x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Why Ali Abdullah Saleh is unlikely to return home to Yemen

With Yemen's 'glue melting rapidly', Saudi Arabia would like to see an end to the fiasco in its southern neighbour, but it is far from clear what happens next.

RIYADH // Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh's arrival here for medical treatment effectively ends his 32-year rule, presenting the Saudis with the prospect of an uncertain and possibly violent transition period in their volatile, impoverished southern neighbour, analysts say.

"I think it's the end of his rule and I'm not sure he will be able to go back for many reasons," said Fares Braizat, of the Doha-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies.

Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Mr Braizat added, do not want to see him go back because they "would like to see an end to this fiasco in Yemen".

Mr Saleh has angered his GCC neighbours, and the United States, too, by reneging at least three times on verbal agreements to step down after five months of demonstrations by ordinary Yemenis, including a large youth contingent, demanding that he leave office.

The vice president Abdo Rabu Mansour Hadi has now stepped into Mr Saleh's place to run the country, but it is not certain he will be accepted as leader by Yemen's fractious political groups. In particular, he could face opposition from some of Mr Saleh's close relatives still in Yemen who command key military forces and security agencies, according to several sources here.

Paramount among them is Mr Saleh's son, Ahmad Ali Saleh, who heads the Republican Guard. Mr Saleh's nephew Yahya Muhammad Saleh, commander of the security forces that attacked protesters, is still also in Yemen.

Michael Hudson, the director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, told Al Jazeera: "I don't think we're going to see Saleh going back to Yemen. The question is what do you do with his followers, including his son Ahmad. A heavy responsibility now falls on the vice-president, who is nominally in charge, to see if he can bring the various other players in the game to some kind of negotiating situation."

The Saudis, who have long had much influence in Yemen, are already deeply involved in trying to manage events, reportedly having brokered a ceasefire between Mr Salah's forces and the Al Ahmar tribe on Friday.

Yemen is a highly tribal, fragmented society and "the country's glue is melting rapidly", said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

"It's going to be a long path to a new government, whether it's another strongman or a democratic entity … so the international community has to be prepared for that," Mr Karasik added.

A long period of unrest is what the Saudis and Americans fear most as it would create opportunities for al Qa'eda's Yemen-based branch, al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, to gain territory and breathing room to plan attacks.

The severity of Mr Saleh's injuries is not clear, though most analysts say he would not have agreed to leave Yemen if not badly hurt.

The Yemeni leader touched down in Riyadh around 1.30am yesterday, according to one Saudi source. About 90 minutes later, the royal court of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz issued a statement saying a Saudi medical team had travelled to Sana'a on Saturday to examine Mr Saleh and had recommended he get treatment in Riyadh, to which Mr Saleh agreed.

cmurphy@thenational.ae