Country Report Saudi Arabia May 2011

The political scene: Saudi-led GCC-Yemen talks fail to progress

Saudi Arabia has played a leading role in seeking to reach an accord between Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Yemeni opposition to end Mr Saleh's 33-year rule. After initial efforts to reach an accord failed, King Abdullah himself became involved, telephoning Mr Saleh in late April in an effort to forge a new consensus-a demonstration of Saudi sensitivity to the turmoil that has engulfed its impoverished southern neighbour. Because of these and other discussions, the Gulf C-operation Council (GCC) proposed a formula that would see Mr Saleh standing down after 30 days, in return for immunity for himself, his family and his aides. The proposal won the qualified backing of both Mr Saleh and the opposition Joint Meeting Parties, and, encouraged by the initial positive reception, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, issued invites to the interested parties to attend a signing ceremony in Riyadh, originally to be held on May 1st.

However, the proposal quickly ran into problems, largely reflecting the failure of Saudi Arabia, and the GCC more broadly, to take into account the views of the often unaffiliated young people engaged in street protests in Yemen and to deviate from its traditional way of doing business-namely, seeking deals among existing political elites. Consequently, the proposal proved unacceptable to the protesters, who objected to the immunity given to Mr Saleh and his affiliates, and demanded the president's immediate resignation. Enraged, the president refused to attend the signing ceremony. The present situation thus presents the Saudi leadership with something of a quandary: although it has accepted that propping up Mr Saleh would be fruitless at this stage, it is highly reluctant to be seen to be giving into popular protests and is ill-placed to assist in the formation of a budding democracy on its borders.

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