Khaled Abdullah / Reuters Yemen's then President Ali Abdullah Saleh gestures during a gathering of supporters in Sanaa, February 20, 2011.

Ali Abdullah Saleh's Fatal Calculation

Could the Man Who Made Modern Yemen Be Its Undoing?

Live video and hundreds of news reports have confirmed the death of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, yet many Yemenis refuse to believe that he has really passed from the country’s political scene. Saleh had previously survived assassination attempts, coups, two civil wars, and widespread international pressure to step down, yet always persevered and found his way back to the center of Yemen’s leadership by transforming himself and his alliances. He did so with such frequency that nearly every political entity in the region can be said to have been both his enemy and his ally at some point in his 34-year presidential career.

Saleh’s last gambits were no different. When Yemen spiraled into civil war in 2015, he surprised even the most informed observers by supporting the Iranian-backed Houthis, the same tribesmen whom he had once considered his enemies and who are currently the target of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign. Last month, in another incredible move, Saleh announced that he was prepared to engage with the Saudis and act as an intermediary between the Houthis and Riyadh. His former tribal allies balked at the prospect. Meanwhile, the Houthis saw Saleh’s overtures as a thinly veiled attempt to co-opt the revolution and pave a path for his singular return as the ultimate kingmaker. Saleh, however, was far more than an ambitious former president nostalgic for power. Through his political maneuvering and guile, he managed to hold together the dozens of disparate factions in Yemen, whose grievances, as I detailed in the November/December 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, lie at the heart of the conflict.

When Saleh became president of the Yemen Arab Republic (or North Yemen) in 1978, few expected him to survive the year. His predecessors had both been assassinated only months apart, and Saleh was only 36 and lacked the tribal and military support afforded to both of these two former leaders. Not only did Saleh surpass the expectations of these nay-sayers, but he managed to

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