Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s killing last week reverberated throughout Yemen and the wider region. As the most dominant figure in the country for more than 30 years, the implications of his demise are formidable. To garner a deeper understanding of how the outlook has changed for the ongoing conflict and the country in general, the Sana’a Center asked seven experts on Yemen for their insight.
Maysaa Shuja al Deen | Yemeni journalist and non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies
Prospects for peace with the Houthis controlling Sana’a
At a time when the Houthi military’s grip on Sana’a has tightened – along with increased arrests, killings and censorship of social media and the internet – Houthi flirtations with external powers are noticeably different. The day after Saleh’s death, the head of the Supreme Political Council, Saleh al-Sammad, stated that the Houthis are willing to negotiate with Saudi Arabia.
While ostensibly this may seem to indicate a willingness to reach compromise to end the war, after gaining undisputed control over Sanaa any settlement the Houthis would accept would have to provide them political cover for their continued de facto rule.
If Saudi Arabia came under significant pressure from its Western allies then it would likely accept a political solution that could theoretically allow it to save face. While coalition-backed military operations on Yemen’s western coastline will probably not proceed inland, the blockade on Sanaa and Houthi-controlled areas will intensify. Meanwhile, the resulting human suffering will not put pressure on the Houthis but backfire on the coalition, especially Saudi Arabia.
A settlement, therefore, may yet be forthcoming, but the country has become divided along sectarian lines in an unprecedented and explosive way, and is unlikely to stabilize in the near future even after the regional intervention is over.
As for the wishful hopes of a popular uprising, people are unlikely to mobilize while exhausted, hungry and under severe Houthi oppression. War has weakened people’s capacity for resistance, especially in the absence of any leadership or organization. Furthermore, the Houthis, while still young and cohesive, may soon suffer the corrosive effects associated with absolute power, such as complacency, opportunism and of course corruption. Such hubris would erode whatever remains of the Houthis’ internal moral legitimacy, at which point their opponents will have an opening.
Helen Lackner | Author of ‘Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-liberalism and the Disintegration of a State’
Saleh’s rise and fall
Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death on December 4, 2017 marks the end of an era for Yemen, and indeed for the region as a whole. He was the last of the Arab nationalist leaders. Whatever views one may have about his politics, Saleh demonstrated extraordinary political manoeuvring skills over more than 30 years and ended up as the longest serving leader of the country in modern history. Not only did he negotiate the complexities of Yemen’s social structure – facilitating the rise and fall of different social classes, non-tribal elements, various tribes and the Hashemites – he also navigated the management of a republic in the Arabian Peninsula where absolute monarchies prevail. He did so while retaining nationalist credentials against the rising tide of Islamism in the region, and balancing relations between East and West during the Cold War. Finally, in the post-Cold War era, he successfully ensured Yemen had a significant degree of independence from United States domination while giving the impression of supporting its ‘war against terror’ from 2001 onwards. His ability to manage these highly contradictory and conflicting interests deserves respect and even admiration.
When Saleh became president of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1978, following the assassination of two of his predecessors, he was not expected to last more than a few weeks. Initially described as a semi-literate country bumpkin, he soon demonstrated that literacy and formal education are not necessarily indicators of political competence and cunning. It is now many years since I heard anyone mention his lack of academic qualifications. He not only lasted, but increased his grip on the country and demonstrated that being semi-literate did not prevent him from being an extremely sharp and effective operator: his prodigious memory for people’s names, faces and personal histories was often mentioned as one of the explanations for his success.
In the early years of his presidency, he survived not only attempts on his life, but military defeat in the 1979 war against the PDRY. In 1982, he created the General People’s Congress (GPC): this quasi-party brought under a single umbrella influential people of all political hues requiring only one thing, loyalty to himself, in exchange for practical benefits which they could use themselves or for their communities and followers. At a time when political parties were illegal, it was an institution which mobilised support while neutralising most opposition, as he brought into it many opponents, including members of the National Democratic Front who had benefited from the support of the PDRY in the 1979 war.
After 1990, the GPC survived and thrived in the united Republic of Yemen where it became a formal political party and expanded into the southern governorates. Its lack of a clear political programme was not a hindrance to its development as it was primarily a tool of Saleh’s patronage system, used to distribute benefits as necessary. Indeed, other rulers have copied the model, Sudanese authorities, for example, didn’t even bother to change the name.
