The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
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 end the festering state of war between North and South Yemen.
The union of the two Yemens was formalized in 1990, creating the Republic of Yemen, a new state with dominion over the entirety of southwest Arabia, with Saleh at its center of power. The unification, inspired in part by the discovery of oil fields along the North-South border, placed Saleh in a position to siphon billions of dollars into his own personal accounts and to fund a network of nepotism that helped centralize his control over the new Yemeni Republic. But the leadership of South Yemen joined a long list of Saleh allies-turned-opponents when it clashed with his government over political and financial appropriations. These differences culminated in a 1994 civil war. During this conflict, Saudi Arabia intervened in support of South Yemen’s separatist movement, hoping in the process to undermine Saleh’s unified state, which was seen by members of the royal family as a threat to Saudi regional dominance. The short-lived civil war ended with Saleh’s conquest of the southern Yemeni port city of Aden.
Saleh’s resounding defeat of his former southern allies was due in part to the strategic alliance between Saleh’s General People’s Congress party and the Islah party, which represented the interests of Islamist factions and the Muslim Brotherhood. The timely appointment of Sheikhs al-Zindani and Abdullah al-Ahmar, two senior members of the Islah party, to leadership roles in Saleh’s government secured Islamist support during the 1994 civil war. After a poor showing in the 1997 elections, Saleh dismissed the Islah party just as he had the South Yemeni leadership. In response, the Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood eventually formed a new coalition called the Joint Meeting Parties alliance. But Saleh’s continued politicking and encouragement of rivalries within the JMP kept this opposition group disunited and ineffectual.
Saleh’s greatest test, however, came from the same northern tribesmen who laid siege to Sanaa in 1968 and against whom he defended the capital city. This time, united behind the leadership of the Houthi family, these tribesmen took up arms to protest the political marginalization and isolation of the northern regions of Yemen since the establishment of a modern republic during the 1960s. Over six periods of fighting from 2004-11, Saleh managed to quell the Houthi revolt by enlisting the aid of Saudi Arabia, his former adversary during the 1994 civil war.
Saleh had scarcely returned from his final confrontation with the Houthis when the Arab Spring swept across the region. Thousands of Yemenis took to the streets in 2011 to protest the corruption and nepotism that had characterized Saleh’s presidential regime. When Saleh was seriously injured during a missile attack on his palace mosque that same year, Saudi Arabia offered him sanctuary and the Gulf Cooperation Council intervened to organize his abdication and the transition of power to his Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
But celebrations of Saleh’s ouster were premature. His departure opened the door for his old enemies to fill his void. The Houthi movement in particular had the most to gain and also the most organized military force to seize power. Less than three years after replacing Saleh, Hadi fled Sanaa after the Houthis seized the capital city. This enabled the Islamist parties and the southern separatist movement, both former Saleh opponents weakened by his centralization of power, to gradually regain political relevance and stake claims in the emerging civil war.
Saleh catapulted back into the center of the Yemeni political scene in 2015 when he allied with the Houthis, transforming himself from a Saudi ally into their principal opponent. Although he resigned from the presidency, Saleh still maintained the allegiance of 75 percent of Yemen’s military. The success of the Houthi resistance since 2014, or more appropriately, Saudi Arabia’s inability to achieve a military victory over the rebel group, was due in large part to Saleh’s military forces. With his assassination, the Houthi movement is now the unrivalled power on the ground in Yemen. Saudi Arabia will certainly continue its military intervention, using the former leader’s death to justify prolonging its merciless anti-Iranian war against a civilian population with little or no connection to Tehran.
Saleh may have used military might and corruption to centralize authority, and his shifting alliances may have beguiled experts, but he was more than just a leader practiced in the arts of political expedience. He represented the last historic link with the origins of the Yemeni Republic’s foundation and the last hope for its future. Even the 2011 protesters and vocal opponents of Saleh have expressed their anger over the events of this past week. From their perspective, the Houthis have coopted their revolution and exacted tribal justice and vengeance on Saleh, a right they had reserved for themselves.
Ahmed, the eldest son of Ali Abdullah Saleh, has declared his intention of avenging his father’s death and taking up his father’s mantle in leading the Yemeni army against the Houthis. It seems, however, that he has grossly misunderstood his father’s ultimate goal. At his core, Saleh cared deeply about Yemen and about the Yemeni people. He may have very well thought that his final gamble would bring this humanitarian crisis to an end and save modern Yemen. But in the end, he left wide open a political void that cannot be filled by any other single Yemeni politician. The modern Yemeni Republic is gone, and now any resolution of the conflict must deal directly with Houthi leaders, who have only grown more unyielding following Saleh’s death.