Senior Adviser and Director of Security Department
Gulf Research Center
There is an old proverb in Saudi Arabia which goes: "All good things come from Yemen." This was accurate when Yemen was widely known as 'Happy Yemen' and 'Green Yemen', the garden and the food basket of Arabia, a prosperous country producing and exporting a variety of goods, while the rest of Arabia was no more than an arid desert and a backward region.
During the Yemeni civil war in the 1960s, the late Saudi King Faisal bin Abdulaziz was reminded of this proverb. His reaction was: "Yes, this is true, but all bad things come from Yemen as well." These words well illustrate the Saudi perception of Yemen in recent history. In making their national security calculations, the Saudis look beyond their national borders, and Yemen is an integral part of this calculus for logical and justifiable reasons. Historically, the engagement between the two states has resulted in negative and positive outcomes for both sides. In the past fifty years, Saudi Arabia has had to deal with many major crises in Yemen's internal politics and in Saudi-Yemeni bilateral relations.
However, the current political crisis in Yemen has exposed the limitations of Saudi influence, even as it has presented major and multiple challenges to Saudi decision-makers. For many decades, Saudi Arabia adopted 'dollar diplomacy' as a main instrument to influence developments inside Yemen. Considering the complexities of Yemen as a state and society, the Saudis could not develop a credible alternative to this instrument. As Yemen became a very poor state and Saudi Arabia became super-rich, this strategy was, to some extent, successful in ensuring Saudi influence . But what the Saudis discovered on a number of occasions in their dealings with Yemen was that the loyalty of the Yemeni political and tribal leadership was to the dollar and did not necessarily extend to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, most of the Yemeni leaders have their own interests within the framework of the state's political structure and these interests do not necessarily coincide with Saudi interests or wishes. Thus Saudi Arabia, despite transferring billions of dollars every year to the bank accounts of the influential Yemeni leaders, remains in reality a marginal player in the country political affairs. Ironically, inside Yemen as well as outside, Saudi Arabia is blamed, most of the time unjustifiably, for a good portion of Yemen's problems, thus exaggerating the extent of Saudi influence. Indeed, Saudi Arabia never really secured actual value for the money it spent in Yemen during the past fifty years. This may be considered as a major shortcoming in the Kingdom's regional and foreign policy.
The Saudis cannot, and should not, prevent President Ali Abdullah Saleh from returning to Yemen - the president is an official guest and his wishes must be fully respected. It cannot persuade or force the President to resign or abdicate against his wishes. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has no, or very little trust and confidence in the Yemeni opposition groups which are challenging the regime. Most of the opposition figures are well known to Saudi Arabia, as they have been part of the political scene in Yemen for the past few years, but Saudi decision-makers have little faith in the ability or sincerity of the opposition groups. In short, the Saudi leadership has no sympathy for either side of the Yemeni conflict. Yet, a total collapse of the security situation in Yemen could have dire consequences for the security and stability of Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom has few options regarding the present crisis in Yemen. Probably, the only option is to adopt a neutral stand and wait for the final outcome of the current internal struggle, and then reassess the situation according to the national interest of the state. However, even apart from the outcome of this crisis, it may be expected that internal developments in Yemen will remain a major headache for Saudi decision-makers in the foreseeable future, with no easy or effective solution insight to this predicament.