|Hundreds have been killed since the uprising against Saleh began four months ago [Reuters]
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is in the Saudi capital Riyadh to ostensibly seek medical treatment for injuries sustained during an attack on his presidential palace, but his departure from Sanaa has raised speculations over whether he is gone for good.
Saleh had initially clung on to power, remaining defiant despite growing protests sweeping the country against his 33-year rule. He had even refused to sign a plan worked out by other Gulf Arab nations for a peaceful transfer of power.
But since the embattled president took a plane to Riyadh on Saturday, accompanied by several of his family members, there has been growing talk that he might not return to Yemen.
That his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has already taken over as the acting president, has further fuelled the speculations.
Analysts like Saudi Arabia's Khalid al-Dakhil believe that Saleh would not have travelled to Riyadh unless he had intended to seek an exit.
"The speaker of parliament, prime minister and president are here so effectively the government is here," Dakhil said. "This is going to facilitate the arrangement for Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down."
Much certainly would depend on how Saudi Arabia, Saleh's ally and neighbour, positions itself in the coming hours and days. The kingdom is Yemen's biggest financial donor, bankrolling Saleh's government, supplying the military and supporting hospitals.
If Saleh choses to stay back in Saudi Arabia, he would become the second Arab leader to find refuge in the kingdom after Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to the kingdom in January this year after protests forced him out.
Munir Al Mawri, a Yemeni-American journalist in Washington, told Al Jazeera that Yemen had probably seen the end of Saleh's presidency.
"US Vice-President Joe Biden has already phoned the Yemeni Vice-President [Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi], indicating that the US accepts him as the one to take over power in Yemen," Mawri said.
"The US has officially asked Saleh to leave and transfer this authority to his vice-president and this is exactly what is happening I think.
"I think the Saudis will never allow Saleh to go back to Yemen because they care about their interests inside Yemen."
'Life in exile'
That Saleh, despite all his bravado, could be contemplating a life in exile comes as little surprise.
He was definitely not winning the battle with his opponents, and protests against his rule had dangerously escalated, bringing the country to the brink of civil war.
Even his authority had vastly eroded as top generals defected and threw in their weight behind the protesters. Friday's attack on his palace - viewed by many as an assassination attempt - could have finally broken Saleh's resolve to hold on to power.
Saleh has said all along that he was seeking an "honourable exit" and, in negotiations with Gulf Arab states, had insisted on and received guarantees that he would be immune from prosecution.
Saleh's departure possibly followed intense pressure from his Gulf neighbours and longtime ally Washington to step down amid fears the chaos would plunge the country into anarchy and undermine the US-backed campaign against al-Qaeda's most active branch.
With hundreds dead in the four-month uprising against Saleh's rule, Yemenis could be longing to return to a period of calm and normality.
Whether Saleh longs for the same now remains to be seen.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies