Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
The recent killing in Yemen of the American-born al-Qaeda figure Anwar al-Awlaki, the return of the country’s president, and a brutal crackdown on peaceful antigovernment protesters have brought tensions there to a dangerous level, threatening to plunge the country into civil war. But the international community has failed to take a stand, revealing a cold-blooded double standard on the Arab Spring uprisings. It’s clear that the United States and its allies are interested only in “regime renovation” in Yemen, not regime change.
While coordinated international intervention took place in oil-rich Libya, Yemen, the region’s poorest nation, sinks deeper into disarray. The regime’s crackdown continues in the capital, San’a, and violent clashes between government forces and militias rage in Abyan province.
Several states share responsibility for the unconscionable neglect of Yemen, though the United States and Saudi Arabia have been particularly disappointing. In the absence of leadership from those countries, other players—including the Arab League, the United Nations, and Turkey—have failed to step in.
U.S. officials have claimed a steadfast commitment to democratic values amid the Arab Spring uprisings, but it seems to stop short of Yemen. In his milestone May speech on the Middle East, Obama barely mentioned the country, saying only, “President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.” Since then, official U.S. statements have endorsed a transition plan backed by the Gulf states, which would grant Ali Abdullah Saleh three months to transfer power to his vice president.
The Obama administration is clearly not ready to endorse regime change outright. Because Saleh has been a loyal ally in U.S. efforts against al-Qaeda—most recently in the operation against Awlaki—the administration appears to hope it can salvage at least part of the government, perhaps leaving its bureaucratic and security systems in place while a new presidency appeases the opposition. That Saleh was allowed to return to his country after the crackdown further shows that the United States is hesitating to hold him and his regime responsible for the brutality.
Saudi Arabia, which has worked closely with the United States to try to manage the Yemeni uprising, also supports regime renovation rather than outright change. Having led the charge to quash a destabilizing movement in Bahrain in March, the kingdom’s rulers also hope to avoid unrest along their southern border. While the Saudi-led Gulf states proposed the plan for a transfer of power, Saudi Arabia also allowed the president to spend almost four months in the kingdom recovering from injuries incurred in a bombing of his palace.
In the absence of a strong U.S. or Saudi response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been active in recent events in Syria, Libya, and Egypt, seemed a likely alternative. Yet he has remained silent on Yemen. An official statement from his government last month merely stressed the importance of ending violence, and it did not condemn the government crackdown.
The Arab League, meanwhile, has been perhaps the most impotent international organization when it comes to events in the region. It has failed to take a position on many major developments there, particularly in Yemen. As long ago as March, Arab League representatives condemned “crimes against civilians” in Yemen, and the organization vowed to monitor “the grave situation.” But it has done little more than support the Gulf states’ transition plan.
Although a U.N. team that visited Yemen in June reported that a “wide range of human rights violations and abuses have allegedly taken place throughout the country,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement last month strongly condemning “the excessive use of force by government security forces against unarmed protesters.” Yet, again, no action has followed, showing a dangerous lack of commitment on the part of the international community.
Internally, the traditional parliamentary opposition has failed the country as well. It has yet to present a viable alternative to the regime, and it has not been a reliable ally to the protesters. While the protesters call for regime change, the opposition parties negotiate with regime elements, losing credibility in the eyes of many of the protesters. The opposition has done little besides sign on to the Gulf states’ dubious transition plan.
Yemen needs regime change and representative government. Its young people have done their part, using peaceful means to oppose a brutal regime, and the international community owes them its full support.
The United States should abandon the notion that the Saleh regime is stable and will serve its interests. And Saudi Arabia should recognize that change is afoot in Yemen, and that prolonging the crisis will only endanger its security and lead to long-term instability on its southern border.
If peaceful protests are not rewarded, Yemenis may resort to arms. On the border of the world’s largest oil exporter, that could destabilize the region and affect energy prices worldwide. More important, the international community must not allow its moral standards to disintegrate while a country slides into what could be a very long and bloody civil war.