In March, to mark�and taunt�the two-year anniversary of the military intervention launched by Saudi Arabia in northern Yemen, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh marched down a major thoroughfare in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, surrounded by throngs of adoring supporters. Bodyguards cleared his path as a crowd of tens of thousands cheered him on. The Sanaanis, as the capital�s residents are called, were overjoyed to catch sight of the man they consider their leader�even though he was forced to step down as president five years prior.
Saleh delivered a speech to the crowd in his clipped northern accent, triumphantly declaring that his countrymen would never cave to Saudi aggression. In other words, that he and his allies�the Houthi rebels controlling Sanaa�would not surrender, despite the bombing campaign to unseat them that has killed thousands of civilians and reduced northern Yemen�s cities to rubble.
Saleh�s story is remarkable. To begin with, he is still alive, despite odds that were heavily against him as a deposed autocrat of the Arab Spring. He has also managed to maneuver back into a position of power, where he continues to do what he does best: cause mayhem for his own gain. As the least recognized of the Middle East�s dictators, Saleh has done this with little international attention. Even as U.S. President Donald Trump�s administration weighs greater involvement in the war in Yemen on Saudi Arabia�s side, Saleh hasn�t figured into that discussion, at least not publicly. But to support the Saudis in Yemen is to side against a former president who wasn�t just a U.S. ally but a close partner in Washington�s fight against terrorism�not to mention someone who has managed to outwit his foes again and again.
When Yemen does make it into international news coverage, attention focuses on the bloodshed Yemenis have lived through since Saudi Arabia started bombing Sanaa, the recent cholera outbreak, or on failed United Nations-sponsored peace talks. That�s understandable. Yemen is one of the world�s worst humanitarian disasters: Civilians are starving, and around 10,000 have been killed and 3 million displaced since the conflict began in March 2015.
In the words of Mark Goldring, the chief executive of Oxfam, �Yemen is much like Syria but without the cameras.�
Saleh�s Fall�and Ascent
The Saudi coalition has been trying to defeat an army of rebels that took control of Sanaa in September 2014, led by Saleh and the Houthi movement, a local militia and political party with ties to Iran. Civil war between the rebels and the Saudi-backed tribesmen who oppose them is responsible for much of the death and damage, leading to a leadership vacuum that, paradoxically, has allowed Saleh to rise to prominence once again.
�He engineered the current war,� says Yemeni political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani in a phone interview. �The fact that the Saudis attacked was not in his calculus, but the takeover by the Houthis was his handiwork, and it led to this war. His ability to present himself as the defender of the homeland has made him very popular.�
Saleh was forced to step down in early 2012, but was granted immunity and allowed to stay in the capital in exchange for handing over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, whose leadership Saleh subsequently came to resent. Accordingly, the former president allied himself with the Houthis, who chased Hadi out of Yemen in early 2015. Since then, a precarious and mutually dependent balance of power between the Houthis and Saleh has reigned over the capital.
Hadi, who enjoyed the support of the United Nations, Persian Gulf states and the West, was a categorical failure once in office, and had scant legitimacy among the populace.
�Hadi tried to imitate Saleh, but he totally failed,� says Ahmed Saif, a political analyst who formerly directed the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa. �This is not the way out for Yemen. We didn�t want one dictator to be replaced by a stupid dictator.�
�Yemen is much like Syria but without the cameras.�
The Houthis, who participated in the protest movement that led to Saleh�s ouster, were once his enemy; the former president had waged a war against them for nearly a decade. Yet flip-flopping between alliances of convenience is common practice for Saleh, who had, during the Cold War, successfully courted both the Americans and the Soviets for weapons at the same time. After 9/11, he received counterterrorism aid from the West while keeping members of al-Qaida on his government�s payroll. Over the course of 33 years, Saleh, a master strategist, meticulously built a Yemeni state that functioned for the benefit of him and his family alone.
Now, Yemen has become another example of how the hope-inspiring 2011 pro-democracy protests across the Arab world went wrong. Saleh isn�t the only culprit; Hadi, the U.N., the United States, Saudi Arabia, an uncompromising Muslim Brotherhood-aligned political party and Iran all played a role in the current crisis. But, as has been true over the past three decades, Saleh is at the center.
