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The end of political snake Saleh and another Saudi failure in Yemen

Cartoon: Carlos Latuff

Former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was killed on last Monday during clashes with the Houthi Ansarullah forces out of the capital Sana'a, while attempting to escape to Ma’arab Province. This came shortly after he broke ranks with the Houthi movement in favor of the Saudi Arabia, which has waged a war on Yemen to reinstall the former Riyadh-allied government. Saleh was president of the Arab world's poorest country for 33 years, until he stepped down in 2012.

The death was first announced by the Sana'a-based interior ministry, controlled by Saleh's allies-turned-foes, the Houthi rebel group. His killing was later confirmed by Saleh's political party, the General People's Congress (GPC). Footage circulating on social media appeared to display a body resembling Saleh, with one video showing how armed militia members used a blanket to move the corpse into the back of a pick-up truck. Houthi sources said Saleh was killed by the rebels in a rocket-propelled grenade and shooting attack on his car at a checkpoint outside Sana'a.

Decades of rule

Born in 1947 to a poor Zaydi family from the Sanhan clan, whose territories lie some 20 kilometers southeast of capital Sana'a, Saleh grew up living with his mother and stepfather, brother of his deceased father. He joined the North Yemeni Armed Forces in 1958 as an infantry soldier, and two years later he was admitted to the North Yemen Military Academy. In 1962, Saleh participated in the Nasserist-inspired military coup which was instrumental in the removal of King Muhammad al-Badr and the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen). During the North Yemen Civil War he served in the Tank Corps, attaining the rank of major by 1969, and between 1970 and 1971 he received further training as a staff officer in Iraq. Saleh was promoted to lieutenant colonel and he became a full colonel in 1976, commanding a mechanized brigade. Ahmad al-Ghashmi, the President of North Yemen, appointed Saleh as military governor of Ta'izz in 1977.

After al-Ghashmi was assassinated in June 1978, Saleh was appointed to be a member of the four-man Provisional Presidency Council and deputy to the general staff commander. In July of the same year, he was elected by the Parliament to be the President of the Yemen Arab Republic, while simultaneously holding the positions of chief of staff and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. As being neither from a important family or large tribe, Saleh acquired political power through opportunism and creating a patronage system with his family at the top. His seven brothers were placed in key positions and later he relied on sons, daughters, sons-in-law and nephews. Beneath the positions occupied by his extended family, Saleh relied heavily on the loyalty of two tribes, his own Sanhan tribe and the Hamdan San'a tribe of his mentor, the late president al-Ghashmi. In August 1978, Saleh ordered the execution of thirty officers who were charged with being part of a conspiracy against his rule.

Saleh was elected as the secretary-general of the General People's Congress party in August 1982, and a year later re-elected president of the Yemen Arab Republic. In 1990, the North Yemen and South Yemen agreed to unify after years of negotiations, and the South accepted Saleh as President of the unified country. During the 1980s, Saleh become closer to the United States, Saudi Arabia and especially Iraq's Saddam Hussein. A long-time ally of Iraq, he supported Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, thus deteriorating relationship with Americans. He became Yemen's first directly-elected president in the 1999 presidential election, and he also won the 2006 election. After the USS Cole bombing in 2000 and 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Yemen subsequently stepped up its counter-terrorism cooperation efforts with the United States and during the 2000s Saleh made several visits of high-level officials in Washington. He has allowed small groups of US Special Forces troops and CIA agents to assist in identifying and fighting out extremist cadres hiding in Yemen.

The Yemeni uprising in January 2011 occurred simultaneously with other 'Arab Spring' protests in the Middle East, and the protesters' demands escalated to calls for the resignation of president Saleh. In April, facing massive nationwide protests, Saleh agreed to step down under a 30-day transition plan in which he would receive immunity from criminal prosecution. He stated that he planned to hand power over to his Vice President, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as part of the deal. A month later he agreed to sign a deal with opposition groups, stipulating that he would resign within a month, but a few days after that he refused to sign the agreement, leading to renewed protests and the withdrawal of the Gulf Cooperation Council from mediation efforts. The head of the Hashid tribal federation, one of the most powerful tribes in the country, declared support for the opposition and his armed supporters came into conflict with loyalist security forces in the capital Sana'a. Heavy street fighting ensued and Saleh was injured by a June bombing of the presidential compound. The next day, Vice President Hadi took over as acting president, while Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia to be treated.