Had he retired gracefully in 2012, perhaps more people would remember some of his achievements, such as unification and the modernisation of Yemen’s infrastructure. Instead, his anger and frustration at being ousted led him into a particularly unsavoury alliance with his former enemies, the Houthis, in which he was gradually weakened and eventually lost his life. Since the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in March 2015, his role also contributed to destroying much of what he had built in the first place, whether infrastructure or a degree of national cohesion in some parts of the country at least.
Saleh was a determining element of the lives of all Yemenis and, indeed, most foreigners involved with Yemen for decades. The mass demonstrations held in August to mark 35 years since the establishment of the GPC proved that he still had very impressive popular support in the country, despite the negative aspects of his rule. His legacy will continue to affect Yemeni politics and society for some time to come.
Jamila Ali Raja | Yemeni Diplomat and director at Consult Yemen
Regardless of the shock, disgust and anger that accompanied Saleh’s brutal death, it will not have a significant impact on the likelihood of reaching a peace agreement and ending the war in the short term. This is because the Houthis are the party primarily responsible for stalling political and diplomatic negotiations since the end of the last round of UN-sponsored peace talks in Kuwait over a year ago. No progress has been made since, despite UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s many efforts. Now, following Saleh’s death, the Houthis have complete control over state institutions, revenues, and decision-making in the country’s north.
Houthi euphoria at their victory over the ally of yesterday and the enemy of the distant past is apparent in their public rejoicing for finally avenging their slain founder, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi. The Houthi movement and its militias will continue to create a police state that suppresses any dissenting political expression. Despite their expressed willingness to return to “peer” negotiations, as stated by the head of the Supreme Political Council, Saleh al-Sammad, the group’s military leaders will make sure to thwart this path.
The Houthis are betting on there being no decisive military victory, given the enormous humanitarian cost that such would entail, and which the international community would not allow. Already the escalation in Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Sana’a and other areas following Saleh’s death have raised concerns among the coalition’s Western allies.
On the military level, regardless of the unknown fate of Saleh’s nephew, Tariq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh – and the signs suggesting that he is still alive – there is a growing expectation that the remaining members of the Republican Guard will join the Houthi militias, perhaps with the exception of those in Taiz. Meanwhile, the military situation has changed little on the crucial frontlines in Nihm and Mokha districts, in eastern Sana’a and western Taiz, respectively, despite pro-government forces making gains in Al Khawkhah, Marib and Shabwa.
The Houthis are also betting that the citizens and tribes under their rule will be more amenable to following them after Saleh’s death. The south is no longer the focus for the Houthis, but they share with many southern leaders a desire to turn the page on the internationally recognized Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi; this includes, perhaps, dividing Yemen into two regions or two countries.
Meanwhile, Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party appears headed for a crisis. Its movements, meetings and statements herald a split within the GPC, between factions on the ground in Yemen (particularly Sana’a) where the party members will have to ally with the Houthis, and another abroad, notably in Riyadh, given ongoing political maneuverings there. A possible third branch might also emerge, a development being expressed by the GPC-affiliated Yemen Today TV channel, which is now broadcasting from Sanaa, Cairo and Riyadh. Concurrently, the status of Ahmed Ali Saleh, the son of the late president, is still under discussion in the United Arab Emirates, in the presence of other parties from Cairo and Riyadh.
Peter Salisbury | Senior Consulting Fellow, Chatham House, Nonresident Fellow Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW)
The Houthis without their paymaster
It remains unclear to what extent the Houthis are able to fund their war sustainably after Saleh’s death. During his 33 years in power, the former president created a huge patronage network that enriched his allies and, of course, the president himself. A large amount of the money made from graft was stowed abroad in tax havens and secret jurisdictions, hidden behind shell companies and trusts. From the beginning of the war, Saleh and his inner circle were able to access these funds, probably billions of dollars’ worth.
Since the beginning of the civil war in late 2014-early 2015, a United Nations Panel of Experts has identified tens of millions of dollars belonging to Saleh’s family, and the transfer of funds within his financial network. Khaled Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president’s son, is said by the UN Panel to have laundered almost $84 million through a bank account in the UAE over the course of a week in 2014, while a reputed Saleh ally, businessman Shaher Abdulhaq, was found to have transferred around $3 million dollars to Raydan Investments Limited, another Saleh family-controlled financial vehicle.