Saleh wasn�t always so powerful. He grew up in Yemen�s northern mountains, an impoverished region, and his name was originally Ali Afash. His father died when Saleh was very young, and in a land where sheikhly lineage is a source of power, Saleh had none.
His childhood is the stuff of Yemeni legend. He was, anecdotally, a troublemaker�the boy who stole chickens from the farmers and, according to one of his acquaintances who requested anonymity, had �fire in his eyes since he was young.�
It was when Saleh joined the army at age 16, in the late 1950s, that his story took a notable turn. He quickly worked his way up the ranks, and became known as Saleh�indicating the area he was from, but not the humble origins denoted by the name Afash.
The newly rebranded Saleh became the commander in Taiz, a commercial hub in Yemen�s central highlands, in 1975. There, he took advantage of Taiz governorate�s strategic Red Sea port to take over the alcohol-smuggling industry from nearby Djibouti. Yemen�s leaders have long had a taste for good whiskey, and Saleh became their supplier, allowing him to make friends with all the right people. Then-President Ibrahim al-Hamdi called him �the ram of the officers.�
He was bold, according to the anonymous acquaintance, �and Yemen�s elites liked what they saw.�
Al-Hamdi would go on to die at Saleh�s hand, according to many accounts�though that was never officially proven. His successor, Ahmad al-Ghashmi, was swiftly assassinated. In 1978, Saleh appeared to be the one man willing to fill the dangerous position. Where others saw certain death, he saw opportunity.
�Saleh engineered the current war.�
The Saudis, for their part, saw Saleh as an asset�someone who wouldn�t build a strong state on their southern border. Nor would he protest Riyadh spreading its hard-line religious ideology in Yemen, not because he was particularly religious, but because he wasn�t bothered if Yemenis became more conservative, as long as his agenda was served.
During his inauguration speech, Saleh was soft-spoken and stared at the ground. U.S. State Department cables from the time describe him as a man with �no signs of having a political mind� and �a blunt mountain soldier.�
At this point, there were two Yemens: the northern Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen, with its unlikely new leader, Saleh, in Sanaa, and the Soviet-supported People�s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen, with the port city, Aden, as its capital. Border skirmishes between the two nations were not unusual.
Soon after becoming president, Saleh asked Washington for weapons, emphasizing the communist threat from Marxists in South Yemen and characterizing the Soviets as a mutual enemy. Then-President Jimmy Carter bypassed U.S. Congress to send $390 million worth of arms to what was then still North Yemen after a short-lived border conflict broke out with the South in 1979. Shortly thereafter, Saleh also sought an arms deal with the Soviets, who, keen to improve relations with North Yemen, quickly delivered.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the �canny chieftain,� as a New York Times editorial called Saleh at the time, had to make more friends�and fast.
�That�s a lesson Ali Abdullah Saleh learned from al-Hamdi,� says one former Yemeni official who served under and was close to Saleh. �It�s that �I�m not going to have a vision for the state because vision kills you. I am just going to survive.� And he did survive, by the way.�
Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels attend a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters, Sanaa, Yemen, June 20, 2016 (AP photo by Hani Mohammed).
The Americans� initial assessment was wrong. Saleh proved to have the political mind of a genius. Whether he�s an evil genius or a necessary one depends on who is describing him.
�In a tribal society like Yemen where relations are built upon knowing each other, Saleh had the greatest talent to follow the details of personalities and families,� says Mustapha Noman, a former Yemeni diplomat.
Saleh was skilled at playing Yemen�s various factions and personalities off of one another to strengthen his hold on power. When he needed to weaken one tribe, he fomented conflict between it and another tribe. When he needed to weaken the communists in South Yemen, he used the Islamist party, al-Islah, to his advantage. When he needed to weaken al-Islah, he courted the Americans.
This occurred on the scale of individual dynamics as well. Saleh would find the fissures in the relationship between any two powerful people, whether government officials or tribal sheikhs, and he would exploit them.
It was through his close attention to the details of Yemen�s social fabric that Saleh was able to rule a country that is so unruly. He even created his own opposition. At the head of al-Islah, the strongest opposition party, sat a leader who was very much linked to Saleh through networks of corruption, as were other members of the so-called opposition. This created a complicated political landscape, in which any political or economic decision was underpinned by interconnections based on corruption, marriage or blackmail, all micromanaged by the man at the top, who rarely took a day off.
