Yemen’s Snake Charmer Is Dead
Long live the snakes.
The parallels between Muammar al-Qaddafi’s and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rise and fall are hard to miss. Born in 1942, the two colonels-turned-Arab dictators survived assassination attempts only to meet their grisly ends at the hands of militiamen, their demise recorded in grainy cell-phone footage. Now, the countries that they once ruled with an iron first find themselves torn apart: In the absence of a functioning state, the death of the one man who managed to hold it all together invariably spells chaos and bloodshed.
The horrible truth is that Libya after Qaddafi may seem like a paradise compared with what Yemen after Saleh is likely to be. Back in 2011, when Qaddafi was flushed out of a Sirte drainage pipe, the North African country had a sparse, fairly homogenous populace and an educated diaspora ready to return to reconstruct a new Libya funded by oil revenues and reserves. Today, Yemen is the world’s poorest Arab nation and is in the midst of a sectarian civil war that has attracted its wealthy neighbors, kingdoms ruled by democratically unchallenged emirs and princes who sit in gilded palaces. Cholera is spreading, war is raging, aid-laden ships are blocked from offloading their cargo, and food — when it’s available — is beyond the reach of the average Yemeni budget. And the body count is piling up: More than 10,000 civilians have been killed since March 2015, when Saudi Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman, in his infinite wisdom and experience, decided that aerial bombardments were the best way to dislodge Shiite Houthi rebels from the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.
Saudi military wisdom was on full display on the night of Saleh’s death, when Sanaa experienced its worst aerial bombing in nearly three years, including a strike on the Republican Palace in the heart of the city. Saleh — who famously said ruling Yemen was akin to “dancing on the heads of snakes” — was himself a snake, who switched from Saudi supporter to Saudi foe. It was the last shift back into Riyadh’s fold that did him in: Barely 48 hours after Saleh announced he was repairing ties with Saudi Arabia, turning his back on his Shiite Houthis allies, Houthi fighters killed the 75-year-old former president as he traveled from Sanaa to his hometown of Sanhan. After three decades of Machiavellian political maneuvering, Saleh finally lost the gamble.
The Houthis never were a popular bunch in Yemen apart from their relatively small base of core supporters. Over the past two years, they’ve squandered the support they could have gained from a populace united against the Saudi-led air campaign. The disaffection with the Houthis is likely to rise following the shock killing of a former president in a roadside ambush. At the same time, Saleh’s death is likely to amplify Saudi propaganda painting the Houthis as Iranian puppets intent on establishing a Zaydi Shiite imamate into overdrive.
This, in turn, could fuel another murderous round of airstrikes by the Gulf coalition. But don’t expect more bombing to bring peace to Yemen — there’s only so much an aerial campaign can achieve, and the Saudis don’t have the stomach for a ground assault. It’s not even clear if the old Saudi strategy of buying peace by throwing money at all the actors will do the trick. The Houthis are not above taking the money and continuing the fight.
From Iran to Qatar to Yemen, the Saudi lack of foreign-policy vision is starting to have disastrous consequences, and the only folks who can’t recognize that are the Trump-Kushner families, aided by analysts on Riyadh’s payroll.
It was Saudi Arabia that returned Saleh to Yemen after he survived an attack on his palace during the heyday of the Arab Spring. Saleh had been resisting calls from protesters to step down, but after he was flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, he agreed to back a plan that would pave the way for a transition of power upon his return home.
Nobody in his or her right mind thought it was a good plan — especially his successor, the low-key Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who wasn’t much of a snake dancer. Saleh — a vengeful man who believed only he could rule Yemen — never forgave Hadi, his former vice president, for taking over his job. In 2015, when the Houthis took over Sanaa, forcing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia, Saleh joined forces with the very rebels he had viciously cracked down on while he was in power, not because of any ideological awakening but merely to spite Hadi.
Given a new lease on life, Saleh ensured that his family members held on to powerful positions in the country’s security and military establishments. Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed, refused to relinquish his position as head of the elite Republican Guard until President Hadi, in desperation, appointed him ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Shortly after his father allied himself with the Houthis, Ahmed was kicked out of the job, and his diplomatic immunity was revoked. Amid reports that he would be heading back to Yemen, Ahmed vowed revenge for his father’s death, telling Al Arabiya that his “father’s blood will turn into a hellfire that will burn Iran’s agents who ravaged Yemen.”
On why his father allied with so-called Iranian agents ravaging Yemen in the first place, Saleh Jr. had little to say.
Don’t expect Ahmed Saleh to step easily into his father’s shoes. His wealthy Gulf backers will no doubt like to see him installed as leader of his father’s political party, the General People’s Congress. But it’s not at all clear if the party will take to Saleh Jr. as its leader. The spoiled sons of strongmen rarely have the combination of wiliness, charm, and brutality that their fathers wielded to keep it all together. Sometimes, as in the case of the Assads of Syria, the dauphins do manage to carry on the despotism — but this only happens if the old guard sticks with the new heir. In Yemen’s case, this is unlikely.
There are other loyal family members and former associates more than willing to take up Saleh’s mantle. The late president’s nephew Tarek Saleh, the powerful special forces commander, is alive and well. Another nephew, the colorful Yahya Saleh — the former head of the Central Security Service (now the Special Security Forces), who received millions of dollars from the United States to fight al Qaeda — changed his Facebook profile photo Monday night to a pen sketch of his late uncle with a simple message: Martyr Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The death of Saleh leaves a power vacuum and opens several fronts, which is not good news for peace and stability in Yemen. Tribal sheikhs, if they decide to enter the fray under the system of tribal law and justice, or urf, that has long prevailed in the hinterland, may have to choose their camps. This will make the possibility of dislodging the unruly Houthis from the capital difficult. Old rivals of the former president, notably Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar — a powerful military figure who fell out with the strongman and was appointed by Hadi as one of Yemen’s vice presidents — could emerge stronger than ever.
The troubles in northern Yemen look set to get a whole lot worse. In the south, separatists who bristled under Saleh’s 1990 unification of north and south Yemen may sit this one out. But the south is not exactly a security paradise. Yemeni troops, trained by the UAE, have been fighting to seize territory from al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The troops have recorded some successes in recent months, but it’s hard to hold the terrain, and al Qaeda is more than capable of developing a grinding, painful insurgency in southern Yemen.
The international community, mired in the Trump administration’s psychodramas, does not stand a chance to address the latest twist in the Yemeni crisis. Peace deals with the Houthis have never stuck in the past — and with Saleh’s death, they are even more of a pipe dream. The only dream for Yemenis on the ground today is to look back with nostalgia on the days when Saleh, with all his faults and excesses, reigned. For a generation of Yemenis, the Saleh years will be the only period of stability they have ever known. The snake charmer is dead; long live the snakes who will shed their skins and the skins of others.