Are Saudi dissidents preparing to overthrow the king?

ByBENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT / THE MEDIA LINE
September 2, 2010 19:03

Source claims Saudi dissidents training with rebels in southern Yemen. Analysts suspect leak from Yemeni official may be false.




King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

abdullah 311. (photo credit:Associated Press)

It’s an allegation almost too surreal to be real.

In a claim reminiscent of the most elaborate Middle East conspiracy theories known to date, a “reliable” source in the beleaguered Yemeni government has told the Yemeni news site Al Watan that a group of Saudi dissidents are secretly being trained by separatist Yemeni rebels in military warfare and covert communications so as to overthrow the Saudi king.

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Analysts, however, think the source is a government official trying to disseminate false information to turn the Saudi government against the separatists in southern Yemen.

Why would the Saudi government support a separatist movement in southern Yemen in the first place? Well, the source claims, because Saudi Arabia is taking revenge on the Yemeni government over their failure to curb a separate rebellion that spilled over Yemen’s northern border into Saudi Arabia late last year.

And how would the Saudi king’s potential assassins help Yemen? The military analysts claim, the source probably leaked the information in order to convince the Saudi government to forgive Yemen for dragging its northern neighbor into a military conflict.

Confused?

On the southern border of Saudi Arabia, Yemen is home to almost 24 million people and one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yemen’s weak central government is engaged in active military conflicts on three fronts: a growing separatist movement in the South, a relatively recent rebellion led by the Al-Houthi tribe along the country’s northern border with Saudi Arabia, and an increasingly active war against Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIM). Around two-thirds of Yemen is under the control of separatist groups, rebels or local tribes.

Late last year Saudi Arabia was dragged into its first active military conflict in over a decade after the Houthi rebellion in Yemen’s north spilled over into Saudi Arabia. Yemen and Saudi Arabia responded with extensive bombing campaigns throughout northern Yemen, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians.

Yemen’s relationship with its neighbors has cooled over accusations that other Gulf States have funded the southern separatist movement, and the source told Al Watan that the Yemeni government believes Saudi Arabia is supporting the southern separatist movement in Yemen in revenge for Yemen’s failure to quell the northern Houthi rebels.

Gulf military analysts, however, were skeptical of the claims.

“Everything is possible in this unstable area,” retired brigadier-general and former program manager of GCC Defense Issues at the Gulf Research Center Musa Qallab told The Media Line. “But the idea that dissidents would train in southern Yemen in order to topple the Saudi regime is nonsense, as is the idea that Saudi Arabia would support the southern separatists in order to take revenge over the Houthi situation.”

“Historically, South Yemen was communist and connected with the Soviet Union, so there is no history of Saudi support of southern Yemen,” General Qallab continued. “Today, all Gulf countries want a more unified and stable Yemen, as instability in Yemen affects the entire Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia.”

“What’s interesting, however, is why a Yemeni government official would leak this kind of nonsense,” he concluded. “I see this as part of a political game, and it might be to push Saudi Arabia to be more aggressive towards the separatists in southern Yemen. Either way, there is something hidden behind this news.”

Dr. Theodore Karasik is the director for research and development at the Institute for Near East Gulf Military Analysis.

“It could be true, it could be completely false, it’s a little hard to decipher what’s going on,” he told The Media Line. “But it is possible that there are Saudis who, either based on Al-Qa'ida or on tribe alliances, are training in Yemen. The Yemeni government puts out this information to pressure the Saudis to do something,” Dr. Karasik told The Media Line.

“There are also a number of rumors that Saudi Crown Prince Sultan [the Kingdom’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense and Aviation], who is responsible for the Yemen portfolio, is not doing so well, so there is a question as to who is making policy decisions regarding Yemen in the Saudi royal court,” Dr. Karasik said. “So all this might be a test to see who is in charge of Saudi policy towards Yemen.”

Dr. Stephen Steinbeiser, resident director of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies in the Yemeni capital ‘Sana’a, agreed that the Yemeni government was likely trying to send a message to Saudi Arabia.

“Official sources in Yemen are looking to discredit all these rebel movements in any way that they can,” he told The Media Line. “But the southern separatist movement claims to be nonviolent, so it certainly strikes me as odd that a Saudi dissident movement which I have never heard of previously would be training with them.”

“There are Gulf countries out there who would be in favor of a separate southern state, but I don’t think there is any concrete public evidence of Saudi or Gulf support of the southern separatists,” Dr. Steinbeiser continued. “There is bad blood between Yemen and the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia hasn’t historically looked kindly on a strong Yemeni republic, but recently Saudi Arabia has realized that any instability in Yemen will spill over the northern border as it did last year.”

Yemen has been divided into North and South for well over 150 years since a British colony was established in Aden. North Yemen gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and South Yemen was established after the British withdrew in 1967.

North and South Yemen competed for over two decades from their respective capitals in ‘San’aa and Aden. Backed by Saudi Arabia and Libya, the North invaded the South in 1972, and the South invaded the North seven years later.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the prospect of oil profits, the two regimes witnessed a slow rapprochement in the late 1980’s and, according to national legend, the two presidents decided to unify while driving through a tunnel in Aden in 1990.

The northern elite saw an opportunity in the unity deal to gain access to British colonial villas in Aden and southern oil revenues and trade. The unity deal soon fell apart and in 1994 the country descended into civil war. President Salah’s army crushed the socialist south and its leaders went into exile.

Northerners have dominated the government and the economy since the civil war, leading to resentment and claims of marginalization by impoverished southerners.

The movement calling for Southern independence has grown rapidly over the past couple years. In response, government ‘unity guards’ have shut down a number of opposition newspapers, killed a number of movement leaders and arrested hundreds of separatist activists.

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