SANAA, YEMEN, NOV. 25 -- The president of Yemen warned today that a new United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait would be "a very dangerous development that would threaten the entire region" and urged President Bush to send an emissary to meet with the Iraqi leadership.
The comments by Ali Abdallah Salih, in an interview today at his presidential palace here, reinforced previous Yemeni criticism of the United States for its military intervention in the Persian Gulf. Yemen has condemned Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and its seizure of foreign hostages, but it also has sharply criticized the presence of foreign troops in Saudi Arabia.
"It is still possible to find a peaceful solution for the complete withdrawal of all Iraqi troops from Kuwait and all foreign forces from the region," Salih said. "I know Iraq is ready for dialogue. Why doesn't President Bush send a personal envoy to Baghdad, or Geneva, or any Arab capital to meet with a representative of the Iraqi leadership? This would be a very positive step."
Yemen, the only Arab nation on the 15-member U.N. Security Council, assumes the council's rotating presidency on Saturday, putting it in a position to use parliamentary maneuvers to stall consideration of a resolution on force.
The Yemeni leader argued that by threatening to attack Iraq, the United States is building Arab support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"First, the United States says it is coming to protect Saudi Arabia from aggression, and now the U.S. says it wants to use force against Iraq and destroy its military capability," Salih said. "The entire Arab world was against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, but the foreign intervention and threats of forces are leading some Arabs now to support Iraq."
In the interview, Salih sidestepped what diplomats say is one of the most delicate regional problems to have emerged since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion: the tension between newly democratic Yemen and the neighboring oil-rich monarchy of Saudi Arabia.
During the interview, Salih avoided any direct criticism of Saudi Arabia, apparently honoring an agreement with Saudi King Fahd to cool the war of words that had developed between their governments. Nonetheless, he did not conceal sharp differences with Saudi Arabia and the United States over the gulf crisis.
Two months ago, Saudi Arabia suspended residency privileges for Yemenis who live and work there, demanding that they find sponsors or leave the country. More than 800,000 Yemenis returned to their native country, creating an enormous burden for this impoverished land of tribal traders.
The Saudis say they took the action in response to what they consider Yemen's support for Iraq, although the Yemeni government insists that its gulf policy remains strictly neutral. Senior Yemeni officials say the Saudis forced out their nationals because Sanaa refuses to sign a treaty resolving a border dispute in an area where more than 1 billion barrels in new oil reserves have been discovered.
The House of Saud's troubles with its southern neighbor have been growing since Marxist South Yemen and the nonaligned, fervently Islamic North Yemen fused more than six months ago into a single nation of 12 million people, with a tough, 60,000-man army and strategic control of the mouth of the Red Sea.
Because a divided, weak Yemen maximized Saudi influence in the region, the Saudis have subsidized rebellious tribal chiefs in Yemen's northern mountains and allowed them to reap profits from smuggling. More recently, the Saudis were accused of attempting to bribe officials in Marxist South Yemen to sabotage unification just before the two nations merged.
But the deepest source of Saudi anxiety may be Yemen's progress toward becoming an open, democratic society since the merger of North and South. In contrast to the feudal traditions still prevailing in Persian Gulf sheikdoms, Yemen has established a system of pluralistic politics with more than 20 registered parties. A referendum on a new constitution will be held soon, and free parliamentary elections are planned within two years.
The Saudi leadership is said to fear that if democracy flourishes in Yemen, it could soon intensify demands from middle-class Saudis for the same free speech and free elections that the poorer, less educated Yemenis enjoy. Saudi political debate has already picked up momentum because the huge U.S. troop presence, which includes female soldiers who drive vehicles -- a forbidden practice for Saudi women.
Fahd has promised to revive a consultative assembly, but Saudi Arabia has blunted any discussion of actual democracy because open elections could eventually terminate the dynasty.
Yemen's leaders concede that their nation's transformation could pose problems for the region's monarchies.
"Democracy is our own choice and has always been our goal," Salih said. "We will not intervene in the affairs of other countries, but a revolution is happening right now in the whole region."
"Our democracy does not threaten anybody, but obsolete systems are doomed to disappear," explained Foreign Minister Abdel Karim Iryani. "If Yemen's example enhances change in Saudi Arabia, fine and well. But it is up to the Saudis themselves to decide."
While nobody is talking of war, the tensions between the Saudis and Yemenis are akin in at least two respects to the friction between Iraq and Kuwait that eventually compelled Saddam to invade Kuwait.
Rich Kuwaiti sheiks largely scorned Iraq as a nation of primitive peasants and its leaders as brutal henchmen. That disdain may have contributed to Kuwait's refusal to grant the Iraqis debt relief, better access to the sea and a more equitable share of the huge Rumaila oil pool that cuts across the border between the two countries.
Similarly, Saudis have looked down on Yemenis as illiterate peasants, despite a rich civilization dating back 3,000 years. In the past, more than 2 million Yemenis toiled at menial jobs in Saudi Arabia. The laborers say they often were maltreated but endured abuse in order to send home the $2 billion a year in remittances that provide Yemen's biggest source of income.
The Yemenis also share with the Iraqis a grievance against their rich neighbors over large oil reserves believed to lie under disputed territory. Yemen has laid claim to three southwestern Saudi territories since a war between the two nations in 1934, and the recent discovery of new oil reserves along the border in the vast southern reaches of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province has aggravated tensions over the obscure frontiers. The Saudis want sovereignty over the newfound reserves and have pressed the Yemenis to renounce any claims.
When Yemen refused to sign such a pact, and then abstained on some of the 10 U.N. resolutions passed against Iraq since the invasion of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia cracked down on the Yemeni workers. Many refugees came back with enough money and food supplies to last a few months, but the economic strain created by their return is expected to reach crisis proportions early next year.