* Unrest in Yemen echoes protests in Tunisia, Egypt
* Multiple conflicts make peaceful transition unlikely
* Saudis, West back Saleh for stability, fight on al Qaeda
By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
BEIRUT, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Yemeni protesters inspired by unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere are demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s long rule, but peaceful change looks unlikely in a tribal land mired in conflict and poverty.
At least 16,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Sanaa on Thursday in the biggest of a wave of anti-government protests this month, echoing the Arab ferment touched off by the popular overthrow of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
“People are upset. They want Saleh to leave. He’s been in power for 33 years and has destroyed the country,” said Abdullah al-Faqih, a political science professor at Sanaa University.
Secular Tunisia, with its relative wealth, educated middle class and absence of regional or religious cleavages, offers many contrasts to Yemen, a deeply Muslim society riven by southern separatism and a recent war with northern rebels.
“The Yemeni socio-political context is fiercely tribal,” said Khaled Fattah, an expert on Yemen and state-tribe relations in the Arab world at Scotland’s St Andrews University.
“The keys to any major political change in Yemen are not in the hands of unions and political parties, but influential tribal leaders and members of the Saudi royal family.” Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, worried by instability in Yemen where an al Qaeda network has taken root, helps bankroll Saleh, but also maintains independent ties with some Yemeni tribes.
Yemen is in far worse economic shape than Tunisia or Egypt, but popular grievances in all three nations focus on high prices and unemployment, along with high-level corruption and misrule.
Unemployment in Yemen is in the 35 percent range, according to Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, citing what he said were conservative government estimates. One third of Yemen’s 23 million people now live below an absolute poverty line defined as access to 1,200 calories per day, he added.
“In the absence of a strong middle class and a strong civil society, having a velvet revolution in Yemen is impossible,” Iryani said. “I don’t think grass-roots mobilisation can oust the regime. It would lead to tremendous bloodshed.”
Although Saleh’s two predecessors were assassinated, the last two power transitions in Yemen were arranged smoothly by the military, including the one which brought him to office in 1978.
A master of clan and tribal politics, Saleh has survived many stern challenges, including an attempted secession by the south in 1994, only four years after unity with the north.
But the money he needs to keep tribes and soldiers loyal is diminishing. Rapid population growth has coincided with a decline in the modest oil revenue that makes up 70 percent of Yemeni government revenue and 90 percent of exports.
“The Americans and Saudis are throwing money at the regime to keep it from imploding,” said Bernard Haykel, assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. Saleh’s survival “largely depends on how much money he is given to keep his patronage network oiled and greased”.
The president has responded to the latest unrest by denying he will seek another term in 2013 or will try to hand power on to his son. He has also promised to raise the salaries of civil servants and military personnel by at least $47 dollars a month.
“I’m not sure the Yemeni government knows how to respond to this stuff — economic discontent, corruption grievances,” said Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is the biggest threat to the stability of Yemen.”
He said it was not clear how the government, which is trying to cut its budget deficit, would pay for the promised handouts.
Gregory Johnsen, a Cairo-based Yemen expert, said Saleh needed foreign aid to stay in power. “If he can’t pay the civil servants and military, it’s a real problem for the government.
“If the outside aid that lets him meet the budget shortfalls is cut off, you’d have a very serious problem in Yemen.”
When protesters toppled Tunisia’s Ben Ali, no foreign power stood up for the ousted ruler. Saleh, by contrast, is viewed by the West as a vital ally in the struggle against al Qaeda.
“The Saudis, the Gulf states, the Europeans, the Americans, they all have an interest in seeing stability in Yemen and that means continuing this government,” Boucek argued.
The West faces a dilemma in supporting Yemen’s government on terrorism and security issues, while promoting reform and the redress of grievances — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched on both strands when she visited Sanaa this month.
“The Americans, all the international actors, need to be careful they don’t send different messages to Yemen, one to the people and one to the government,” Boucek said. “There needs to be one message about Yemeni security and stability and what the international community is going to do on that.”
Some still hope that Saleh himself can organise a peaceful transition and spare Yemen a descent into bloody chaos.
“It’s possible only if Saleh himself orchestrates it,” said Iryani, the Yemeni analyst. “It would be a waste if he doesn’t use his incredible power and experience to implement the reforms Yemen so badly needs. If he doesn’t, they may never happen.”
Editing by Noah Barkin