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Belmont Club

The Arab Sprung

May 26th, 2011 - 2:28 am

Fighting broke out in Yemen’s capital, killing at least 38 as President Saleh, who has refused to step down after promising to, tried to take on a powerful tribal leader:

The escalating clashes came after Saleh refused to sign a U.S.-backed deal, mediated by Gulf Arab neighbors, that offered immunity from prosecution under a timetable to step down within 30 days and transfer power to his vice president.

The United States has ordered all its non-essential diplomatic personnel out of the country:

There are worries that Yemen, already teetering on the brink of financial ruin, could descend into a failed state that poses a major risk for regional security and its neighbour Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for Saleh to sign the deal but analysts said Washington has little leverage in Yemen even though it has sent about $300 million in aid to help prop up Saleh’s government.

“What options do we have to force a resolution? Almost zero,” Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, told Reuters.

Saleh said on Wednesday he would make no more concessions to those seeking his departure. But the capital of the country of 23 million has begun to feel like a city at war.

Robert Worth and Laura Kasinof of the New York Times write:

The United States, which has worked closely with Yemen on counterterrorism, is now considering pushing for United Nations resolutions or even sanctions against Mr. Saleh and his family members, to pressure him to sign the agreement.

American officials are finding they have little leverage with a president who seems to believe he can outfox his opponents — and perhaps secure a bailout from Saudi Arabia — despite the dire situation in his country, much of which is in open revolt and where several provinces are beyond his control.

It is not clear whether Mr. Saleh realizes that the current crisis is far more serious than anything he has faced before. Yemen’s economy is collapsing, and its largest tribes are on the brink of armed rebellion. Mr. Saleh may soon run out of the money he needs to maintain his followers’ loyalty.

The Voice of America writes that the instability in Yemen is bound to help al-Qaeda. “U.S. intelligence officials believe al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is now the most significant terrorist threat to the United States, and analysts say the Yemen-based organization is benefiting from the violence and turmoil in that country.” Some analysts believe that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is planning to launch an attack on the United States.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Edmund Hull also served as the acting coordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department and says al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is likely to launch another attack on the United States …

Analyst Zimmerman says the terrorist group seeks to recruit and train local citizens to commit terrorist acts. “Not only is it attempting to execute spectacular mass casualty attacks against the U.S. and American interests, but it is also trying to encourage would-be recruits to execute smaller scale attacks,” she said.

Meanwhile, Arab News says that Saudi Arabia is prepared to “defend its borders” against threats from Yemen:

Speaking to reporters after opening a conference on military trials and councils in Tabuk, Prince Khaled hoped that the Yemenis would apply their senses to overcome the country’s present crisis.

Taken together the news reports suggest that diplomatic efforts to resolve the Yemeni crisis have been largely unsuccessful. The country bordering Saudi Arabia may be on the brink of civil war — a conflict which can only benefit al-Qaeda. They also call into question Saudi Arabia’s ability to influence the direction of the “Arab Spring.”

Bloomberg writes:

The kingdom has emerged as the leader of a new rejectionist front that is determined to defeat popular demand for reform. One would have expected Iran to lead such a front, but instead it is America’s closest Arab ally in the region that is seeking to defeat our policy. Though the president made no mention of Saudi Arabia in his speech, in the near term, dealing with the kingdom is the biggest challenge facing the U.S. in the Middle East.

Saudi rulers have made clear that they find U.S. support for democracy naive and dangerous, an existential threat to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. If the U.S. supports democracy, the Saudis are signaling, it can no longer count on its special bond with Riyadh (read: oil).

The Saudi threat is intended to present U.S. policymakers with a choice between U.S. values and U.S. interests. The idea is that either Washington stays the course, supporting the Arab people’s demands for reform, and risks a rift with Saudi Arabia, or it protects that relationship and loses the rest of the Middle East.

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