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.