on the streets. But al-Zayani could not persuade Ahmad Saleh, the president’s son and commander of the Republic Guard, to order his men to stop firing. Al-Zayani cut short a meeting at the UAE embassy when it became clear that the Saleh was intent on crushing the “outlaws and deserters,” namely the troops commanded by the breakaway General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar.

Before leaving Sanaa, Zayani pleaded with Vice President Hadi that a ceasefire was still achievable. Hadi duly ordered an immediate halt to fighting, but Ahmad Saleh’s forces refused to comply. The Republican Guard responded by mounting an unsuccessful assassination attempt against one of Hadi’s close associates, General Ali Abdallah Aleiwa, who recently joined General al-Ahmar’s rebel camp. Under pressure from the president’s son, and feeling powerless and humiliated, Hadi came close last week to leaving Aden and retreating from public view, effectively ceding control to Ahmad Saleh.

Ahmad Saleh’s repeated attempts to block a ceasefire are likely designed to pave the way for his father’s return, with the blessing of Saudi Arabia and the US. They might argue that the embattled president is the only one capable of halting the unprecedented bloodletting, thereby settling the conflict in his favor. In the first official statement after his return as reported by the Yemeni state’s Saba news agency, the president called on government and rebel forces alike to “cease all fire and maintain a complete truce so as to enable agreement and accord to be reached by all political sides.” But he clearly had other intentions. Shortly after the announcement, pro-regime forces went on the offensive in several parts of the capital, targeting both rebel troop locations and anti-regime protesters in Change Square.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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