�This is how he ruled. He made you eat with him,� says the former Yemeni official.
If Saleh was not able to ensnare powerful Yemeni families by offers of financial corruption, he blackmailed them. A favored technique of his was sexual blackmail, several officials who were close to Saleh told me. He sent women, often Yemeni, to have sex with officials and record the encounter.
Saleh jailed or assassinated those who dared to stand against him, though they weren�t plentiful in number. He could catch most others in his net using the aforementioned techniques.
�He was a very good player with a stick and carrot. So if the carrot is not good enough, or not liked, then he would use the stick,� says Ali al-Sarari, a leader in Yemen�s Socialist Party who has been imprisoned by the Saleh regime.
When it came to Yemen�s female politicians, of which there are a handful, Saleh was not above using rumor and innuendo to tarnish their reputation.
One of the most common phrases used to describe Saleh, from both his foes and supporters, is that he is no Moammar Gadhafi, that he is no Bashar al-Assad. Instead, Saleh, with his encyclopedic memory and obsession with details, was something different entirely.
Saleh was skilled at playing Yemen�s various factions and personalities off of one another to strengthen his hold on power.
�He wasn�t a dictator,� according to the Yemeni official. �He was a manipulator. We said everything we wanted, and he would do whatever he wanted.�
Under Saleh, Yemen remained underdeveloped, poor, conflict-ridden and undereducated. Tackling these issues was not Saleh�s priority. Yemen does have energy resources: oil, natural gas, strategic ports and fertile land, but this wealth never resulted in economic development that trickled down.
Could Yemen have become a functioning state, or did tribalism condemn it to a cycle of poverty and violence? Could the power of the tribes have been diminished? Would Saudi Arabia even have allowed that? Thanks in large part to Saleh, the world may never know.
Undoing Yemen�s Social Fabric
In May 1990, Marxist South Yemen merged with its northern neighbor, and the Republic of Yemen that exists today was founded. Despite unification being one of the successes Saleh proclaims as his own, his handling of North-South integration lacked an eye toward future stability. Southerners were systemically marginalized by his regime, and in 1994, a civil war broke out between the North and South.
Saleh had just the right tool to deploy in such a conflict: Islamist tribesmen and former mujahideen who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. The war was construed by the North as one in which the godless communist Southerners must be defeated�and they were.
Giving mujahideen a longer leash might prove disastrous for most rulers, but not for Saleh. He began co-opting these militants into his regime, paying them off and offering them shadow jobs within government ministries. Saleh�s chief of political security was the primary liaison with the militants.
Following his success in the 1994 civil war, say Yemeni officials, Saleh began to feel invincible. He placed Ahmed Ali Saleh, his eldest son, at the head of an elite branch of the special forces�a move many perceived as the first step toward positioning the younger Saleh for the presidency. This upset the precarious balance among tribal elites that Saleh had worked so hard to create, and influential Islamist forces voiced increasing criticism of the Saleh regime.
�Saleh wasn�t a dictator,� according to the Yemeni official. �He was a manipulator. We said everything we wanted, and he would do whatever he wanted.�
Against the Islamists, Saleh found willing supporters among his repertoire of alliances: As an ally in the U.S. war on terror, Saleh received financial, tactical and political support from Washington.
Yet Saleh would never be quite the ally that the U.S. needed him to be. He used military aid intended specifically for counterterrorism operations against domestic foes who had nothing to do with al-Qaida. In 2006, 23 al-Qaida-linked prisoners escaped from a Yemeni jail in what was presumed to be an inside job. When Jamal al-Badawi, a man who had plotted the USS Cole bombing, turned himself over to Yemeni police in 2007, Saleh didn�t detain him.
Stephen Seche, now the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, was U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the al-Badawi incident.
�Saleh had the hardest time comprehending what we were upset about,� he says. �He said, �Don�t worry about this guy. I know where he is. He�s not going to do anything.� I said, �This is a man who is implicated in the death of American sailors, and you are pretending that he has a parking ticket.��
Still, support from the U.S. and the West�specialized training, surveillance equipment, helicopters, sniper rifles�kept coming until the last year of Saleh�s presidency. �Saleh was very adept at ringing alarm bells, at creating sense of imminent threat,� Seche adds.
