In Cahoots With the Houthis

Abdullah Saleh's Risky Gamble

A picture of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh hangs on a building of the Standing Committee of the General People's Congress, Saleh's party, in Sanaa, December 17, 2013. Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters

On March 27, the day after the Saudi air attacks on Yemen started, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president who had been ousted during the Arab Spring, offered to negotiate a political settlement between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, but the efforts went nowhere. On the 17th day of Saudi air raids, Saleh tried again, sending his emissary, former Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, on a diplomatic trip to the Gulf to push for a new round of talks.

Many suspect Saleh of using the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, to regain power. For example, in July 2014 Saleh used his influence among the tribes in Amran, a city in northern Yemen, to help the Houthis overturn the Ahmar family’s leadership of the Hashid tribal confederation. Saleh is also thought to have used his influence over the Yemeni military to get troops to stand down as the Houthis marched to Sanaa in September.

Saleh was not always aligned with the Houthis. In fact, Saleh fought six wars against the Houthis between 2004 and 2010. In the 1980s, when he and his party, the General People’s Congress, were coming to power, they instead worked with forces that eventually became the Islah Party, which was Yemen’s largest and best-organized opposition group until the recent rise of the Houthis. With Islah and the General People’s Congress in hand, Saleh dominated Yemen’s political scene. But it didn’t last. His alliance with Islah, which was strained after the war in 1994 when Saleh distanced himself from his Islamist allies, finally broke during the Arab Spring when the group sided with the protesters calling for Saleh to step down.

As Yemen threatened to descend into civil war, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) fashioned an interim government, which patched together a power-sharing agreement between the feuding old Yemeni elites in the General People’s Congress and Islah and removed Saleh from office. However, the interim president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, failed to govern effectively—unable

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