The Houthis claim to have seized large sums of money and gold from the homes of the former president and his family, and say that they will transfer the funds to the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) branch in Sana’a to pay wages – likely those of fighters rather than civil servants. But this will be a one-off cash injection. With the coalition working to squeeze the northwest of Yemen even harder now that the Houthis are in sole charge in Sana’a, and with cash transfers from Iran under growing scrutiny and access to Saleh’s international financial networks cut off, it is unclear how well placed the group is to sustain itself financially. The Houthis have consolidated control over customs and tax authorities, and are the main beneficiary of inbound smuggling routes, but running a war is expensive.
Maged Al-Madhaji | Executive Director, Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies
An irreplaceable dictator
Ali Abdullah Saleh was a true dictator, and after three decades as the most influential man in Yemen, the wheels he set in motion and how he met his end will shape the country far into the future.
The Saleh era was a naked expression of realpolitik, defined by his ruthlessly pragmatic political maneuvering aimed at, above all, preserving his own authority. As opposed to furthering public interests Saleh – one of shrewdest Arab politicians of the modern era – managed to radically transform a country as complex as Yemen to serve his bidding.
From the reigns of power he was constantly in conflict with the common people and effectively crushed their dreams for a better life, and then departed this world without being held accountable for the suffering he sowed. And yet many in the country grieved for his death, even some of his fiercest opponents; first, because they had hoped he could save them from the Houthis; second, because of the brutal way he was killed.
The impact of Saleh’s death will be felt most in the unravelling of the networks of interests which he used to preserve his power, such as those embodied in the General People’s Congress (GPC) party. In Saleh’s absence, the GPC is likely to disintegrate. Neither Saleh’s son, Ahmed, nor any of Saleh’s family members can compensate for his loss, despite their highly symbolic status in the eyes of GPC supporters. The GPC needs more than just symbols now; to survive the party needs a leader with personal dynamism, effective presence, and the ability to build alliances, stake calculated positions and exploit prevailing circumstances.
It is difficult to foresee any party inheriting his legacy and authority, including the Houthis who cut him down. Replacing Saleh will require more than brute force alone.
Iona Craig | Freelance journalist and Orwell Fellow
Checkmate for the master
Saleh was, to the end, perceived in Yemen as the master game player. He loved Yemen’s often-deadly political contest and played it by rules that he himself established over more than three decades as president. When I met him after he ceded the presidency to Hadi in 2012 it was clear that, despite his claim of being a retiree from politics, the playing political game impassioned him as much as the power and money it had provided him with for so many years.
In our meeting he swung from moments of anger to the point of rage and then laughter when I mentioned his son, Ahmed Ali, in the same sentence as his erstwhile ally-turned-opponent, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. When he stated that the memoirs he was supposedly penning would not be published until after his death, because they contained too many secrets, I asked if people should be afraid of the day he died. Saleh’s eyes lit up at the thought as he responded through a chilling cackle: “Inshallah,” he said, God willing.
In the aftermath of Saleh’s death – the circumstances of which demonstrate that he had been superseded as the linchpin in his own handcrafted stratagem – the Houthis are creating new rules of the game. Most immediately, the Houthi campaign of arrests, purported killings and the shutting down of internet access indicate they are turning Sana’a into what looks and behaves troublingly like a mini police “state.” What happens next in Yemen throws up a myriad of possible scenarios, none of which look positive. A week on from Saleh’s death and the tone the Houthis have set so far is an ominous one for the capital’s residents.
In the longer view, I wonder how Yemeni history will come to record Saleh’s killing. Will his death at the Houthis’ hands somehow absolve him of responsibility for starting the war? That will likely depend on who gets to write that history and under whose authority it will be taught to Yemen’s future generations. Many in the country, particularly those in the south, would argue that he got his comeuppance. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the millions of Yemenis who have outlived Saleh are now left to burn in a living hell of war, famine and disease, and that Saleh played an essential role in the creation of this tragedy.
Dr. Abdulrahman al-Saqqaf | Secretary General of the Yemeni Socialist Party
International community must act to avoid disaster
Prior to the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen was faced with three possible scenarios: continued civil war; a de facto partition that is not fully recognized by the international community; or increased momentum to resolve the war through a peaceful resolution.
This last scenario is the least likely of all three at the moment. The likeliest scenario is one where partition occurs amid a civil war that can only be brought to a close if there are cohesive local, regional and international peace efforts.
This requires the international community and regional actors engaged in the war to abandon their reluctance to end the war. Time is not on the side of a solution, and its passage carries serious risks to peace in the region and internationally given Yemen’s strategic location.
About the Sana’a Center:
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover political, social, economic and security related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.