Washington – Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday for urgent medical treatment a day after being wounded in a bold attack on the presidential compound, Saudi officials said, in a sudden shift of the political calculus that has allowed the president to cling to power despite months of protest and violence.
Mr. Saleh’s sudden departure after 33 years in power stunned Yemenis, and could deepen the chaos that has plagued the country, analysts say. The government has already lost control of some outlying provinces, and Al Qaeda and other jihadists appear to be exploiting the political turmoil to solidify their base in the country.
Saudi officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Saleh had agreed to leave only after his condition worsened overnight. President Obama’s top adviser on Yemen, John O. Brennan, spoke by telephone on Saturday with the Yemeni vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, who became acting president under the Yemeni Constitution, news reports said.
Get our free emails
Now, Saudi Arabia is squarely at the center of Yemen’s political crisis, and analysts say the Saudis are likely to make sure he does not return to power — a goal they and other regional Arab leaders have tried unsuccessfully to arrange for weeks.
But even though his departure could ease tensions in the capital in the short term, there is no clear plan in place for lasting political transition. In that vacuum, many fear that Yemen’s opposition factions and youth protesters might begin fighting among themselves, adding to the troubles of tribal violence in the north and secessionist efforts in the south.
The threat of political disorder puts tremendous pressure on Saudi Arabia, the country’s powerful neighbor and patron, and on the United States, which had counted on Mr. Saleh as an ally against terrorists. The Saudis have seemed deeply unsure about how to handle Yemen in recent months, as they struggle to calm the revolutionary energies across the region. For years, Mr. Saleh had kept the peace in a country riven by tribal jealousies, but the Saudis have been rethinking that strategy as his control has slipped in recent months.
The brazen attack Friday, which Mr. Saleh has blamed on longtime tribal rivals, the Ahmars, allowed the Saudis to intervene in the most forceful way since political protests inspired by the so-called Arab Spring began to chip away at the president’s power. The country not only choreographed Mr. Saleh’s treatment and departure, it also accepted six other high-ranking Yemen officials wounded in the attack and brokered a cease-fire with the Ahmars’ powerful tribal militia.
The militia and the government began fighting in the streets two weeks ago after Mr. Saleh reneged on a deal to leave power, but it remains unclear who initiated the hostilities. Although relations between Mr. Saleh and the Ahmars soured several years ago, the rift widened recently as the Ahmars began supporting the street protesters, doling out payments to keep their movement alive despite a government crackdown.
It was unclear Saturday night if that truce with the militia was unraveling, with some reports saying Sana, the capital, was mostly quiet and others saying the boom of artillery fire could be heard again in one of the neighborhoods that is the Ahmar family’s base.
The details of Friday’s attack — as well as information about Mr. Saleh’s health — remain somewhat murky. Yemeni official say a rocket or mortar shell struck a mosque in the presidential compound where Mr. Saleh and other high-ranking officials were praying. Government officials originally said that although the resulting explosion was powerful enough to kill seven guards, Mr. Saleh suffered light injuries that one described as no more than scratches.
But Mr. Saleh delayed a speech to the nation for several hours, and then issued only a two-minute audio tape that ran on state television with an old photo of him. He sounded weary and sedated as he told the country the Ahmars were behind the attack. Since then, rumors have abounded about the nature of his injuries, including some news reports that said he had pieces of wood embedded in his body, but Yemeni officials refused to provide much information.
Soon after the attack on the palace, government forces began firing rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells on the house of Hamidh al-Ahmar, the Ahmar family’s political standard-bearer. A spokesman for Mr. Ahmar said that 19 people were killed in the attacks on his house on Friday. The Ahmars have denied any responsibility for the attack on the presidential compound.
Sadeq al-Ahmar, the eldest of the Ahmar brothers, confirmed that the Saudis had arranged the cease-fire, and said he would respect it. But he added that the government had not followed through on its promises to remove security forces from the area surrounding the Ahmar compound in the Hasaba neighborhood in northern Sana, where the fighting has been concentrated in the past two weeks.
South of Sana on Saturday, government forces appeared to withdraw from Taiz, a major city in Yemen’s central highlands where protesters and tribesmen sympathetic to their cause have taken up arms against government troops. Tanks had been deployed in the city on Friday, and many residents feared a repeat of the brutal crackdown that took place last week, in which many protesters were killed. But after more clashes between armed tribesmen and troops, the military appeared to have retreated to their bases.
Some analysts said that Saudi Arabia would not have agreed to allow Mr. Saleh to come to Riyadh without extracting a promise that he would finally cede power.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is said to have been furious last month after Mr. Saleh suddenly backed down from his promise to sign the deal sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation body of Yemen’s Arab neighbors. The agreement called on him to step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family.
The United States has also pressured Mr. Saleh to step down, seeing his departure as the start of a transition process that would ease Yemen’s political crisis and allow the authorities to regain control of Yemen’s outlying provinces and the jihadists there.
Last week, President Obama sent Mr. Brennan to Saudi Arabia to try to help find a way to ease Mr. Saleh out. The visit underscored the United States’ lack of leverage with Mr. Saleh, who — despite his cooperation on counterterrorism — has for years been a frustratingly inconsistent partner.
Now, Saudi Arabia finds itself in a position of power, with the wounded Yemeni president more dependent than ever on his oil-rich neighbors. But the Saudis — always uncomfortable with Yemen’s complex and poisonous politics — now face difficult choices.
If Mr. Saleh steps down, they are left with the responsibility of constructing a new Yemeni consensus, even as they struggle to beat back the revolutionary currents that began in Tunisia and Egypt and have swept across the entire Middle East.
“It’s a real irony: the Saudis usually oppose change, but in Yemen they have become the midwives of change,” said Bernard Haykel, a scholar of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton who has written extensively on both Yemen and Saudi Arabia. “They will have to decide what change means in this context, and it will not be easy.”