What Saudi Arabia wants

Who says you can't fit everything you need to say into a tweet? This entry was originally a very long tweet by our friend and sometimes blogger Fernando Carvajal. It was in response to a conversation (Storified below) between a few Yemen-watchers about why Saudi Arabia hasn't decided to back Yemen's opposition Islah party as a replacement for President Saleh and the GPC. View "What Saudi Arabia wants" on Storify

A strong Yemen means its institutions within the Jumhuriya (Republic) context are strong, this means democracy is strong. This threatens the KSA because even under Abdullah they have a reform project that is to run at a pace comfortable to Al Saud, and if Yemen, or any other neighbor in the peninsula reforms too quickly it will force Al Saud to speed up reform, confront rivals sooner then they want, and it will be a distraction for their own mid- and long-term projects. This will also impact the rest of the GCC of course, not just KSA. Any advance on democratization in yemen would mean the entire Peninsula would have to catch up quicker. Monarchs have not yet figured out how to do this without losing. I'm sure they like King Felipe (Spain) & Queen Elizabeth some, but they dont envy their symbolic positions. [I.e., Gulf rulers aren't ruling out a transition to constitutional monarchy with a functional, empowered parliament, but not on their own schedules and not without maintaining a significant degree of power and wealth.]

On the other hand, a weak Yemen poses other challenges for Al Saud: if the country spirals downward away from "controlled chaos," like Bernard Haykel says, it will force KSA to focus on security issues and neglect mid long term projects, which already carry natural rivals from within the Kingdom. Al Saud can't handle too many rivals or challenges at once; all of this Arab Spring is getting in the way of a mid-term plan to increase hegemony in the region vis a vis Iran, Iraq and yes, Israel. If it has to watch its flank all the time it can't focus on succession, economic stimulus, energy markets, competing with Dubai in finance sector, playing a new role in Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iraq and placating US on counter-terrorism. People forget that 'terrorists' are still trying to kill Saudis, never mind Iran. We forget migration, human trafficking, tribal disputes along the border. Also, an unstable Yemen means KSA needs to spend more money on tribal leaders to minimize, not end, distabilizing disputes that might end up costing more, like this revolution. This cuts into their own budget, and as the new generation fights amongt themselves, it leaves less cash to go around the family itself.

KSA is not the only Gulf state threatened by a weak Yemen. Oman fears spread of Salafi groups into its territory at a time when the Sultan is also looking at succession, and is also going through an economic crisis. People forget KSA just saved Oman's butt in February with a large contribution to counter any type of Arab Spring there. The UAE, for it's part, can't afford increased instability in Gulf of Aden because it affects its port operations at a time when they can't afford to lose any more cash or investments. AQAP will remain a threat not because of numbers but because it still has a hideout in Yemen for ideologues and small groups of operatives able to reach KSA or the Horn. With Awlaki out of the way and yemen cracking down on visas for Westerners and Asians the training camp factor decreases as well as the recruitment ops, [but none of the Gulf states can afford to neglect counter-terrorism efforts until and unless Yemen is able and willing to address the threat itself.]

People need to forget about the old myth in which Saudi's king 'Abdul 'Aziz told his sons, while on his death bed, to "keep Yemen weak." This was more about the Imam [Yahya] than any crystal ball effect on his part for his successors. The King didn't trust Imam Yahya or Ahmad ibn Yahya or the British in the south so he needed to ensure his son Faysal learned from his campaign in Tihama and prevent the Imam from returning to Najran and Asir (the treaty of 1934 was never intended as a permanent border, until 2000). Being a holy man, the Imam threatened Al Saud's hold on al-Haramain as other Sunni groups (MB) wished the Zaydis could fill the power vacuum after the Ottomans.

The new reality is that KSA and the other Gulf states can't afford to allow Yemen to become too weak, or too strong, yet.