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The Poetic Demise of Yemen’s Most Powerful Man

Last weekend, Houthi rebels assassinated Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. For nearly 40 years, Saleh was the most powerful man in Yemen. Even after he was forced to resign as president in the wake of a popular uprising in 2012, he remained the center of gravity in Yemeni politics.

Most Yemenis have never known a Yemen without Ali Abdullah Saleh as its president or as a central political figure. In so many ways his—at times ruthless and always Machiavellian—rule defined modern Yemen. His grisly death at the hands of his enemies turned allies turned enemies again will reverberate for months and years to come. The already brutal and complex civil war in Yemen will only become more so.

There is a Yemeni poem that contains a repeated stanza that translates roughly as: cycles of revenge bring only cycles of sorrow. Saleh, like most Yemenis, was a fan of poetry, which is still a high art in Yemen. His assassination was itself an act of revenge, part of a cycle that he himself set in motion when he ordered the killing of Hussein al-Houthi in 2004, the founder of the revivalist movement who would go on to inspire the Houthi rebels. Members of the Houthi family swore revenge on Saleh and his family after that, and 13 years later they finally delivered.

The Houthis, who have proven to be as calculating as Saleh, were waiting for the opportunity to exact revenge and consolidate their power. By announcing that he was open to negotiations with Saudi Arabia, Saleh provided the Houthis with what they had been waiting for: an excuse to attack him and those closest to him. For months, if not years, the Houthis had been slowly co-opting Saleh’s own network of ranking officers and tribal officials. It was a tactic that their leadership learned from Saleh himself who was an expert at co-opting and liquidating rivals.   

Saleh grew up poor, a member of what was then a weak tribe, the Sanhan. His education was limited to military training. Yemenis loved to make fun of his unpolished Arabic in his televised addresses. He began his career as an enlisted man and was then commissioned as second lieutenant. He participated in the coup against north Yemen’s ruler Imam Muhammad al-Badr, and by the mid-1970s, he was a full colonel. For a man from an insignificant family that belonged to an insignificant tribe, his rapid progression from enlisted man to full colonel and then to president was nothing less than meteoric.

Saleh’s rise to power was facilitated by ruthlessness—he did not hesitate in having his enemies lined up against a wall and shot—and an acute understanding of the men and country he sought to control. Saleh had a prodigious memory and could recite tribal lineages with ease. He knew who fit in where and who he needed to win over or eliminate. At the same time, for much of his 34-year reign (first as president of north Yemen and then as the first president of a unified Yemen in 1990) he understood that certain lines must not be crossed. There were limits to his ruthlessness. He knew that only so many cycles of revenge could be managed at once.

After 9/11, Saleh’s understanding of the limits of his power shifted. For much of his reign he was referred to as the mayor of Sana’a because his writ did not extend beyond Yemen’s capital. The United States, as part of its “war on terror,” began training and funding Yemen’s armed forces, ostensibly so they could engage al-Qaeda. For Saleh and those closest to him, the war on terror was a gift. The influx of money, high-tech weaponry, and special forces trainers dramatically enhanced the power of Yemen’s elite Republican Guard, which was controlled by Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed Ali Saleh. The gloves came off but not in the fight against al-Qaeda. This was the goose that laid the golden egg.

Instead, Saleh went after the Houthis and southern separatists with a vengeance. He forgot that his power had limits. He forgot that he was trying to rule over one of the best-armed countries in the world where revenge is regarded as a sacred duty by many, even if it takes decades to secure.

In the north, the Houthis fought his forces to a standstill and in the south rightfully aggrieved southerners resisted his efforts to continue marginalizing them economically and politically. By 2011, with the “Arab spring” raging across the Middle East, Saleh’s grip on power had waned, yet he and those close to him refused to recognize that his time had passed. Troops under the command of his son and nephew opened fire on protesters in Sana’a and elsewhere as he fought to retain control of a country that he viewed as his and his family’s property. In June 2011, Saleh survived the bombing of the mosque at his presidential palace and was flown to Saudi Arabia where he underwent rounds of surgery. Defiant and wily as ever, he slipped past his Saudi minders and returned to Yemen where he engineered a handover of power to his ineffectual vice president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Hadi never stood a chance against Saleh who was openly referred to by generals and cabinet ministers as the “president of the president.” Saleh continued to exert influence even when he underwent successive rounds of painful surgeries for injuries sustained when his mosque was bombed. His defiance and determination to return to power, or at least to secure power for his son Ahmed Ali Saleh, were undiminished.

In September 2014, Houthi rebels took over Sana’a with little fighting. Saleh and the generals who remained loyal to him had made a deal with the men they’d battled since 2004. Saleh was betting on his ability to co-opt and in time eliminate his rivals while leveraging their military prowess. This bet did not pay off. The Houthis beat him at his own game. Instead of co-opting them, they instead incorporated many of those officers and forces that had been loyal to Saleh and his sons.

After years of staying one step ahead of a legion of enemies, Saleh’s last gamble cost him his life and will likely cost thousands more Yemenis theirs. He bet on support that was not there and he underestimated his enemies. The poor boy who fought his way to the top and managed to stay there for nearly 40 years was in the end a victim of the cycle of revenge—a cycle that, if it is not stopped, threatens to destroy a nation of 26 million.

