RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Border buffer zone aside, it can be hard, in some ways, to figure out where the Saudi state ends and the Yemeni state begins. Ordinary Yemenis, for example, still make the journey north to the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah to attend the majalis, or councils, of King Abdullah. There the Yemenis petition the Saudi monarch for favors and cash handouts, with the blessings of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. "Go try your luck," Saleh, ever pragmatic, is quoted as once telling his people on their cross-border begging missions.
In many ways, Saleh and Saudi Arabia allowed the Yemeni state and its elites to go on the Saudi dole as well. Since the 1980s at least, wealthy Saudi Arabia, with its habit of dispensing largesse to soothe troubles and cement loyalties, has routinely dispensed up to several billion dollars annually to thousands of Yemeni tribal leaders, security officials, and other Yemeni elites, as well as to Yemen's government. But by all accounts, the flow of Saudi patronage has narrowed to far fewer tribal leaders amid Yemen's present upheaval.
These days, in a further blurring of frontiers, Saleh presides not from his outwardly nondescript walled compound in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, but from a hospital bed in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Saleh, medicated for pain, is recovering from a June 3 assassination attempt. Aides acting in his name issue birthday greetings to fellow world leaders to try to show the Yemeni president still feebly in charge. After five months of state collapse in Yemen and his own near death, however, the president is no longer politically capable of wielding power, but remains temperamentally incapable of yielding it. Saudis urge Saleh to quit while he still has "honor, rather than leave with danger and harassment," said Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Kabeer, the Foreign Ministry's undersecretary for multilateral relations, but the badly burned Yemeni leader still refuses to sign a Saudi-backed deal for his resignation.
For Yemenis, suffering under worsening shortages of food, water, gasoline, and electricity in a country adrift, the answer to the question of what comes next in the stalemate lies partly with Saleh, partly with themselves, and partly with Saudi Arabia.
Critics for decades have accused Saudi Arabia of purposefully fostering a Yemeni government too immature to ever pose a state threat to Saudis. "Keep Yemen weak," King Abdul Aziz is supposed to have told his sons on his deathbed, in one of two such warnings the founder of the modern Saudi state handed down to his sons and grandsons.