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Blessing in disguise: End of Saudi aid to Yemen

Some welcome the news as an opportunity for Yemen to gain its independence from Saudi's debilitating influence.

Last Modified: 24 Oct 2013 10:07
Abubakr Al-Shamahi

Abubakr Al-Shamahi is a British-Yemeni freelance journalist and is the editor of Comment Middle East commentmideast.com.
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"A suspension of aid may provide Yemen with the opportunity it has been waiting for, the chance to cut the umbilical cord linking it to Saudi Arabia, and the opportunity to emerge, finally, as an independent sovereign state," writes al-Shamahi [AFP]

In a speech delivered in Washington DC this week, Prince Turki bin Faisal,  Saudi Arabia's former ambassador to the United States, confirmed that Saudi aid to its southern neighbour, Yemen, was “on hold, until the country settles down”.

Saudi aid to Yemen goes back decades, and is the bedrock of Saudi’s foreign policy in that country. The Saudis have stepped in when the Yemeni government has been in desperate need, most recently paying the salaries of civil servants, and supplying Yemen with fuel as shortages threatened the poorest nation in the Middle East.

Yet, despite the apparent benefits of Saudi aid, the upshot is that the Saudi presence in Yemen has been debilitating for the latter. In the long term, any weakening of Saudi presence in Yemen, as a suspension of aid will almost certainly bring, is beneficial to Yemen, and will give breathing space for it to become independent of its "big brother" next door.

This denial of aid may be surprising to some who see aid as necessary for Yemen following the tumultuous period since the 2011 uprising that deposed former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen is not in a position to be left alone - with a weak economy and an even weaker central government - in the face of threats to its national security such as secessionists in the south, and a growing al-Qaeda insurgency.

The situation can be appraised from two angles.

First, Yemeni governmental institutions are not in the right state to deal with the millions of dollars of aid that are deposited in their coffers. Corruption, and a lack of transparency mean that this money simply disappears, so many developmental projects are unfinished or simply do not leave the drawing board.

In an article I wrote last year, Yemeni activists gave their opinions on aid to the country, with some being of the opinion that it did more harm than good, and others commenting that a reliance on short-term aid will not solve problems in the long term.

Second, and more important in the context of Prince Turki’s comments, is that Saudi aid in particular, as I have pointed out earlier, prevents Yemen from achieving any real long-term progress on several fronts, whether they be political or economic.

Saudi Arabia’s objective in Yemen has been to 'contain Yemen’s problems within Yemen and to prevent them from spilling over the border'.

- Sarah Phillips, author of 'Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis'

Self-serving aid

In his speech, Prince Turki spoke of a Saudi Arabia whose altruistic goal in relation to other nations was to “strengthen our allies in the region and beyond, and to assist in whatever way we can to help our neighbours maintain stability”.

When looking at Saudi’s foreign policy in Yemen, going back decades, this heart-warming sentiment is unfortunately counter to reality.

As Sarah Phillips points out in her book, “Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis”, Saudi Arabia’s objective in Yemen has been to “contain Yemen’s problems within Yemen and to prevent them from spilling over the border”. In essence, instability can reign supreme in Yemen, as it does, so long as that instability does not negatively effect the Saudi homeland. Saudi Arabia is building a security barrier on its border with Yemen, so as to ensure that any instability, in the form of refugees, or al-Qaeda operatives, does not cross over the border.

Looking back at the last few decades, a pattern emerges in Saudi Arabia’s dealings with Yemen. The Kingdom has two main policy goals in this arena: preventing a foreign power from establishing a base of influence in Yemen, and impeding the emergence of a united Yemen, independent of Saudi Arabian hegemony.

Saudi Arabia has prioritised these goals over any attempt to "strengthen" Yemen or help it to "maintain stability."

A history of Saudi influence

In the 1960’s, Saudi Arabia took an active role in the North Yemeni Civil War, arming the royalists, providing them with bases, and funding them. This was not done because the Saudis believed that royalist rule in North Yemen would be better for the country, or to prevent instability, but because the other side, the republicans, were supported by Saudi’s great foe, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. The entrenchment of Nasser on Saudi Arabia’s southern border was extremely dangerous for them, and an end to the civil war in North Yemen, with the Nasser-backed republicans victorious, would have given the opportunity for Nasser to focus his attentions on the bigger prize, Saudi Arabia and its oil fields. This war was prolonged, with thousands of deaths and a battering of the North Yemeni economy, for Saudi Arabia’s own interests.

Eventually, the Saudis found a third faction: moderate republicans who were opposed to Nasser, and who explicitly assured Saudi Arabia that its interests would not be damaged should they emerge victorious. With that, years of funding and support for the royalists ended, and not too long after, so did the civil war. This Saudi prolonging of a crisis in Yemen, to the detriment of the latter, and then ‘ending’ the crisis by finding a party palatable to them, is mirrored by the events of 2011, when they did not withdraw their support for Saleh, even allowing him to return to Yemen after spending the summer in Riyadh for medical treatment, until they were confident that they could trust elements in Yemen to take over without damaging Saudi interests.

With the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the Saudis failed in one of their major policy goals of preventing Yemeni unification. However, this did not stop them from ensuring that the Yemen that was to emerge would not be strong enough to pursue policies independent of Saudi Arabia.

Whilst Prince Turki paints Yemen as being a source of instability for Saudi Arabia, history shows that it is in fact Saudi Arabia that has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on Yemen.

The first Gulf war in the early 1990's, and Yemen’s refusal to support an international attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, provided Saudi Arabia with the perfect excuse to renege on a decades old agreement to allow Yemeni workers the same rights as Saudis in the Kingdom, and within a month Yemenis living in Saudi were told to find a sponsor or face expulsion. One million Yemenis returned to their home country destitute, and the results were devastating for the nascent united Yemeni economy, the inflation rate sat at 100 percent, unemployment was 35 percent, and GDP had dropped to 4.8 percent. The Saudis had effectively tried to strangle the new Yemen at birth.

Whilst Prince Turki paints Yemen as being a source of instability for Saudi Arabia, history shows that it is in fact Saudi Arabia that has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on Yemen.

Prince Turki talks of the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP), conveniently forgetting to mention that many of AQAP’s leaders are Saudis who escaped from that country, and who emerged from the religious and political climate in Saudi Arabia.

Prince Turki also talks of tribal leaders, and the weakness of the central government, and how this is all dangerous to Saudi Arabia.

Yet, what country has been paying Yemeni tribal leaders for decades, enabling them to get stronger and more important, stifling any chance that the Yemeni central government had to establish its authority?

Of course, it is Saudi Arabia.

In the short term, any suspension of Saudi aid to Yemen will be problematic for the country. However, things are already pretty bad, and the Saudi aid does not seem to be making things better. A suspension of aid may provide Yemen with the opportunity it has been waiting for, the chance to cut the umbilical cord linking it to Saudi Arabia, and the opportunity to emerge, finally, as an independent sovereign state.

Abubakr al-Shamahi is a British-Yemeni freelance journalist and is the editor of Comment Middle East commentmideast.com.

Follow Abubakr al-Shamahi on Twitter: @abubakrabdullah

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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