The Yemen Dilemma

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh


By Shibani Mahtani

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is the lastest long-ruling dictator threatened by the upheavals and revolutions occurring across the Arab world.  Defections by once-loyal generals and the embrace of the protestors by tribal leaders have placed Saleh’s 32-year rule in serious jeopardy.

This comes after a bloody showdown between pro-government and anti-government forces last Friday, when 52 protestors were killed in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. The past week has seen frantic reactions from Saleh himself— everything from declaring a state of emergency, warning against civil war, and hinting at his own resignation, claiming he would be willing to hand over power to “safe hands.” In recent days, Saleh has been negotiating the terms of his potential resignation with senior military leaders.

Former diplomats and others who know the region, however, say it is difficult to tell whether his departure is truly imminent, or whether the negotiations are an attempt to show a false commitment to democratic change while keeping himself in power.

“Saleh has been a master of manipulation,” said Ambassador Bill Rugh in an interview. “He has managed to keep his head above the water for decades.” Rugh served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1984 to 1986, and is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

The response from the U.S. government has been cautious. Officials in the Obama administration have condemned the brutality in Sana’a, but have been extremely hesitant to indicate whether they are planning for President Saleh’s exit.

“We are not going to make predictions about what will happen in Yemen,” Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told the Associated Press. “We support dialogue as a path to a peaceful solution to Yemen’s current political situation that includes genuine participation by all sides.”

The same caution was echoed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Speaking in Cairo last week, he said that the United States had not formulated its plan should President Saleh be forced out of office. He reiterated that it was too soon to predict an outcome, and that President Saleh was an ally of the United States. In an interview with ABC a few days later, he admitted that the potential collapse of the Yemeni government would be a “real problem” for the United States.

Former US diplomats, however, rule out U.S. military action in Yemen.
“Military intervention would not be something that was ever considered, even if the country becomes ungovernable, at least not in any conventional sense,” said David Newton in an interview. Newton served as the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from 1994 to 1997 and, like Rugh, is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Neither do they think that the Libyan intervention sets a precedent for any similar action against Saleh, even if his regime were to respond as brutally to the protests as Colonel Gadaffi.

“Libya is not necessarily an example that we are going to dump Saleh,” said Ambassador Rugh, who believes military action against Gadaffi—undertaken with the cooperation of the U.N. Security Council, the Arab League, France and Britain —resulted from circumstances that do not apply to Yemen.

“Gadaffi has declared that he is not going to hold back his brutality against his own people. Saleh is using force but not in the declared attempt to wipe everybody out. The Arab League has noticed that, and we’ve noticed it too,” Rugh said.

Even if military intervention is not an option, Rugh is not certain of the alternative path that the United States will take in dealing with Yemen.

“The U.S. response is going to be hard to predict, even if Saleh steps down,” said Rugh. “This will be a real dilemma for Washington. We have interests, but we cannot automatically support the person in power.”

According to Ambassador Rugh, Saleh has not been the easiest of allies; frequently putting local politics and tribal tensions before helping the United States in its fight against al-Qaida’s Yemen-based affiliate.

The United States has provided the Saleh regime with arms, monetary aid and intelligence, in the hope that the Yemeni government would then help the United States fight its most dangerous threat. And Saleh has played an important role in quelling al-Qaida’s resurgence in Yemen. The group almost succeeded in bombing cargo jets bound for the United States last October, and an airliner headed for Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.

“We have always provided them with intelligence. U.S. aid has already increased a great deal in the past few years, and it’s scheduled to increase even more,” said Ambassador Newton. Yemen has received an average of $20 to $25 million in aid over the last few years, but the Obama administration has since increased this to $52.5 million.

In January, a report by the Congressional Research Service raised the specter of Yemen becoming a failed state, citing the country’s “limited natural resources, crippling illiteracy rate and high population growth.” Over 43 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and Yemen has one of the most heavily armed populations in the Arab world. The report suggests that Yemen is gradually becoming a safer haven for al-Qaida terrorists as domestic issues make the country harder to govern.

Other area specialists warned that a repeated focus on seeing Yemen only through a lens of terrorism will ultimately hurt America’s security interests. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and co-author of the blog Waq al-Waq, has argued that the Obama administration must foster development in Yemen, creating jobs for a young and impoverished population, rather than just funneling money into counter-terrorism efforts.

“Yemen has grave social and economic problems,” said Ambassador Newton. “There is definitely a fear that the country will become ungovernable.”


Shibani Mahtani, who is from Singapore, is a student in the "International Newsroom" course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

[Image courtesy of Helene C. Stikkel via Wikimedia Commons]

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