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Yemen’s Saleh has never been gone in order to ‘return’ to the political scene

January 27, 2017 at 9:00 am

War, famine and instability have plagued post-Arab Spring Yemen. After Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen with an iron fist for decades, stepped down as president, hope blossomed slightly when a new leader came to power. Talks of turning the country into a six-region federation were happening at the same time as the Houthis worked towards orchestrating their coup. Soon after, the Saudi-led coalition began its offensive and became responsible for 60 per cent of all civilian deaths in the national conflict. Names, places, events and dates circulate the mainstream Yemen analytical discourse, but one very important man is almost never spoken about: ex-President Saleh.

Saleh’s ‘resignation’ and the coup

When Saleh finally agreed to step down after over a year of protests, he did so with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) protecting him. That was in February 2012 under a GCC-brokered deal that granted him political immunity, meaning that he was able to stay in Yemen, remain as leader of the GPC party and live in security without being held accountable on charges of corruption during his 33 years of rule. The deal did not seem ideal to those who wanted justice to be served, and being leader of the GPC party implied that he still had some legitimacy.

Any lasting hopes for a democratic Yemen were shattered when Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was elected as President in a one-man poll. The former vice president “won” 99.8 per cent of the votes.

Hadi’s leadership was weak, and he showed little initiative to honour the revolutionary spirit to create a fairer system. His weakness in blocking the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014 effectively enabled it to happen, and although arguably he was not given enough time to do anything about it, corruption within the system was never fully addressed.

Some of the initial supporters of the coup rejoiced at the fact that a man — Hadi — with a history of having such proximity to the Saleh regime is, to all intents and purposes, no longer actually in power, but ruled from exile in Aden, and then later on in Riyadh. Many have tried to deny that Saleh had a connection with the Houthi coup and pressed on the fact that the Houthis fought six wars with him as president, along with being among the protestors during the Arab Spring. They looked past the fact that Saleh was not a man of principle, but a man of self-interest, and the Houthis, whose primary interest was to succeed in their power grab, knew that they would not have been able to do anything without his assistance.

Saleh’s underground support network

Last weekend, Al-Jazeera released a report exposing Saleh’s money-laundering activities. It revealed that Saleh’s son, Khaled Ali Abdullah Saleh, conducted a series of money-laundering schemes for his father in five countries, to bypass sanctions that were put in place against the former dictator in November 2014. Saleh senior transferred his bank accounts and overseas shares to Khaled, who then established an investment company in the UAE.

Khaled Saleh agreed to assist his father knowing that it was being done for the purpose of facilitating his illegitimate influence in Yemen and inducing enough instability to ensure there can be no functioning government after the fall of his dictatorship. This was done in conjunction with Saleh utilising the tribal, political and military networks that he built-up during his time in power. By negotiating, bribing and arming parties that have remained loyal to Saleh, or which thought they could use him as a bridge to get rid of Hadi for their own political gains, the former president easily built a network to destabilise Yemen without him.

The international community

Saleh has also attempted to pull diplomatic strings with regional and global powers. By forming a strategic alliance with the Houthis, he guaranteed himself Iranian support by proxy. However, this wasn’t enough, and he has worked hard to get the support of the Kremlin, a task he underestimated. He thought that getting direct support from Moscow would be easy because of Russian diplomats’ friendliness to Houthi and pro-Saleh officials in Sana’a. However, with the Kremlin exercising caution in its Yemen policy, such friendliness has not necessarily translated into overt support from Moscow. At the end of 2015, the Russians announced that they have refused to supply Saleh’s forces with rockets, despite him begging officials to do so. He was also denied an amnesty to go to Russia for alleged medical treatment last March, and despite him urging Moscow to accept that he is the perfect “counter-terrorism” ally, his calls for a formal alliance have largely been ignored.

Saleh has also been included in peace negotiations despite the fact that he is no longer ruling Yemen. It is arguable that as a primary instigator of violence and instability, communication with Saleh to find a political solution is necessary. However, this must be done within the context of holding him accountable as a corrupt dictator and war criminal. All of the past UN-brokered peace talks have enabled Saleh’s self-proclaimed legitimacy and have placed little to no tangible emphasis on his accountability. The fact that the UN Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, included Saleh’s GPC in a peace deal proposal to end the violence and form a unity government further proves that his attempts to force himself back into the Yemeni political system are working.

Before Saleh stepped down, he warned that, without him, Yemen would “turn into another Somalia.” We can see now that his statement was not a warning, it was a threat. Saleh stepped down in February 2012 with no intention to withdraw from the Yemeni political scene. His insistence on holding on to power, no matter what the humanitarian consequences, proves that he is a part of the problem and making him a part of the solution would continue to empower him. He doesn’t need to “return” to the political scene, for Ali Abdullah Saleh has never really been gone.

Timeline of events:

  • 27 January 2011 – The first official protest took place in Sana’a, where there were at least 16,000 demonstrators. They rejected Saleh’s call for reform and demanded that he steps down completely.
  • February 2011 – Prominent women’s rights activist Tawakkol Karman called for a day of rage in Sana’a. At least 20,000 people participated, along with protests in Aden.
  • Mid- February – The protests continued and began to increase in violence by mid-February. The movement also gained the support of major tribes.
  • 27 February 2012 – After much violence and resistance, Saleh stepped down through a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal which granted him immunity from persecution and allowed him to stay in Yemen.

People arrested or killed

Number of Political Prisoners since protests have started The number of prisoners is estimated to be in the thousands, although a specific figure is not available. 2000 + people killed during the period of protests.

Types of weapons/tools of oppression used during protests

Tear gas, live ammunition, tanks, tasers, batons, knives and rifles

Refugees and displaced persons

This figure is unknown as it is constantly fluctuating as the conflict progresses.

Current status of the country:

There is currently a war raging in Yemen which aims to get rid of the Houthis, a rebel movement which took over Sana’a, who Saleh has aligned with. Tribes and local resistance are now at the forefront of the fight against Houthi control; with backing from a Saudi coalition. There is currently a humanitarian crisis in place. An estimated 80% of Yemenis are in need of at least one form of aid. Yemen’s third most important city, Taiz, is now under a Houthi/Saleh siege. Al-Qaeda and Daesh are also growing in southern Yemen, due to a security vacuum.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.