In November 2011, Saleh signed a power-transfer agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, under which he would transfer his power to his Vice President Hadi, within 30 days and leave his post as president by February 2012, in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Although the GCC deal was accepted by the Joint Meeting Parties, it was rejected by many of the protesters and the Houthis. A presidential election was held in Yemen in February 2012, with Hadi running unopposed. Hadi soon took the oath of office in Yemen's parliament and Saleh returned home on the same day to attend Hadi's inauguration. After months of protests, Saleh had resigned from the presidency and formally transferred power to his successor, marking the end of his 33-year rule.

Houthi fighters swept into the capital of Sana'a in 2014 and forced Hadi to negotiate a unity government with other political factions. The rebels continued to apply pressure on the weakened government until, after his presidential palace and private residence came under attack from the militant group, Hadi resigned along with his ministers in January 2015. The following month, the Houthis declared themselves in control of the government, dissolving Parliament and installing an interim Revolutionary Committee led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. Hadi escaped to Aden, where he declared that he remains Yemen's legitimate president, proclaimed the country's temporary capital, and called on loyal government officials and members of the military to rally to him.

In March 2015, Hadi had fled rebel forces in Aden and subsequently arrived in Saudi capital Riyadh, as Saudi authorities began air strikes in Yemen. The Saudi-led military intervention has caused killing of 10,000 Yemeni civilians, destroying health centers and other infrastructure with airstrikes, and the de facto blockade left 78% (20 million) of the Yemeni population in urgent need of food, water and medical aid. It has also caused a famine which has threatened over 17 million people, as well as an outbreak of cholera which has infected thousands. Saleh was a behind-the-scenes leader of the Houthi takeover in Yemen led by Zaydi Houthi forces. Tribesmen and government forces loyal to Saleh joined the Houthis in their march to power. In July 2016, Saleh and the Houthi rebels announced a formal alliance to fight the Saudi-led military coalition, to be run by a political council of 10 members: made up of five members from Saleh's General People's Congress, and five from the Houthis.

Last treason

The alliance between Saleh and the Houthis broke down on 19 November when Saleh's General People's Congress party slammed militias affiliated with the Houthis and called them "mercenaries and merchants of war." On 28 November, heavy armed clashes occurred in southern Sana'a and elsewhere. Saleh declared the split in a TV statement on 2 December, calling on his supporters to take back the country and expressed openness to a dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition. Of course, this move was celebrated in the Saudi press where the Houthis were described as "armed gangs" that take orders from Qassem Soleimani and the "demons" of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

For nearly two-and-a-half years, Saudi Arabia and its allies, equipped with American-built aircraft and precision-guided rockets, have prosecuted one of the most advanced airpower campaigns against one of the world's poorest countries. Since both the strategic and tactical results were miserable, Saudis hoped the rebel alliance is destroyed and that finally victory will be achieved. However, only a few hours after an article "Yemen finally revolts against Houthis" was published by Saudi Al Arabiya, Saleh was dead and the battle of Sana'a was over. Another victory for the Houthis and another embarrassment in a long list of Saudi foreign policy failures under Mohammad bin Salman.

The true reasons behind the Saleh's change in allegiance are not difficult to elaborate. First of all, Saleh was well aware of the impressive static defence by the Houthis and there was a little chance that Saudi-led coalition may overwhelm them, but he was also aware that the Houthis are lacking offensive capabilities to take all Yemen in a short time. Despite the fact that Yemeni Parliament promoted him to the rank of field marshal, making him highest-ranking military officer in the country, he was not interested in fighting for freedom and against foes responsible for slaughter of his country. He was interested only in power, and the only fast way to the restoration of his luxury life was treason, renewing alliance with Saudis, and hoping to get one part of the political cake exclusively for himself.

Saleh was also highly corrupted and managed to rake off tens of billions of dollars in public funds for himself and his family. His billions in assets are said to take the form of property, cash, shares, gold and other valuable commodities, the UN said in 2015. The Houthis have revealed images that show massive amounts of gold bars and currency notes which were in possession of Saleh. Reportedly, nearly 400 billion Yemeni riyals were found in Saleh's safe houses in the capital, however, the total value of the stored currency is not determined. Finally, his political opportunism has been unparalleled in the Middle East, as he was the only statesman to ally with Nasser's Egypt, Saddam's Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Saleh once compared running Yemen to "dancing on the heads of snakes" but since he lacked any ethical and political principles, we may freely conclude that a real snake had lost her head.

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.