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The Daily Beast: Yemen on the Brink

Author: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
September 24, 2011


The country's president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, has returned, and already he's brutalizing demonstrators.  Bruce Riedel writes that the power grab is about to lead to full-scale civil war.

Ali Abdallah Saleh’s return to Sana takes Yemen to the brink of civil war. Chaos on the Arabian Peninsula’s southern tip is dangerous for the Saudis and America and good news for al Qaeda. Saleh has licked his wounds in Saudi Arabia since he survived an assassination attempt in June. Now he’s back.

His sons and relatives have held on to parts of the capital and elements of the Army, waiting for this moment of return. Rival warlords have seized other parts of both the country and the Army, and peaceful demonstrators have grabbed other slices of the capital and the country. The economy has collapsed. Unemployment is now more than 40 percent. Division Gen. Ali Muhsen al-Ahmar, the rebel commander of the First Armored, and Saleh’s oldest son, Ahmed, who commands the Republican Guard, now are poised to start a full-scale civil war. Both are well armed.

The Saudis, who give almost every Yemeni politician bribes, have botched managing this crisis from the start. They lead the Gulf Cooperation Council political process that has tried to talk Saleh out of office, and he has made them look like fools. They are deeply ambivalent about Saleh, whom they have tried to oust in the past. But Saleh has also provided stability in their neighborhood for years. The Saudis don’t like revolutions, especially next door, and they have never been very good at managing Yemeni affairs. They treat the Yemenis with contempt, and the Yemenis reciprocate.

American diplomacy has tried to help the Saudis without becoming responsible for Yemen. We wisely don’t want to take on the burden of caring for the Arab world’s poorest country, which is running out of everything: oil, water, arable land, and hope. With a fast-growing population that will double to 40 million by 2030, a nearly universal drug addiction to qat, and no jobs, Yemen brings new meaning to the idea of a failing state. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the U.A.E. have the money to help and have given generously in the past. This should remain their problem.

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