Obama must tell Saudi Arabia to keep Yemen's Saleh

Yemen's leader must not be allowed to return. America's interest lies in the democratic aspirations of young Arabs, not oil. Obama should shift the Saudi relationship to one of universal values.

Each new tempest of the Arab Spring has tested America’s ties with the world’s largest oil supplier, Saudi Arabia. Now with Yemen, a Saudi neighbor on the Arabian Peninsula, poised to possibly become the next Arab country liberated from autocracy, it may be time for President Obama to rethink the US relationship with the Saudi monarchy – one too long based merely on mutual self-interests.

Events in Yemen are providing that opportunity.

The nation’s longtime dictator, President Ali Abdallah Saleh, was injured Friday during tribal-related violence in the capital. He was flown to Saudi Arabia for medical care. If the Saudis understand that recent events in Yemen are primarily a result of young people protesting – largely peacefully – for freedom and democracy, they won’t let Mr. Saleh return and they will take other steps to bring democracy to their neighbor.

Saleh’s 33 years in power may have kept Yemen relatively stable, which is what the House of Saud has long wanted. He even battled a branch of Al Qaeda, one that has tried to strike the United States.

But a lack of basic rights has only contributed to economic decline. The average Yemeni lives on about $2 a day. The call for change by young Yemenis since March has inspired the nation’s top Army general and a leading tribe to defect from Saleh. Now, in his absence, only Saleh’s sons, who are in charge of their own armed forces, stand in the way of Yemenis making the difficult transition to democracy.

The Saudi hand in Yemen has long been a strong one, wielding both troops and money at times. The kingdom also sent troops into neighboring Bahrain recently to protect that monarchy.

Such actions reflect a desire by the Saudi family to stay in power. Saudi anger at Mr. Obama for abandoning Hosni Mubarak in Egypt only showed just how much US-Saudi ties are not based on shared ideals.

Every US president since Franklin Roosevelt has tried to keep a basic bargain with the Saudi monarchs: Keep the oil flowing and the US will keep your kingdom safe. That worked well for America’s oil-addicted economy. But as the Arab Spring (and previous democratic revolutions in other regions) have shown, the US has far more interest in the stability of democratic friends than the temporal loyalty of autocratic allies.

President Reagan, for example, decided during his term in office that dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos were much more of a liability than a bulwark against communism. One by one, many of those rulers fell after losing US support.

US-Saudi ties should not be based solely on oil or shared interests in regional security. As with individuals, the US-Saudi relationship must be based on universal values.

The Saudi monarchy knows its young people – who are among the most Internet connected of Arab people – are restless. Since the Arab Spring began last December, the regime has spent billions of dollars in added economic subsidies – essentially bribes – to keep its people quiet.

The kingdom now “owns” the problem in Yemen by holding its longtime ruler. This would be the best time for Mr. Obama to make clear that America’s primary interest with Saudi Arabia has shifted toward helping all Arabs be free. The democratic revolution in Yemen must be allowed to finish.

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