Saudi Arabia, perpetually in fear of chaos and instability, is a leading force in the counterrevolution against the Arab Spring. As a self-identified bulwark of stability and conservatism, Riyadh wants no change in the political structures or balance of power in the Middle East and is threatened by the potential emergence of representative forms of government in its neighborhood.

This policy has been strikingly evident in its dealings with Bahrain: in February, the Saudi royal family told the country's al-Khalifa dynasty to brook no compromise with the opposition and to crush the demonstrations. Riyadh sees the possibility of Bahrain's Shiite majority population taking power as a threat that could lead to Iranian dominance -- a prospect that is wholly unacceptable to Saudi Arabia.

Yet in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has gone from supporting the rule of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to essentially strong-arming him into coming to Riyadh for medical treatment after a bomb attack at his presidential palace earlier this month. In Saudi Arabia's eyes, Saleh's hold on power became increasingly weak and untenable after months of protests, and Riyadh realized he has become a threat to stability rather than a protector of it.

In Yemen, political actors are more numerous, autonomous, fractious, and militarized than they are in other countries on the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen cannot be stabilized by the sorts of tactics that Riyadh has used elsewhere: a small show of force, the backing of one faction over another, the raising of the specters of sectarianism and Iran's nefarious hand, or simply throwing money at the problem. Bringing order to Yemen will require Saudi Arabia to find an acceptable alternative to Saleh -- a proposition that is easier said than done.

Saudi Arabia has historically tried to keep Yemen's central government weak and its political actors divided. The thought of a strong and united Yemen gives the Saudi royals pause: Yemen is the most populous country in the Arabian Peninsula, with 24 million people, a population that is heavily armed, tribal, and impoverished. To maintain its influence over the decades, Riyadh has cultivated discrete relationships with many of Yemen's political leaders (who serve in government) and tribal sheikhs (who form a counterweight to the central government).

Riyadh has not hesitated to punish Sana'a whenever it has expressed an independent policy. For example, during the Gulf War, when Saleh sided with Iraq's Saddam Hussein against Kuwait and the Saudi-led coalition, Saudi Arabia expelled nearly a million Yemeni migrant workers and cut off official aid to Yemen. (It did not, however, end its handouts to Yemen's tribes.) This moment marked the beginning of the unraveling of Yemen's economy, which today is in tatters. A few years later, in 1994, during Yemen's civil war, Riyadh continued to punish Saleh by supporting the secessionist socialists in southern Yemen. The Saudi leadership was not bothered by the fact that, in Wahhabi eyes, the socialists were infidels, further underscoring the pragmatic and non-ideological nature of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy. 

For decades, Saudi Arabia's policy toward Yemen was set by Crown Prince Sultan, the head of the Saudi "special committee," an administrative organization that managed the Kingdom's relationship with Yemen's political and tribal actors, including the disbursement of regular monetary payments to Yemen's most prominent leaders. But over the last few years, Prince Sultan's health has deteriorated (he suffers from dementia) and the special committee has effectively stopped functioning. Saudi Arabia's policy toward Yemen is allegedly now being managed by Prince Nayef, the Saudi Minister of the Interior, whose son, Prince Muhammad, is responsible for fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Prince Nayef has his favorite Yemeni players, including a number of Salafis and Islamists, as well as General Ali Muhsin, a relative of Saleh's and a contender to replace him in power.

The Saudi leadership has strong connections with other factions in Yemen, such as Hamid and Sadiq al-Ahmar, the two brothers who lead the Hashid tribal confederation and who were engaged in open battle with Saleh's forces last week; tribal sheikhs from the Bakil confederation, the country's largest; and influential families and tribes from south Yemen. The Saudis clearly are not short of Yemeni clients who would want to rule the country. The trick, however, will be to find a person or a coalition of leaders who can bring a modicum of stability and prove acceptable to the opposition forces. The anti-regime youth may have the greatest numbers in the streets, but they have no recognized leaders and no established links to Saudi Arabia.

Saleh's fate was effectively sealed on May 22, when he refused -- for the third time -- to sign a Gulf Cooperation Council plan, supported by the Saudis, that would have allowed him to resign and obtain immunity from prosecution. Saleh then attacked his tribal rivals and was subsequently severely injured in the June 3 bomb attack, for which he sought treatment in Riyadh. (Although Germany and the United States have long been the preferred destinations of the Yemeni elite for medical treatment, Saleh does not fear criminal prosecution in Saudi Arabia as he does in those countries.) The central question now is whether the Saudis will allow him to return to Sana'a or offer him and his family asylum, most likely in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, which he cannot refuse. Yemen's fate hinges on this decision -- Saleh's return would very likely result in a civil war.

This is unlikely, however. Influential members of the Saudi royal family know Saleh well and know that his return could be explosive, a scenario they want to avoid at all costs. One senior Saudi prince recently told me that Saleh was the root cause of Yemen's problems and described him as a "lying trickster" who could not be trusted to bring calm. If Saudi Arabia will not allow Saleh to return to Yemen, what sort of government will it work to establish in his place?

Already various Yemeni opposition figures, including the Ahmar brothers, are publicly ingratiating themselves with Riyadh, in the hope that they will be chosen as the Kingdom's favorites in succeeding Saleh. The Ahmar brothers, for example, have praised Saudi leadership and declared that they are obediently abiding by a Saudi-negotiated ceasefire.

It will be difficult to balance Saudi interests with Yemeni demands. Some of Riyadh's principal Yemeni clients, such as General Ali Muhsin (one of Saleh's relatives who recently joined the opposition) and the Ahmar sheikhs, are unacceptable to the majority of Yemenis. Not only are they perceived to be deeply complicit in Saleh's corrupt and authoritarian system but they would also not allow for the emergence of a political order that is democratic, accountable, and representative. Most worrying for Riyadh, such a state could very well be less amenable to Saudi influence in Yemen and would put forward a successful model for republican rule in a region dominated by monarchies.

The Muslim Brotherhood has played an important role in the demonstrations and enjoys legitimacy among Yemen's opposition. Some observers have attributed the discipline and nonviolent tactics of the youth in the street to the Brotherhood's effective leadership. It is unlikely, however, that Saudi Arabia will want someone like Sheikh al-Zindani, a Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood leader, in a prominent position. From Riyadh's perspective, the Muslim Brotherhood -- whether in Yemen or elsewhere -- has proven unreliable and is a potential challenger of the Islamic legitimacy of the Saudi regime.

Like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, the demonstrators who have taken to the streets in Yemen over the past months want a new political order, not more of the same. They want a transitional government of national unity, composed of technocrats, that will function until new parliamentary and presidential elections can be held. This, in effect, means the establishment of a democratic order -- an outcome that Riyadh, for ideological and practical reasons, will be reluctant to midwife. This leaves Saudi Arabia caught between two contradictory policy imperatives: maintaining its influence in Yemen and rendering the country sufficiently stable so as not to pose a threat. In Yemen, Riyadh is confronted with difficult choices and no easy solutions.

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  • BERNARD HAYKEL is a professor of Near Eastern Studies and the director of the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia at Princeton University.
  • More By Bernard Haykel