Yemen’s Dangerous Power Vacuum After President Saleh

Yemen’s dictator has stepped down. Bruce Riedel on the warring factions looking for power.

Saudi Press Agency / AP Photo

If it holds up—a big if—the deal made by King Abdullah in Riyadh to ease Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power is a significant coup for the Saudis that could avert civil war and put al Qaeda under pressure. But there are lots of spoilers in the Arabian desert who will try to undo the deal.

The king and his new Crown Prince Nayef hosted Saleh for the signing of the deal. At least twice before, Saleh had promised to sign over power but always backed out. This time, the Saudis had him cornered. The U.N. was threatening to seize his money, ban his travel, and label him a criminal. Worse, the remaining loyal troops of his Presidential Guard were starting to defect to a rival warlord. So he has belatedly transferred power to a weak vice president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is to form a transitional government and hold elections in three months. In turn, Saleh gets immunity, keeps his cash, and can come to New York for medical attention for the severe injuries he suffered in an assassination attempt last June.

The king called it “the turning of a new page in the history of Yemen”—and it does end a 33-year-long run as dictator for Saleh. But the Saudis and other gulf Arabs will need to put lots of money behind the deal to make it work. They will need to buy off Saleh's son, who runs the Presidential Guards; rival generals and warlords; tribal chiefs; and the young protesters who started the revolution and want a real democracy. The religious leadership, composed of both Sunnis and Shia, will need to be brought in too. The rebelious Houthi tribe along the Saudi border will need accommodating, which means ending the threat of more Saudi military operations against them at least for now. Southern separatists in Aden will need to be accommodated as well. The Saudis have been their patron before and have influence there. All of these players can spoil the deal unless bought or intimidated.

Of course, the Saudis don’t want a real democracy to emerge from the chaos. That could be contagious. Bahrain would ask for freedom too. Kuwait now is hovering on the brink of political turmoil. Change frightens the royals. But the Saudis can’t dictate Yemen’s future. They’ve tried before and always failed.

If the Saudis can pull off managing a bumpy transition—with lots of cash and some help from the U.N.—then al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula can be put under more counterterrorism pressure. The U.S. and the Saudis are already trying hard. The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki was a big win. If the Yemenis get their house back in order, more can be done. AQAP has flourished in the chaos of the last year. Any resumption of order will help contain the jihadis.

Saleh is the fourth dictator to fall this year in the tsunami of change that has swept Arabia. His departure will inspire Syrians and Bahrainis. It may inspire young Saudis too. The U.S. gains from a successful Saudi deal. Obama’s team helped to corner Saleh. The deal also helps ease U.S.-Saudi frictions. The new crown prince gains too.

Now comes the hard part: making it all work out on the ground.