May 5, 2011

Russia, China Swoop Into Yemen

A second attempt to finalize the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) power transfer in Yemen is looking eerily similar to the first. After raising a list of shifting concerns regarding the GCC’s document, President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) have once more declared their full support to transfer power after 90 days. Although Saleh has consistently outmaneuvered Yemen’s Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) through the GCC, most recently by refusing to sign its proposal, caretaker Prime Minister Ali Mujawar told reporters on Wednesday that Saleh “has shown a clear position towards the GCC initiative.”

“This is a technical issue,” said Abdul-Karim al-Eryani, Saleh’s political adviser, by phone from Madrid. “The world should not crucify Yemen on a cross of signatures.”

Disenchanted Yemeni protesters have watched the last week and month unfold amid a cocktail of anger and desperation. Outraged that the international community would isolate the mainstream revolution, youth and popular coalitions have protested against the GCC’s proposal since its terms were released nearly four weeks ago. Authored largely by US, EU, Saudi and GPC officials, Yemen’s power transfer dictates immunity for Saleh and his family along with a GPC majority control in the transitional council. Utterly failing to inspire confidence in the streets, civil disobedience and demonstrations further escalated over the weekend to protest the GCC's interference.

Saleh both favors and opposes the GCC’s initiative due to its biased terms; knowing he has an out to fall back on, Saleh is determined to outlast the revolution if possible. But despite its deep involvement to salvage Saleh’s regime, the White House has been quick to publicly abandon its unpopular plan rather than engage Yemen's youth. U.S. officials reportedly urged Saudi Arabia to fill Washington's public role during the ceremony’s run-up, fearing that too many U.S. fingerprints covered the deal. Nor has any official responded to Yemen’s crisis since the initial reports of an agreement, when the White House urged both sides to "swiftly" implement its terms.

12 days and counting feels like an eternity during revolution. Saleh’s violent outbursts and subsequent refusal to sign rang out in silence, and Yemen remains off topic five days after bin Laden’s death.

While a new GCC dialogue is scheduled for Sunday, repeating the same mistake often leads to similar results. However something has changed since the previous weeks - into this political vacuum steps Moscow and Beijing. On Tuesday, as GPC and GCC officials debated the future of the political process, Saleh held council with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's envoy Sergei Vershinin. Unlike Western foreign powers "asking who will replace" him, "the President highly valued Russia's positions, whether in the Security Council or within the bilateral framework.”

Under pressure to find more sympathetic allies, Saleh recently summoned the two countries that blocked a UN statement on Yemen’s uprising. The breakdown in GCC negotiations was immediately followed by Russia’s arrival.

As Moscow's wheels began to turn over the weekend, Beijing was busy interjecting itself into Yemen during its second strategic dialogue with the GCC. Visiting the UAE (and on his way to Russia), Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi spoke glowingly of political and economic relations with GCC states. Afterward a joint statement “fully backed” the GCC’s proposal: "China and GCC countries agree that safeguarding peace and stability in the Middle East and the Gulf region is in line with common interests of countries of the region and the international community.”

This argument, however, is true only on the surface. Peace and stability in Yemen and the wider Middle East is vital to international democracy and stability, yet these fruits cannot bloom in poisonous soil. True regime change is necessarily to realign the region's political, economic and social structures. Instead a Russian delegation arrived two weeks after obstructing the UN, apparently because of Yemen's “sensitive and complex” nature. Given that this excuse played into Saleh’s favor, it is rendered invalid by the sensitive and complex nature of every state experiencing revolution, pro-democracy demonstrations, and government oppression.

Of greater consequence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the JMP not to expect the same type of assistance supplied to Libyan rebels. However no Yemeni protester is asking for Western intervention - America and Saudi Arabia only have to stop interfering. To twist the revolution’s logic suggests that Russia has perceived a sudden strategic window in Yemen. Perhaps Moscow wants to nudge Washington out just like the street protesters do.

On top of these political maneuverings, an enormous financial takeaway lies within the Chinese-GCC dialogue and its impact on Yemen's revolution. In the short-term, Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan explained how the GCC had helped “end unrest” in Bahrain thanks to generous loans, despite the fact that Bahrain’s uprising is neck deep in oppression. The UAE’s Foreign Minister, an active in promoter of regional development, added, "We also supported Bahrain and Oman through a development program, under which each country will receive $10 billion [Dh36.7 billion] in assistance over the next 10 years.”

