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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.

It is possible that the Obama administration, having tried to straddle the middle, will wind up losing on both counts. Thus far it’s diplomacy in Yemen has neither managed to direct the Yemeni crisis nor deflect the threat from Saudi Arabia in the geopolitical sense. Instead of facilitating a diplomatic settlement in Yemen, the administration finds itself watching a possible civil war unfold. What was once Saudi Arabia’s backyard has now become its front line.

There are now reports that Saudi Arabia is circling the wagons:

The Gulf Cooperation Council, which is kind of like ASEAN but is looking more and more like NATO, is thinking about increasing the number of troops in the group’s joint military force, which is known, rather apocalyptically, as the Peninsula Shield.

The New York Times:

Invitations to Jordan and Morocco this month to apply for membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council are aimed at strengthening the security of the monarchies in the Gulf, political analysts and diplomats say.

Analysts say the turning point came when Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors saw how the United States dealt with the fall of the Egyptian regime.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, said: “The Saudis worried that if the U.S. was able to turn its back on one of its closest allies in the region when former President Hosni Mubarak left, will they do it again if unrest erupts somewhere else in the region? Who will they throw under the bus next?”

Elliot Abrams at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that Saudi Arabia has drawn a final defense line around the monarchies in the area. It will allow the “Arab Spring” to come no closer than that:

My theory is this: for the Saudis, it’s fine if citizens of a fake republic like Tunisia or Egypt demand a real republic with real elections and democracy. But they draw the line at monarchies: kings have to stay in charge. So they lecture the kings of Morocco and Jordan to be careful about too many reforms (if the rumors are correct), and invite them to join the Club of Kings that is the GCC. Presumably financial benefits will follow, so long as the kings don’t play around with any experiments that might give Saudi subjects ideas of their own. And in Bahrain, they put down a revolt that might have brought constitutional monarchy—though admittedly that situation appears far more complex in the eyes of Saudi royals, as the Bahrainis who would be empowered are Shia whose success might give Saudi Shia unacceptable ideas about their own fate.

The situation presents a dilemma for Washington: from an objective point of view it can’t afford to stop in the middle. Either the Arab Spring succeeds completely in democratizing the region or its old alliances in the region are destroyed completely. The problem is the administration has not seen it as a real dilemma. By attempting to be on “both sides of history” the administration may achieve neither of its goals and in fact obtain the worst of all worlds. Its attempts to split the difference may deliver the entire region to turmoil while destroying the entire fabric of its old alliances.

President Obama’s current strategy, though he may not have considered it, implies that he either has to win the whole kahuna or lose it. This setup is known as the “Gambler’s Ruin” problem. “Consider a game that gives a probability a of winning 1 dollar and a probability b = 1-a of losing 1 dollar. If a player begins with 10 dollars, and intends to play the game repeatedly until he either goes broke or increases his holdings to N dollars, what is his probability of reaching his desired goal before going broke? This is commonly known as the Gambler’s Ruin problem.” The difficulty is that you can’t quit while you’re ahead. Either you get the N dollars or go broke trying.

For any given initial holdings, if we increase our upper target from … to some larger number, we see that our probability of going broke before reaching that number also increases. If we have no “quit while we’re ahead” target, and simply intend to play the game indefinitely, our probability of eventually going broke approaches 1, which presumably is why this problem is called the gambler’s ruin.

One way to think about the situation is that, despite President Obama’s rhetoric about “false choices,” he really must choose between two mutually exclusive outcomes: an authoritarian Middle East and a democratic one. If he puts all his weight behind a democratic Middle East the final result must be the end of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On the other hand if he wants to preserve the current alliance structure, it must spell the end of the Democratic Middle East.  But if he keeps trying to support the princes and promote the Arab Srping he will sooner or later realize that the price of keeping the princes in power is that they must be kept in power.

But if he supports the rebels half-heartedly, then Washington will lose the leadership of the democratization movement to groups like al-Qaeda. In that case, Washington loses on both counts. Al-Qaeda gets to benefit from the Arab Spring and the president gets to destroy his network of alliances. It would be interesting to know whether Washington sees the choices in these terms. Probably not. When it comes to a fork in the road, it usually takes it.


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