In January 2011, after the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis began to protest against the Saleh regime on the streets of Sanaa, Aden and Taiz. Many were among a younger generation of Yemenis who wanted nothing to do with the old political establishment tied up in deals with the president. Saleh�s regime sent thugs to beat them up or slash them with broken glass bottles, but this only increased their numbers.
Saleh did what he normally did when he couldn�t control the opposition: He killed them. Only this time, it didn�t go over so well. There was global momentum for the Arab Spring protesters. The Islamists felt emboldened by what had already transpired in Egypt, and Yemeni officials were horrified at the bloody images of dead youth on the streets of Sanaa. Yemen is a country where revenge killing is tolerated, but massacring dozens in a single hour as the Saleh regime did was an affront to the tribal code.
Yemeni pro-democracy protesters march during a parade marking the second anniversary of the revolution, Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 11, 2013 (AP photo by Hani Mohammed).
Months into the protest movement, Saleh�s government was crumbling around him, and it seemed that the end of another Middle East dictator was near. Washington began pushing for its former ally to leave office, arguing that instability stemming from Saleh�s refusal to step down would leave space for al-Qaida.
Saleh agreed to hand power over to Hadi, via a plan known as the Gulf Initiative, but in typical fashion, he hedged on his commitment for months. This would cost him: In June 2011, a bomb placed inside the minbar of the mosque at the presidential palace came close to taking Saleh�s life, but he miraculously survived the assassination attempt, only to continue stalling by offering up new caveats to stepping down every week. He wanted one sentence of the transition deal tweaked, then changed his mind and wanted another point altered, only to back out again.
What ultimately convinced Saleh to resign in the fall of 2011 was the quiet threat of a travel ban and international financial sanctions; his net worth was estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. At the time he stepped down, the only Arab leader who had been in power longer than Saleh was Sultan Qaboos of Oman.
Saleh, though, was granted immunity. And until 2014, the U.N. used the threat of sanctions as a stick, but never actually implemented them, offering him an opportunity to tie up loose ends.
�It was my understanding at the time that the threat of sanctions was one of the factors that pushed Saleh to sign the deal,� says Ginny Hill, the author of �Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism and the Future of Arabia.� �It took the Security Council much longer to act on that threat than Saleh expected.�
Saleh was finally sanctioned after the Houthis took over the capital in September 2014, but so far only a fraction of his money has been affected. He remains in Sanaa to this day, meeting with ruling party officials, controlling well-equipped armed forces and making public speeches. Whether he is a dictator on his last legs or a leader about to get what he has always wanted�a role for his son in the future of Yemen�remains to be seen.
At the time he stepped down, the only Arab leader who had been in power longer than Saleh was Sultan Qaboos of Oman.
�There�s either anxiety from some, or hope from others, that not too far down the line Ahmed Ali will have a major position of power,� says Adam Baron, a Yemen expert and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. �The fact that Ahmed Ali is still even as much a topic of discussion as he is, I think says it all.�
A Foothold in a Forgotten Country
Given the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the threat from North Korea, and countless other global crises, Yemen is not an international priority, despite the horrific violence taking place there. Saudi Arabia maintains control of the Yemen file, and its strategy toward the country has thus far failed. Yet this is also part of the reason why Saleh has connived his way back into a position of power. Have Western and Persian Gulf leaders chronically underestimated him since he became president?
Perhaps, but it is precisely because Yemen is a diplomatic afterthought that solutions like the immunity deal, or the mere threat of sanctions, were deemed acceptable, when in reality a leader like Saleh was never going to disappear into the annals of history so easily. Al-Iryani, the political analyst, says that while �the West may or may not have underestimated Saleh, they definitely overestimated Saleh�s opponents.� The former president did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Lately, Saleh has once again taken a new last name. He is calling himself Ali Abdullah al-Himyari, after the Himyarites, a powerful civilization that ruled Yemen 2,000 years ago.
�Saleh is so woven into the fabric of that country. It�s like his oxygen,� says Seche, the former U.S. ambassador. �If he were to go somewhere else, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates or Oman, what would he do? All he can do is sit around with his cronies and talk about Yemen. He is absolutely a product of his place, in that he came to power and stayed and decided not to go away.