WikiLeaked

How do you solve a problem like Saleh?

WikiLeaks hasn’t posted the cables yet, but the New York Times‘s Scott Shane has a piece out drawing from a forthcoming batch of Yemen dispatches, focusing on the United States’ relationship with the wily Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president of three decades. Nothing in it is terribly surprising if you’ve read much about Saleh, whose ...

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

WikiLeaks hasn’t posted the cables yet, but the New York Times‘s Scott Shane has a piece out drawing from a forthcoming batch of Yemen dispatches, focusing on the United States’ relationship with the wily Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president of three decades.

Nothing in it is terribly surprising if you’ve read much about Saleh, whose attempts to capitalize on the American government’s sudden interest in his country following last year’s foiled Christmas Day bomb plot, which was hatched in Yemen, are notorious enough to have inspired a Saturday Night Live skit. Still, some of the best character studies in the cables thus far have been of the United States’ inconvenient allies in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union — rulers like Saleh, Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev — so the piece is definitely worth a read.

The WikiLeaks cables do add some interesting details to the story of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, who has emerged since last year as an important player in counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. After al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula botched an assassination attempt on Nayef in August 2009, the Saudis, who share a sprawling border with Yemen, stepped up their cooperation with American intelligence agencies, and were instrumental in foiling AQAP’s attempt to blow up two cargo planes over the United States last month. A May 2009 cable released earlier this week captures Nayef’s growing sense of alarm even before the assassination attempt, in an account of a meeting between the prince and U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

Nayef tells Holbrooke, “We have a problem called Yemen.” He says that Saleh’s “vision of Yemen has shrunk to Sana’a,” the capital city in the north, and the Yemeni president has lost what connections he had once had with the tribes that form the de facto government of Yemen’s once independent and now tenuously controlled south. The Saudis, Nayef claims, have better relations with the southern tribes, and have taken matters into their own hands, financing development projects in the tribal regions that host AQAP in an effort to win Yemeni hearts and minds. I wonder how that’s working out…

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