x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Saleh's return would only harm Yemen

Yemen's injured president has promised to return home. For a country already on the brink of chaos, Saleh's presence could provide the tipping point

Ali Abdullah Saleh owes his life to modern medicine. But if he returns to Yemen as has been promised in recent days, it will be his compatriots who will be in danger for their lives.

More than two months after Mr Saleh was medevacked from Yemen after an assassination attempt, his release from hospital in Saudi Arabia on Sunday is less important than where he goes from there. Officially Mr Saleh is still the president and his office has said that he plans to return to Sanaa.

He faces considerable hurdles if he chooses to do so, however. The United States and Saudi Arabia, formerly his most important sponsors, have both pressured him to leave office. American diplomats are urging him to stay away from Yemen, but it will be Saudi Arabia that holds the whip hand regarding Mr Saleh's movements.

Yemen is no ark of stability at the moment, but Mr Saleh's return would be a catastrophe. His decades of misrule were the main mobilising force behind six months of protests that have plunged the country into near chaos. Regardless of his role in government, his mere presence in the country would cause bloodshed.

There are signs that disaster can be averted. Yemen's foreign minister, Abubakr Al Qirbi, said on Monday that what Sanaa needs most is an "orderly transfer of power". The Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani told The New York Times this week that it is "very promising" that the president's camp is talking openly about transition.

The June 3 bombing of the presidential mosque was not an ideal form of regime change, and violence between Saleh loyalists and the Al Hashed tribe has continued. But there are also glimmers of a more representative government emerging. For one, the current political stalemate has allowed opposition groups time to organise and articulate demands. In mid-July an interim council of former ministers was formed; members include the former defence minister and a former prime minister.

Calls are also increasing for a return to the GCC-sponsored transition plan, which Mr Saleh had shelved three times before his injuries. It is past time for this plan to be implemented.

Whatever his intentions at this point, Mr Saleh continues to hold his country hostage by his refusal to step down. He has promised to do so, and reneged, several times. Although precedent suggests he will linger longer, Yemen can ill afford for him not to go.