Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Saudi policy towards Yemen

The prominent role of Saudi Arabia at the New York meeting of the Friends of Yemen and its hosting of the next one show that Riyadh is giving a much higher priority to dealing with Yemen 's problems. Until recently, western and regional governments have been privately concerned over a perceived lack of clarity in the Saudi strategy and who might be directing it. There has, at times, been a degree of mutual suspicion about the real ambitions in Yemen of Saudi Arabia and its Western allies.

Saudi policy was much clearer before the border agreement of 2000 when it was firmly in the hands of Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz , the defence minister. In those days Saudi strategy sought to keep the Yemeni regime strong enough to survive but not powerful enough to impose its control on the major tribes or pose a threat to Saudi Arabia. Many tribal leaders received and still get subsidies from Prince Sultan's office. Saudi Arabia opposed Yemeni unity in 1990 and openly supported the southerners when they attempted to secede in 1994.

Since the 2000 border agreement and the rise of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula Prince Nayif, the minister of interior, has taken the most prominent role with his son Prince Muhammad visiting Sana'a regularly and offering to aid its fight against AQAP. More recently, Prince Abd al-Aziz , a son of King Abdullah , has had a new and unspecified role in Saudi policy-making on Yemen.

The problems on the border with the Huthi in late 2009 and early 2010 brought the defence ministry clearly back into the act with Prince Khalid bin Sultan, the assistant minister, directing the Saudi campaign to clear the border area of Huthi fighters. It is never easy in Saudi Arabia to ensure coordination between the large entities controlled by senior princes. Saudi Arabia has not yet developed the capacity to project its political and diplomatic power consistently and prefers, where possible, to use its cheque book. Saudi officials also seemed to be uncomfortable with the assertion made by Western officials that Saudi Arabia should take the lead in dealing with Yemen.

However, there is clearly a new urgency in the Saudi attitude, indicating that there has been a review of strategy and an effort to co-ordinate the work of its agencies. Saudi leaders state publicly that they want stability in Yemen. They dread the opportunities a chaotic and unstable Yemen might offer to AQAP and both Sunni and Zaydi extremists. They are concerned about the possibility that Iran and other potential Saudi rivals might seek to exploit the chaos to damage Saudi Arabia. There is thus a greater willingness to work with regional and international partners within the framework of the Friends of Yemen, in which Saudi Arabia can play an influential role and share the burden of leadership and costs with others.

For more news and expert analysis about Yemen, please see Yemen Focus.

© 2010 Menas Associates

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