The changes in Saudi Arabia's royal pecking order, announced overnight, raise the question of what they are likely to mean for Yemen.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old defence minister, appears to have been rewarded for his disastrous bombing of Yemen by being promoted to Deputy Crown Prince.
The new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, has also been involved with Yemeni-Saudi security issues through his role as interior minister. A WikiLeaks document from 2009 casts some light on the prince's views about Yemen.
During a meeting with veteran US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the prince (who was then assistant interior minister) described the Houthis as "takfiris", like "Hizbullah South". He also – correctly, as it turned out – assessed that President Saleh was losing control and talked about working with Yemeni tribes to confront al-Qaeda. Interestingly, he favoured supporting development projects in tribal areas rather than handing out money, because "cash tended to end up in Swiss banks".
Below is the relevant part of the WikiLeaks document. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is referred to with the initials "MbN".
The Prince said "We have a problem called Yemen." AQ [al-Qaeda] has found fertile ground there, he said. The geography was similar to Afghanistan, and many Yemenis were more sympathetic to AQ's goals than were the Afghans. Yemen is also closer to AQ targets and recruiting grounds in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis had detected a pattern of individuals coming to the Kingdom for Hajj or Umrah and then traveling south to Yemen ("it's only 400 miles," he noted) for training before returning to their home countries. Saudi forces have arrested Egyptians and Algerians, among others, who were attempting to do this.
MbN described Yemen as a failed state that is "very, very, extremely dangerous," and required focus. The Huthi tribes were Takfiri and Shi'a "like Hizballah South," he said. This was a threat forming around Saudi Arabia that required action now.
The Saudis would like Saleh to be a strong leader, MbN said, but "his vision of Yemen has shrunk to Sana'a," and he was losing control over the rest of the country. Saleh's old advisors were gone and now he relied on his son and other younger men who did not have good connections with the Yemeni tribes. In contrast, Saudi Arabia had good connections with the tribes, MbN said.
MbN said the Saudis had established a bilateral council with Yemen that met twice a year to consider assistance projects. The Saudi representatives were the Crown prince and the oil minister (Note: Crown Prince Sultan has been incapacitated by illness for at least he past year; it is not clear whether the bilateral council has continued to meet in his absence.)
Saudi assistance to Yemen was not in the form of cash payments, MbN said, since cash tended to end up in Swiss banks. Instead the Saudis backed projects in the tribal areas of Yemen where AQ was hiding. The idea was that when Yemenis saw the concrete benefits of these projects they would push their leaders to eject the extremists. Saudi Arabia was counting on this strategy, MbN said, to persuade Yemenis to see extremists as criminals rather than heroes. Holbrooke replied that the US understood Saudi concerns about Yemen, and would work with the Saudis to address the problem there.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 29 April 2015