Yemen dictator Saleh resigns ... in Saudi Arabia

Why not in Saudi Arabia?  Riyadh seems to be pulling strings all over the region, stepping up where it sees a vacuum of leadership from the US.  Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime was living on borrowed time anyway, and this gives the Saudis a chance to play kingmaker in a neighbor with whom they have had numerous issues over the last several decades:

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to sign a U.S.-backed power transfer deal mediated by Gulf Arab states to resolve the impoverished country’s crisis, Yemen’s state television reported.

Saleh has repeatedly promised to sign the Gulf-brokered agreement, only to change his mind every time.

Under the deal, Saleh would step down and transfer power to the vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

“The president … arrived this morning in Riyadh on a visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, following an invitation from the Saudi leadership, to attend the signing of the Gulf initiative and its operational mechanism,” state news agency Saba said.

The site of the signing ceremony is most convenient for Saleh.  In fact, one has to wonder why he’d bother going back to Yemen.  After 30 years of ruling Yemen, the nation has fallen apart, and is now devolving into a warlord/city-state environment.  Al-Qaeda’s closely-aligned affiliate AQAP now controls towns in the south, and throughout the rest of the country, old tribal alliances are coming into conflict with an unmoored military.  A return by Saleh for any significant length of time would risk capture and even more unpleasantness even if the new government honors the agreement signed in Saudi Arabia.

The US has been pushing for Saleh to resign for months, as the Arab Spring swept through Yemen as it did the states of North Africa and even Syria and Bahrain.  That’s mostly just a recognition of reality — Saleh wasn’t going to survive the turmoil, and the US and Saudi Arabia want to retain enough credibility to help get a friendly replacement for Saleh.  Although in the short run the lack of unity may give us more opportunity to strike at AQAP targets, the best long-term solution to fight terrorism in Yemen is a strong, popular government in Sanaa with enthusiastic support from the military.  That is even more important for the Saudi power structure than for us, as it sees the populist democratic movement encircling their nation, and they need to be in front of it rather than let the movement dictate their options to them.

With Saleh out, though, several critical questions remain.  Will his successor, his own vice president, be able to restore central authority in Yemen?  Will the military recognize this transfer of power, or do they have ideas of their own?  Will Sanaa’s writ run outside of its major cities, or will Yemen fall into a state of tribal anarchy along the lines of Waziristan and the other frontier areas of Pakistan, or worse, fall into warlord rule as in Somalia?  Given the critical strategic location of Yemen on two major shipping lanes, it’s a question with great impact for the region and the world.