Yemen Update: Saleh’s Sojourn to Saudi and What It Means

By Jay Holmes

Last week, a rocket hit Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s personal mosque at his home in Yemen. It killed three of Saleh’s bodyguards and his personal Imam. Saleh and others were wounded and flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment.

The hospitals in Yemen could have handled the medical treatment with less delay. Saleh’s decision to be flown to Saudi Arabia is an indication that he believes he would not be safe in a hospital in Yemen. On that point, Saleh and I agree. Naturally, many of us are wondering about the significance of this attack.

The first step in making a guess about the impact of Saleh leaving Yemen is to venture a guess as to who might have ordered the attack. Instinctively, we might wish to assume that Al Qaeda type gangs of Islamic terrorists are behind the attack. Given how often that’s true, it’s a reasonable instinctive answer. In this particular case, though, I believe it to be the wrong answer.

Many of Yemen’s power elites have been hedging their political bets. For three decades, they have been able to “double down” on Saleh with confidence, but some of them have evidently lost their confidence in Saleh’s chances for staying in power. In the view of many powerful Yemenis, Saleh is no longer a safe bet.

Last week, an artillery attack was conducted against the home of powerful Yemeni businessman/politician Hamid Ahmar. Hamid and his brother are the leaders of the Hashid tribal confederation. I believe that the brothers were moving the confederation away from supporting president Saleh, and that Saleh is likely responsible for the attack on Hamid Ahmar. Saleh needed Ahmar dead, and he needed him dead fast. That opened the door for a quick and sloppy attempt. The attack on Saleh was likely retribution by the Ahmads. Both groups deny any involvement in attacking each other, and I don’t for a second believe either of them.

Saleh’s current host, the house of Saud, has openly encouraged Saleh to sign an agreement for a transitional government. In this case, transition means, “Adios Saleh. Don’t come back.” When the House of Saud makes a political move, it moves deliberately. It is unlikely that the Saudis will back down from wanting Saleh gone. They won’t kill him while he’s in their hands, but at this point, they wouldn’t mind him having an accident somewhere else.

From the Saudi point of view, any tribal confederation coming to power in Yemen is better than mayhem in Yemen because they are convinced that mayhem in Yemen will eventually be co-opted by an Al Qaeda type gang or by Iran. Which tribal chief pulls the strings in Yemen is not critical to the Saudis; they are confidant that they can work with any of them. What they don’t wish to deal with on their doorstep is chaos.

If the Ahmar family can bring the Hamid tribal confederation to a workable agreement on a new architecture for power in Yemen, then Saleh will have too little support left in Yemen to do anything.

To compare this to an American situation, for academic purposes think of The Paul Castellano/John Gotti mafia business arrangement. Castellano was a confident New York Capo and Gotti was his most important captain. Once Gotti convinced Sammy “the bull” Gravano and his crew to back him against Castellano, Castellano was a goner.

If Castellano had survived the hit in Manhattan on December 18, 1985 he still would not have held power as long as Gotti’s alliances were in effect. Other families would not pay for Castellano’s honor with their own families’ blood and money in a war to suppress the upstart John Gotti.

While I don’t foresee Saleh and his driver ending up dead on a Manhattan sidewalk, the same dynamic applies. The key to Saleh’s future has slipped from his hand. It is now in the hands of Hamid Ahmar and his brother. The Hashid confederation will decide the future of President Saleh. The Saudis have likely sent their best insurance salesman to Saleh’s quarters to sell him a guaranty of safety and comfort in Saudi Arabia. Saleh will hold out as long as he can for a “better” deal.

The Hashids are needed in order for foreign investors to safely finance the proposed new gas industrial development in Yemen. The project could make a very large dent in the 70% unemployment in Yemen. In fact, a well-run gas project could transform the Yemeni economy for decades.

China won’t admit it, but it is in silent agreement with the West about the Hashids bringing stability to Yemen. China and India would both like to buy gas from facilities in Oman and Yemen.

Iran, on the other hand, would like to see the Hashids fail. It will pretend that is for ideological reasons, but it is for financial and political reasons. Natural gas facilities in Oman and Yemen will make a natural gas depot in Iran far less valuable and will effectively reduce Iran’s bargaining position in world markets.

And what does any of this mean to us? I take it as good news. The Hashids have lost money and blood in the chaos. They want their profits and their sleep back. They want the natural gas project to happen. They cannot prosper under any radicals of any stripes. They want a functioning republican government that aggravates the masses less than the current one does and that continues to ignore the local matters in Hashid-controlled areas so that they can take their cut from the gas project.

So, that’s my guess. What’s your guess?

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6 comments on “Yemen Update: Saleh’s Sojourn to Saudi and What It Means

  1. K.B. Owen says:

    I finally got it with the Castellano-Gotti analogy. Thanks!

  2. Looks like a pretty well put together theory to me. I’d hedge my bets on economics driven actions.

  3. educlaytion says:

    Great analogy to the mafia. That is really helpful to understanding something I know little about.

  4. Dave says:

    “Follow the money.” It doesn’t always work, but it’s usually a good place to start. Particularly when, once you have the power, the money can follow.

  5. Love the mafia analogy… except that we know all the key players from the start. 🙂

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