Yemen's neighbors step up role in pushing for Saleh's exit

The Gulf Cooperation Council is joining negotiations to end Yemen's political stalemate. Its role – especially that of Saudi Arabia, Yemen's largest donor – could prove far more influential than that of the West.

Yemen Lens/AP
Yemeni army soldiers block the way as antigovernment protesters attend a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Taiz, Yemen, on Thursday, April 7. Defying a deadly government crackdown, tens of thousands of protesters on Wednesday poured into the streets of Yemen's second largest city in the latest demonstrations against the long serving president.

Having defiantly rebuffed mounting calls for his resignation for more than two months, Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh is now coming under intense pressure to step aside from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Yemen’s largest donor, Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday, the GCC, a political and economic union of six Gulf countries, announced that it would take part in negotiations to end Yemen's political stalemate. The standoff has claimed more than 100 lives in a series of violent attacks on antiregime demonstrators.

The rising assertiveness of the GCC may prove pivotal in addressing the deepening unrest in Yemen, roiled not only by political uncertainties but a looming economic crisis as well. While the West, which once backed Mr. Saleh, has become vocal about its desire to see the president step down, it is unlikely that it has the political leverage alone to compel change. What may be more important to breaking the country’s dangerous political standoff will be its neighbors – especially Saudi Arabia.

“The Americans probably don’t have as much influence as they would like,” says Christopher Boucek, a Yemen analyst at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The amount of support and financial assistance that [the US] gives Yemen is relatively small compared to other donors like Saudi Arabia, which has much more direct influence."

Saleh initially welcomed the involvement of the Gulf states, which demonstrated a desire to quell the tide of regional uprisings by offering broad economic concessions in Saudi Arabia and intervening militarily in Bahrain. On Wednesday, however, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani told QNA state news agency that the members of the six-nation GCC "hope to reach a deal with the Yemeni president to step down."

Thus far, the efforts of the European Union and the United States to oversee negotiations between government and the opposition have born little fruit. A series of proposals has been rejected, and at least in public, no clear solution appears to have been on the horizon. But the increasing instability in Yemen, home to the region’s most active Al Qaeda franchise, is eliciting added pressure from the international community for an end to Saleh's 32-year tenure.

Escalating violence adds urgency

A sharp return to violence this week brought additional condemnation and urgency to the devolving situation. At least 15 were killed this week in attacks on protesters in Taiz, Hodeida, and Sanaa.

In response to the continued bloodshed, Catherine Ashton, High Representative for the European Union, called for a swift resolution to the crisis.

“I am gravely concerned by reports of violent repression, including live ammunition, against demonstrators,” Ms. Ashton said in a press statement. “I reiterate my call for an orderly political transition to begin without delay in order to resolve the current crisis and pave the way to reforms…Transition must begin now."

The US, which throughout the past decade has been strongly allied with Saleh on counterterrorism efforts, also appeared to shift positions this week. "Obviously the situation right now is a difficult one," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters on Tuesday. "The longer it festers, the more difficult it becomes."

Saudi Arabia may be a key player in that transition, should it occur. It is the only country that contributes direct budgetary assistance to Yemen, with total aid amounting to more than $1 billion, says Mr. Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment.

A proposal to transfer power to Saleh's deputy

With Saleh’s grasp on power outside of the capital diminishing rapidly and some governates, or provinces, already throwing off the remnants of his rule, Saudi Arabia and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have a vested interest in stemming further destabilization.

“What we’re seeing from Saudi Arabia is more interest in building the capacity in Yemen to be a more capable state, preventing Yemen from becoming Afghanistan on their border,” says Boucek.

Mohammed Abou Lahoum, a senior leader in Saleh’s General People's Congress party, confirmed that the GCC has already submitted a proposal to the president that includes immunity for Saleh and would transfer executive power to his deputy, Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.

President Saleh has not issued an official response.

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