The political career of the late Ali Abdullah Saleh, killed in Sana’a last Monday, December 4, spanned several key moments in modern Arab politics. He was instrumental as a young man in the move from theocratic monarchy to modern republic, catching the wave of a rising Arab nationalism during the era of decolonization. From the 1990s, however, he became a client of Washington and of Saudi Arabia. Unable to adapt to the demands of a new generation in 2011, Saleh was forced out of power in early 2012. He tried to stage a comeback, in alliance with the Zaydi Houthi rebels, ending his career on a sectarian note as his country came under attack from Saudi Arabia and its allies. Saleh’s life is emblematic of the way the bright hopes of Arab nationalism crashed and burned in a disintegrating sectarianism.
Saleh, president of Yemen from 1978 until early 2012, hailed from a small Zaydi Shiite tribe living near to the capital of Sana’a. When he was born, in 1942, the country was ruled by an imam, a Zaydi Shiite monarch and staunch opponent of modernism who combined in his office religious and profane charisma (Zaydi Shiites are closer to Sunnis than are the Twelver Shiites of Iran, lacking ayatollahs and declining to vilify the first three Sunni vicars of the prophet Mohammed).
Saleh, having joined the army, participated in the 1962 military coup that removed the imam’s successor and gradually aligned Yemen with the Arab nationalist aspirations of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Secular Arab nationalism was often inflected with a pro-Soviet socialism. In 1967 largely Sunni and Sufi South Yemen seceded under a Communist coup, lasting as the only Communist Arab state until unification in 1990. In 1978, Saleh made his own coup in North Yemen, a heavily Zaydi state. (Zaydis form a third of united Yemen but predominate in the north.)
Yemen is the poorest Arab country and largely lacks resources. In contrast, with the oil-price revolution of the 1970s, Arab oil states such as neighboring Saudi Arabia and nearby Iraq were getting fabulously wealthy and powerful. Saleh let his Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism run away with him in 1990–91, backing Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War and making the small Gulf monarchies furious with him. In the aftermath of Iraq’s defeat and the debilitating UN and US sanctions imposed on it, Saleh, in search of outside aid, swung around and instead befriended the United States and Saudi Arabia. He even supported the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by the Bush administration.
Saleh benefited from the discovery in the 1980s of small oil and gas fields. By the early 2000s, Yemen was producing 500,000 barrels per day (not very much, in world terms). It could not sustain that pace, however, and the level was reduced by half later in the 2000s. Oil and gas, along with a large expatriate work force that sent home remittances, accounted for most of the economy. Half of Yemenis still live on agriculture, much of it subsistence, or on traditional handicrafts in Sana’a and Taiz. Saleh never devoted much attention to the educational system (half the country remains illiterate) or to investing the oil wealth in modern industry. His regime was rife with bribery and corruption. He used much of government revenue to buy off rebellious tribes and keep social peace amid feuds, playing one group off against another—as well as to keep himself in power. He also built an army loyal to himself, which he deployed against rebellious clans too honest to be bribed, such as those led by the Houthi brothers in Saada in the Zaydi north. Zaydis had not been militant in recent times, but Saudi attempts to proselytize them and lure them into the hard-line Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam provoked this rebellion. Saleh’s forces killed founder Hussain al-Houthi in 2004, but the movement only grew in importance.
The rise of a new generation of Yemenis who took their cues from the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Cairo in 2011 led to a confrontation between Saleh and activists, who gathered in downtown Sana’a’s “Change Square.” Saleh had his military snipe at them in an attempt to disperse them, and some 2,000 were killed and 20,000 injured. Nevertheless, by early 2012 Saleh was forced by public displeasure to step down from his self-created position as president for life. His vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was elected to succeed him in a referendum in which some 80 percent of the eligible voters participated. Saleh remained a force, however, by continuing to chair his political party, the General People’s Congress.
Yemen was slowly moving toward a new Constitution and new elections in 2014, when, in September of that year, the Houthis carried out a coup in the capital of Sana’a with clandestine support from Saleh and elements of the army still loyal to him. By early 2015, President Mansour Hadi had fled and Houthi rule was established in most of the populous west of the country. Saleh had gone from being a pan-Arab, secular nationalist in the 1960s and ’70s to being the handmaiden of a Zaydi religious and political guerrilla group, helping ensconce precisely the sort of theocracy against which he had helped organize a coup in 1962. Although the Saudis tagged the Houthis as Iran proxies, in fact they are a local phenomenon, and Iranian support for them has been relatively small. That they were allied with a secular and military figure like Saleh underscores this point.
This coup by militant Zaydis proved unacceptable to then–Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (now the crown prince), who launched an air war in an attempt to unseat the Houthis and their ally, Saleh. Air wars against guerrilla groups, however, in the absence of significant land forces, have not had much success in modern history. The parts of the army loyal Mansour Hadi, which Saudi Arabia and its allies backed, were unable to make much headway, and Saudi Arabia proved reluctant to commit land forces.
The three-year-long stalemate has turned Yemen, never prosperous, into a basket case, with 3 million displaced, 7 million at risk of hunger, and some 800,000 having fallen victim to cholera. Some 40 percent of households have lost their primary income source, and the gross domestic product has plummeted by about 37 percent.
Saleh, his political party, and his loyal troops grew increasingly fearful of being pushed aside by the Houthis. On the weekend of his assassination, Saleh turned on the latter, urging his troops to fight them, and said he welcomed a new relationship with Saudi Arabia. By Monday he was dead, having overplayed his hand and lacking the forces in Sana’a who could protect him.
Mansour Hadi’s loyalists in the Yemeni army, aided by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, have taken advantage of the disarray in the Houthi camp to take a town near the major port of Hodeida (still in Houthi hands). The Saudis and their coalition partners have launched a massive bombing campaign that has killed hundreds in Sana’a just last week. Rather than a swift end to the war, Saleh’s defection and death have likely brought about further divisions in Yemen, with the misery of its people multiplying.
Saleh had an opportunity to become an elder statesman in 2011 and help move Yemen toward democracy. The Saudi dynasty also had that opportunity, and instead did whatever they could to crush the youth activism and reinstall dictatorship. As for Saleh, he allied with a militant guerrilla group, throwing his country into chaos. Saleh was about power for himself, his family, and his tribe, but mainly for himself. As modern Yemen’s towering, long-lasting president, he leaves no legacy but decades of petty maneuvering and national misery.