The Houthis’ leadership would do well to look closely at the footage that their men captured of Saleh’s body. It could just as easily be footage of them in the coming months if they continue to ignore the limits of their power. While support for Saleh was a fraction of what it once was, his death could bring a kind of redemption. Saleh’s defiance, determination, a wicked sense of humor, and undeniable charisma may well blot out his legacy of corruption and violence.

Michael Horton is a senior analyst for Arabian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications including The National Interest, The Economist, and West Point’s CTC Sentinel.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "The Poetic Demise of Yemen’s Most Powerful Man"

#1 Comment By Dan Green On December 6, 2017 @ 9:26 am

Seems obvious, as we lose interest in our prior World policemen’s role, and always fighting some no win war, Saudi and Iran will shape the entire middle east to fit their interest.

#2 Comment By b. On December 6, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

The author waxes poetically, but for all the detail provided beyond the verse, there are so many loose ends that one is left to question how much of this is accurate, or relevant.

“During the years the ex-president was allied to the Houthis, Yemeni political sources say Ahmed Ali was living incommunicado under house arrest at a guarded villa in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, where he had served as ambassador.”

[1]

This might not fit the stirring tale of gambles and revenge, but it would be relevant. Further:

“A nephew of the former leader, Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, a senior military commander, was also killed during clashes with the Houthis.”

We see the son on Saudi TV, in the company of Hariri and Hadi. The “actors” in Yemen and elsewhere might be a lot less independent then the author makes out to be. The Houthi might be succeeding because they are the least entangled and corrupted.

Given the impact that the palace bomb had on Saleh’s life and ambitions, one would think that attribution – or lack thereof – six years after the fact would be relevant. Given the claims of the CIA and other paragons of the US “services” to identify scores of al-Qeda “lieutenants” from afar, and being able to attribute even the most tenuous “terror plot” confidently, the resounding silence on this issue is intriguing. It is not even straightforward to verify there has been no attribution, as everybody – including the author – refrains from saying so.

Good reporting voluntarily highlights the gaps in the author’s understanding and the record, bad reporting does so accidentally. How much else is falling into the gaps here?

#3 Comment By PR Doucette On December 6, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

Saleh was always pro Saudi as a result of the Saudi’s prior support of North Yemen against the USSR supported South Yemen but he was also a strong nationalist who while willing to accept arms and money from the Saudis and others did not accept that the Saudis or anyone else had the right to directly insert themselves into the internal affairs of Yemen. Saleh’s prior moves against the Houthis was not just tribal it was because the Houthis were being supported by the Iranians and other countries who Saleh clearly saw as attempting to insert themselves into the internal affairs of Yemen. Similarly Salah’s decision to work with the Houthis against the Saudis was because of the Saudi support and agreement with Al Qaeda to allow Al Qaeda to have control of key parts of Yemen around the port of Aden. For a nationalist like Saleh, Al Qaeda was nothing but a foreign mercenary force paid for by the Saudis to meddle in the internal affairs of Yemen.

Why Saleh abandoned the Houthis is likely due to Saleh’s perceptions as to how the war was going and a Saudi inducement that they would return Saleh to power. It is interesting that Saleh made his announcement before making sure he was in the relative security of his own tribal homelands as it raises the question as to whether the Saudis had promised him air support/protection on Saleh’s trip from Sana’a but then purposely failed to provide such support knowing the Houthis would seek revenge and kill him, which would effectively eliminate the Saudis from having to deal with Saleh and give the Saudis a freer hand to try and totally defeat the Houthis and install a Saudi chosen puppet to rule Yemen with armed support by Al Qaeda.

The suffering being endured by the people of Yemen is a tragedy but the politics of this war are fascinating. The US supports Saudi who supports Al Qaeda units in Yemen, a group that the US considers terrorists and once gave money to Saleh to fight and push out of Yemen. Given that the US relies on the good will of the Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar to maintain military bases in these countries perhaps it is not surprising saying which country in the region supports terrorism is often a matter of political expediency more than reality.

#4 Comment By a spencer On December 6, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

The most powerful woman I met in Yemen was Slovenian (Yemeni women tend not to speak to men they don’t know; wise counsel if you’ve been following the news) who secured me a visa. Upon arrival I paid her in cash and within half an hour she was showing me how the locals select qat. This was important information.

The most powerful man I met was the commander of a military escort into the Hadramawt, replete with a pivot-mounted 50-caliber in the back of a Toyota. He was a hard-ass, but actually a nice guy. He was chewing a mouthful of qat.

#5 Comment By Baldur Dasche On December 8, 2017 @ 7:14 am

Saleh’s death had to involve one of the strangest ambushes on record. His SUV, it would appear, was struck by three shots through the windshield and Saleh himself was killed with a single shot that definitely exited on the upper left side of his head. the entry wound was carefully obscured in photos. Saleh had a much more tranquil and photogenic exit that some other evil dicatators.

Considering that he was fleeing his residence, which was under attack and reportedly in a convoy with included ‘heavily-armed vehicles and supporting air cover’, it is interesting that there was not more evidence of a fight, or his convoy, which apparently fled leaving him to the Houthi. Is it possible that they may have left him, dead, as well?

His nephew – commanding his military units was also killed. Saleh was a liability to his Arab-friendly successor in Dubai.