x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Saleh's visit to Riyadh opens a door to change

It is still too soon to hope that President Saleh has left Yemen's politics, and when he goes other warring parties will face a delicate balancing act.

On Tuesday night, Ali Abdullah Saleh landed in Riyadh to sign a GCC plan under which he will finally cede power. Mr Saleh's death grip on the presidency has blocked any movement forward for troubled Yemen. And his record of promising to sign an accord, only to back out time after time, makes us pessimistic that he has really given up power, no mater what documents he signs.

The plan calls on Mr Saleh to hand power to Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi in return for immunity from prosecution. That transfer of power would be immediate, although Mr Saleh is to keep his title until presidential elections, which are supposed to be held within three months.

On the face of it, this would seem a satisfactory result for the main Yemeni opposition groups, which signed this same accord in April. But many questions remain unanswered.

For a start, it is almost impossible for Mr Hadi to shepherd a fair election in so short a period, regardless of his intentions. Apart from mundane details about campaigning and access to the ballot, Yemen's disintegrating security situation and fragmentation make a national election seemingly impossible. Yemenis are eager for change, but three months may be too much to ask.

Of even more concern is that Ahmad Saleh, the president's son, remains in charge of the country's elite armed forces, the Republican Guard. In a country on the verge of failed state status and in danger of a split between the North and South, there is a real danger that "national security" will become a pretext for the Salehs to hold on - although that remains the biggest stumbling block to national reconciliation.

It would not be the first time. Mr Saleh has consistently used the threat of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups as a justification for his rule, with the support until recently of the United States and Saudi Arabia.

He is not the root cause of Yemen's problems - fragmentation, open conflict, a crippled economy and impending water crisis - but his rule of patronage and polarisation has prevented any solutions from moving forward.

If the GCC plan can lead to his departure, and a weakening of his clique's grip on power, there are still serious negotiations ahead. As Mr Saleh landed in Riyadh, clashes between government forces and different tribes spread across the country. With so many warring sides, Yemen faces a precarious balance of power at best. But that would be easier if Mr Saleh isn't tipping the scales.