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Wounded Saleh vows to return to Yemen. Can Saudis stop him?

Yemen's President Saleh, recuperating in Saudi Arabia from an attack, insists he will return to his strife-torn country. The Saudis would rather he didn't, but what will they do to stop him?

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A boy waves Yemen's national flag during an antigovernment rally to celebrate the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, in Sanaa, Yemen, on June 6. Saleh insists he will return to Yemen in days, the acting leader said on Monday as thousands celebrated what they hope will be a new era without him.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

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With violence flaring in Yemen and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh insisting he will return to his country in the coming days from a medical stay in Saudi Arabia, a key question becomes: Will the Saudis act to impede his return?

Saudi Arabia’s actions on this and other crises in the Arabian Peninsula are likely to reveal not just how involved the Saudi kingdom is in the region’s events, but how far it is willing to go to try to mold their outcome.

The Saudi government, as much as the US, has been trying for weeks to convince President Saleh to accept a political transition deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (the GCC includes Saudi Arabia) and step down from power. Saleh is in Riyadh recuperating from injuries he received in a rocket attack on the presidential compound in Sanaa on Friday.

The race is now on – led by the Saudis and Americans – to convince Saleh to stay where he is and abandon the presidency. But the wily Saleh is likely to do what he now promises and return to Sanaa, many Yemen and regional experts say, even if it is at the cost of another Yemeni civil war.

“There will be inducements from the Saudis to convince him to stay, but my guess is Saleh will return – and there will be a slide towards civil war,” says Patrick Clawson, an expert on the Persian Gulf states at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies in Washington.

But the Saudis are likely to stick to their traditional means of diplomatic persuasion – financial – and are much less likely to keep Saleh on their territory against his will, Mr. Clawson says.

“It would be very uncharacteristic of the Saudis to try to hold the president,” he says. “Instead they will offer some very sizable inducements,” which Clawson defines as “large amounts of money to be offered to Saleh and his family.”

And one reason the inducements won’t work, he adds, is that, given the Saudis deep concerns about the implications of instability in Yemen, Saleh will figure that they are likely to “pay him anyway – and that would not be a crazy judgment on his part.”

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Saudi Arabia has a long history of meddling in next-door neighbor Yemen’s affairs – and a poor track record of getting what it wants. The two countries have nearly equivalent populations, although Yemen is much poorer and more unstable and riven by tribal strife than is Saudi Arabia.

Yemen fought two wars with the Saudis in the 1930’s, and Saudi Arabia was a player in Yemen’s civil war in the 1960’s. More recently Saleh, who has held power more or less tenuously since 1978, has labored to play the Saudis to his advantage, regional experts say.

The US has become more deeply involved in Yemen over the past decade as the local Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has grown as a threat to US security. As Saleh has rebuffed US pressures in recent weeks for him to relinquish power, many regional analysts have concluded that the US will have little sway over the turn of events in Yemen.

But others counter that the US maintains an influence that could still have an impact on Saleh’s decisions and Yemen’s prospects for avoiding a total breakdown.

"Although the risks are real and the trends negative, Yemen's current problems do not defy solution,” writes Edmund Hull, a US ambassador to Yemen under former President George W. Bush, in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine. He says, however, that a diplomatic strategy to move beyond the current impasse should come from a broader coalition than the GCC and “should focus on both sticks and carrots and coordinate Yemeni, regional, and international efforts.”

Ambassador Hull says it will take “more robust US and international efforts” to bring together the Yemeni and international forces that he says can “nudge out” Saleh.

The Washington Institute’s Clawson says, however, that the US motivation in focusing on Yemen should not be primarily Al Qaeda, which he describes as “not even one of the Top 10 actors” in Yemen.

“Yes, Al Qaeda will benefit to the extent Yemen becomes a lawless country without its status quo,” he says.

Saying Saleh should not be seen as a necessary guard against AQAP’s spread, Clawson adds, “If there were a civil war and the south (of Yemen) declared its independence, the southerners would do at least as good a job [as the Yemeni government] of stamping out Al Qaeda.”

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