Sounds like Saleh can expect his own package soon.

He desperately needs it too. Yemen’s undiversified economy suffers from high unemployment and inflation is now running on oil fumes, forcing Saleh to rely on international aid to stave off collapse. Weeks ago tribesmen (or al-Qaeda, or even Saleh depending on the source) blew up a pipeline in Maarib province, shutting down the offshore Ras Isa terminal. Yemen produces an estimated 300,000 barrels of crude per day, but output has been slashed by 110,000 because of a single strike. The shortage has affected Sana’a fuel prices, leading Saudi Arabia to ship in emergency diesel at 15,000 barrel increments.

At the macro level Shaikh Abdullah praised GCC-Chinese trade over the past decade, which has risen 10-fold to $100 billion. He expressed hope that this trade volume will continue its growth in the next decade.

Saleh is clearly exploiting the lull in GCC-U.S. negotiations to circumvent Western pressure, what little exists anyway. He’s also upping the ante on the JMP, now forced to play along with his political schemes. Having dragged the JMP through a roller-coaster by simultaneously negotiating and condemning the coalition, Saleh has mostly succeeded in coercing the JMP into accepting the GCC’s proposal. Only at the last moment did the JMP stand back for good, once it received the GCC’s document without Saleh’s signature. Nor has it given up on the GCC's ongoing efforts.

To shun Russia and China, as with America and the E.U., isn’t feasible either.

Yet the total equation doesn’t add up to a sustainable resolution. Why would both Saleh and the JMP welcome Moscow and Beijing’s support when they oppose each other? Saleh believes he can leverage their backing to continue altering or refusing the GCC’s proposal, while the JMP is trying to add more weight on its own side. By blaming the JMP for his self-created problems, Saleh has consistently forced the JMP into accepting his own terms. The JMP will always come second to Saleh in the GCC's eyes and, having “expected” Saleh to back-track, the coalition must continue moving forward with extreme caution.

Despite his other excuses, Saleh’s main hesitation continues to revolve around getting protesters off the street. Stipulated in the GCC’s proposal, this clause was theoretically scrapped by the JMP under assurances from U.S. and E.U. diplomats. But al- Eryani insisted, “Yemen cannot endure more weeks of protests. It should end soon or else the country’s economy and security will crash.”

Instead of benefiting Yemen as a whole, Saleh’s latest activity provides fresh evidence that he intends to outlast the revolution - and thus reject the GCC again at some point in the future.

Although Saleh is responsible for his own actions, a sizable portion this dilemma has been created by past and present U.S. policy: a one-dimensional militarism that ignored Saleh’s fatal weaknesses, stall tactics that pressurized the revolution, and finally an attempt to seal the revolution’s energy without releasing it. Beyond complicating the political crisis, the Obama administration has contradicted those U.S. values it so often evokes in the name of Muslim protesters. Aside from the Bahrainian King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Saleh has received the most lenient treatment from Washington due to his perceived (and undeserved) importance against AQAP.

A gamut of U.S. officials have vowed to smash the rest of al-Qaeda in the five days since bin Laden’s death; Yemen, recently labeled as an equal threat to Pakistan’s cells, has by no coincidence received minimal attention. As the White House consumes itself with bin Laden’s death and fresh debates on torture and extrajudicial killings, the State Department finally started briefing reporters again after taking a week off. It’s almost as if State shut down before the raid on bin Laden's compound, as if preparing for the aftermath. Yet the State Department, technically a non-military agency, cannot switch off because of a military operation.

Not that it matters in Yemen’s case. As if Saleh isn’t newsworthy, reporters quizzed spokesman Mark Toner all week on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Israel and Palestine - but never Yemen, America’s weakest link in its war against al-Qaeda.

Hoping to add political weight and economic stimulus in order to survive the revolution, Saleh is now working around Western aid and holds the UN votes to block any Syrian-like sanctions. He’s capitalized on the failure of U.S. diplomacy and now the Russians and Chinese are filling the void. Perhaps America welcomes the helping hand; maybe Washington believes it can manipulate Moscow and Beijing as pawns. But it seems unlikely that Russia and China have decided to assist Saleh, America and Yemeni protesters out of good nature. Saleh called and they came.

Oil from Saudi Arabia, loans from the GCC, immunity from America and the EU, UN votes in Russia and China - what more does a dictator need to survive the Arab Spring?

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