Abdullah al-Khalidi, a top Saudi diplomat in Yemen, was kidnapped by unknown gunmen while he was leaving his home in the city of Aden.
While the abduction of foreigners is common in this part of Yemen, yet targeting a Saudi diplomat at a time when Riyadh is constructively contributing to the defusing of the Yemeni crisis means that challenges are ahead.
In fact, Riyadh has been deeply involved in defusing the Yemeni crisis. It contributed in the power-transfer deal that led to the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. And yet, the situation in Yemen is far from being assuring. Insecurity has plagued this almost lawless part of Yemen which has witnessed a presence of Al-Qaeda-linked militants. Unlike other countries in the region, Yemen is beset with different types of insurgencies. One of them is in the south which borders Saudi Arabia. This has posed a lot of challenges for the Kingdom.
The insurgency in the north is where Iran stepped in to affect the course of events. The Iranian indirect interference was spotted by all observers and diplomats. In the word of Gerald Feierstein, the American ambassador to Yemen: “We see Iranian efforts to increase their activities and take advantage of the political upheaval and build up their own presence.” Iran took advantage of the Al-Houthi movement’s grievances of the corruption and cronyism of the reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Perhaps, political uncertainty in Yemen will continue for years to come. For this reason, other countries or even non-state actors may take advantage of the situation in Yemen to further their agendas. The United States is certain that both Iran and Al-Qaeda are exploiting the situations in Yemen to gain more influence in Yemen and the region as a whole. “Iran tries to exploit uncertainty and unhappiness in countries of the region,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman a day after talks with Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Feltman stressed out that his country is concerned about the rising Iranian influence in some parts of Yemen. Therefore, Washington has been working meticulously with other important countries to stop the Iranian interference. American reports refer to Iran’s provision of money and weapons to Houthi rebels and its attempts to influence non-Houthi tribes.
Tehran is not expected to watch events in Yemen without interfering. Last November, outgoing President Saleh signed an agreement that allowed for the election of Hadi in February. Nonetheless, the election of President Hadi should be part of an all-inclusive dialogue to address all aspects of the long-standing conflict.
While the United States is not directly affected by the situation in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is a neighboring country that does not have the luxury of not watching closely what has been going on in Yemen. The abduction of a top diplomat was a clear message that Saudi interests may be affected as well.
And yet, Riyadh is not budging or giving in to terrorists or any force that has been exploiting the Yemeni crisis. The response from Riyadh is straightforward: The immediate release of the diplomat and that the kidnappers would achieve nothing by this attitude.
Saudi Arabia is determined to play a constructive role that can help the Yemeni people live in peace and prosperity rather than uncertainty. Some observers argue that the mishap took place ahead of a planned visit of the new Yemeni president to Saudi Arabia to spoil the relations between the two countries. Mahdi al-Nahari, a Yemeni community leader in Saudi Arbia told Arab News that “the incident comes to serve the interests and ill intentions of those who stand against good relations between the two countries and who want to sour the ties.”
Now, uncertainty in Yemen cannot be more striking. Although President Saleh had to leave presidency the regime remains intact. To the chagrin of the rebels, Saleh’s son and close relatives are still in strong positions. Seen in this way, the situation is most likely to continue to be marred with uncertainty. This where neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia needs to step in to help the Yemeni people get their act together instead of watching Iran and Al-Qaeda messing up in Yemen. The Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia should leave no stone unturned to bring about stability in Yemen. It is for this reason, Riyadh has been targeted. Yet, Saudi Arabia has faced this situation before and emerged victorious.
(The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Arab News on Mar. 30, 2012)