Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s return to Yemen from Saudi Arabia Friday morning set off a frenetic round of high-level diplomatic meetings that brought few conclusions about Saleh’s intentions or how to proceed with international efforts to push him from power.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met with ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council, the six-member group of Persian Gulf states, in New York outside the United Nations General Assembly. GCC Secretary General Abdul Latif al-Zayani arrived directly from Yemen, where he had spent the week negotiating the terms of a transition with Saleh’s government and opposition leaders.
A senior U.S. official who was not authorized to publicly discuss the situation said that the Arab leaders were as surprised and perplexed at Saleh’s return as Western governments, including the Obama administration. Together they have been urging the Yemeni president to accept the transition plan. Saleh left Yemen for Saudi Arabia in early June, after he was severely injured in an attack on the presidential palace.
“If anyone knows what’s going on, it should be the Saudis,” the official said. But Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, “seemed to be as unclear on [Saleh’s] intentions as the rest of us.” While the Saudi government certainly would have been aware of Saleh’s departure, there was no indication they had advance notice of his plans, the official said.
The administration has publicly taken a back seat to the GCC in the Yemen negotiations and issued only a statement of support for transition and opposing political violence as it awaited a more substantive statement from the Arabs. “We want to take a cue from them,” the U.S. official said. Once that takes place, the official said, interested governments expect to call for a U.N. Security Council meeting.
Meanwhile, Britain called for a high level meeting at the UN Friday, to include the GCC governments, Germany and the United States, all of which have been active in Yemen negotiations over the past several months.
The GCC plan, calling for Saleh to relinquish power to a transition government leading to elections, followed the outbreak of massive opposition protests in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, that began in March as part of the Arab Spring. Since then, some senior military and tribal leaders have joined the opposition amid waves of sporadic violence.
Among several reasons Saleh has given for refusing the deal is what he called the lack of an “implementation mechanism” spelling out transition steps and elections by the end of this year. GCC negotiators have been working with opposition political parties and Saleh’s General People’s Congress party over the past several weeks to flesh out the deal. The administration’s confidence that agreement would be reached was reflected in a Sept. 13 statement issued by the State Department saying it believed “remaining tasks can and should be accomplish quickly....within one week.”
But hopes that Saleh’s vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, could sign the deal in his absence evaporated with Saleh’s arrival in Sana. Diplomats from several countries involved in the negotiations said they now have no idea whether Saleh intends to sign or to continue the government’s struggle against opposition forces. That decision, the diplomats said, may not even by Saleh’s to make. His sons, who remained in Yemen during his absence, control powerful government military forces and have shown little inclination to capitulate.