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December 16, 2011

Mapping Saudi Arabia's Counter Revolution in Yemen

December 16, 2011

December 16, 2011

Tawakol Kerman, the Yemeni activist, Nobel Laureate and Presidential candidate joined the growing chorus of condemning Saudi Arabia's negative role in her home country.

(photo: Tawakol Karman receiving her prize)
King Abd al-Aziz ibn-Saud (1876-1953), the father of Saudi Arabia, reportedly said on his deathbed: “the good or evil for us will come from Yemen.” This statement summarizes the strategic importance of Yemen to both Saudi Arabia, and its ageing royal family, the House of Saud. Since the Yemeni revolution started in February, and began gradually to disintegrate the Western and Saudi backed President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Unlike his counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, Saleh resisted local pressure and enjoyed firmer support by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Of course Egypt's Mubarak had similar support from his regional and international partners, but the Egyptian army was in fact a good replacement and would safeguard the peace accord with Israel (so Washington ditched Mubarak before it was too late).

To understand the Saudi role in containing Yemen's revolution, one has to look at the history behind it; Yemen is the one of the few instances where Saudi Arabia militarily intervened (and that says a lot). Decades before the "Arab Revolutions", Saudi Arabia's main threat came from Pan-Arabism, namely the charismatic Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Nasser supported a military coup against the then Saudi-backed ruling family in Yemen, led by Imam Muhammad al-Badr. al-Badr started a military campaign from North Yemen to defend his rule; he enjoyed the full support of Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian army was deployed in South Yemen; the civil war turned into a Saudi-Egyptian confrontation. The war lasted from 1962 to 1970 and ended with the division of Yemen. The main threat to Saudi Arabia came from the Republican approach of the 1962 military coup; it was against monarchy, and the house of Saud feared that it might influence the ranks of Saudi Arabia's army.

Another more recent threat that is worth looking at is Saudi Arabia's involvement in the Shiite Houthi rebellion (in Sa'da region, North Yemen) which later spilled into its own borders. The Houthi rebellion in 2009 was particularly sensitive, as their region is close to Nijran in NorthWestern KSA, and where the Shiite Ismaili and Zaidi minorities reside. One need not remind of the lack of any minority rights in Saudi Arabia (Shiite minorities are barely considered human in this Salafist Kingdom). Saudi Arabia's army ended its first military involvement in Yemen since 1970.

Today's revolution is no different, as it poses another existential threat to Saudi Arabia's royal family. If Yemen turns into a successful democracy, Saudi Arabia's royal family is in danger again. The links between both countries are more than strong, and range from cross border tribal relations to the more cultural and historical factors. This is why Riyadh is working hard to stop this country's uprising from becoming successful, and it is employing a major tool that is proving effective in a poor and largely tribal country: money. Saudi Arabia provides monthly "salaries" to tribal chiefs, religious and military leaders to buy their loyalty and support. This web of loyalty helps them weave their counter revolution strategy in Yemen.

According to Yemeni sources who have spoken to the Arab Digest, Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in helping Saleh survive the disintegration of his army and regime. Through their patronage network, the Saudi regime managed to pull strings and convince senior members of Saleh's regime and military to reconsider their positions or end their hesitation in supporting the crumbling regime in Sanaa. Riyadh played a crucial role in sparing Saleh increasing international pressure through a GCC initiative which helped buy him plenty of time. Actually, the GCC initiative bought him enough time to recover from wounds he suffered in an assassination attempt, and to gain enough leverage to keep his family members in key positions in the transitional phase and beyond. A recent Chatham House reported stated:

Saudi Arabia maintains extensive transnational patronage networks in Yemen. Many Yemenis believe it is trying to influence the outcome of political change and that succession dynamics within the Saudi royal family are affecting the calculations of Yemeni political actors.

Tawakol Kerman's statement on Saudi Arabia's negative role in Yemen, shows how much Yemenis are worried about Riyadh's future spoiler role, and the use of its patronage network to destroy the Yemeni youth's aspirations and longing for a better future.

(Photo: the Saudi King embraces Saleh)


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