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YEMEN: Qatar withdraws support for GCC agreement; expert warns of violence

May 13, 2011 |  2:59 am


Qatar has pulled out of the Gulf Cooperation Council's effort to negotiate an end to Yemen's political crisis, blaming the country's embattled president for the stalemate.

Qatar was among Gulf nations pushing a deal for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after 32 years in power in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Three months of massive street protests have demanded the autocratic ruler's immediate departure, and a government crackdown has killed about 150 people.

The six nations of the regional alliance known as the Gulf Cooperation Council are worried that Yemen's growing instability could destabilize other parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Timeline: Conflict in Yemen

Yemen's official news agency said Friday that Saleh's party accused Qatar of siding with the protesters and welcomed its withdrawal from the talks.

Benedict Wilkinson, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute based in Cairo, talked Thursday about what was expected Friday.

Q: So it seems the big question is whether there will be major violence Friday and if so, what that will mean for the Saleh regime and the GCC?

A: I think there is widespread and, increasingly, entrenched anger (particularly in urban areas) at the repeated acts of violence carried out by government forces against its own citizens. The wounding and killing of the protesters is actually fueling the resolve of the protesters rather than diluting it.

 As you say the real question is whether the government will meet these demonstrations with violence, and whether the protesters resort to violence of their own accord. My feeling is that there will almost certainly be some peripheral acts of political violence from the protesters to begin with and that the real crunch is whether the government retaliates or not. ... I think there is a very substantial chance that tomorrow will see major violence in the cities of Yemen.

As for the ramifications for Saleh in this situation -- violence will in all likelihood see his international partners not only distancing themselves further from their former counterterrorism partner, but overtly criticising his position. Similarly, regional parties, particularly the GCC and Saudi Arabia, will put further pressure on him to resign. The problem for all parties is that there is no clear successor and the power vacuum which follows is a major concern for the US.

Q: Other analysts have said the GCC and, more specifically, Saudi Arabia, are the only ones who can really broker an agreement between Saleh and the opposition at this point, so the onus
is on them. Is  that true? What might their next move be?

A: I entirely agree. The issue of a successor is the real sticking point -- and, along with the terrorist threat, the one which Saleh continues to provide as the prima facie reason for his premiership. The GCC and Saudi Arabia have a number of potential bargaining tools -- as do Yemen's international partners. But by and large, they are financial.

Unfortunately, a great deal of Western financial assistance is related to the presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and any attempt to withhold these funds will be criticized as a failure to maintain security. Attempts by the Saudis and the GCC to broker a deal between Saleh and the Islah party have been unsuccessful to date -- I suspect that future attempts will be more heavy-handed and forthright.

Q: So what will Friday’s protests mean for Yemen and the region?

A: The problem of removing Saleh is that AQAP is increasingly seen as the major terrorist threat, both to Saudi Arabia and to the West, and, in the aftermath of Bin Laden's death, this has never been more the case. On the one hand, Saleh has been a major partner in the global war on terror. On the other, his domestic record is blighted by reports of widespread corruption, human rights abuses and so on. 

If, as I suspect, there are major episodes of violence between the government and protesters tomorrow, and Saleh is persuaded to resign, Al Qaeda will certainly seek to play off this. Part of it will be a propaganda effort proclaiming it as a victory over Western puppets (AQAP have long joined average Yemenis in their critique of Saleh), but I suspect they will also resort to violence as a way of dominating the ensuing power vacuum.


Timeline: Conflict in Yemen

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo

Photo: A girl watches protesters during a rally Thursday to demand the ouster of Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana. Government forces fired on protesters Thursday, wounding dozens, and Gulf states sought to revive talks on a power transition to stem the rising bloodshed. Credit: Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters