On 4 December 2017 Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by the Iranian-backed Houthi armed group at the age of 75. Saleh led Yemen with all its complexities and changing tribal and governorate dynamics for 34 years. He was dubbed the president who was always “dancing on the heads of snakes”, which reflected the circumstances of his death.
Saleh was born in the village of Beit Al-Ahmar, close to the capital of Yemen, Sana’a. He did not have access to higher education but he was the black horse of the military system. In his first few years in office he won over Yemeni hearts and minds, albeit with some force by tribal leaders, religious clergy and wealthy businessmen. He was a nationalist at large with a lens of republicanism which emboldened his governance during his presidency.
The Yemen Arab Republic had three presidents in the space of four years between 1974 and 1978, two of who were assassinated. The third disappeared after some 30 days in office. In a time of turmoil it was then that the Yemenis of the People’s Assembly elected Saleh as their leader for the Republic and commander of the army in 1997.
But his death marks a major political and military shift in the Yemen civil war which intensified in 2014 when the Houthi armed group took over Sana’a with his help. The civil war remained a stalemate for three years until he turned against the Houthi group’s alliance of convenience last Saturday.
Read more: Clashes in Sana’a leave 234 dead
It was thought that Saleh had always groomed his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, to succeed his legacy in politics. Saleh was due to retire and step down but he pressed on with constitutional changes in a bid to change this reality. It was the Arab Spring of 2011 that changed the dynamic against him.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt gave the Yemenis encouragement and hope for political change. The relationship between Yemen and the southern Al-Hirak movement – which seeks to secede from northern Yemen and morphed into the Southern Transitional Council early this year – has always been tense. The northern Houthi movement has also complained that shares of resources were not distributed evenly and that there is marginalisation in Yemen. It appeared that central Yemen had a political urge for change, and the people there joined protests seeking to oust Saleh’s rule.
Though publically Saleh accepted to step down, this was far from his true intentions. In 2015, the UN had estimated that Saleh had amassing $30-$62 billion of assets during and after his time in power, which would have given him extra rigor to fight on for the leadership of the Arab world’s poorest country. Protests and turmoil in Yemen continued until February 2012 when Saleh was finally taken out of office. The Gulf Cooperation Council intervened to permit President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to lead the nation.
Saleh’s desire for control did not subside, rather he took on his loyalists and attempted to take back his reign over Yemen forcefully. Without any support, Saleh allied himself with the Houthi armed group, whose stronghold was based in Saada governorate, northern Yemen. Both the Houthi and Saleh alliance of convenience made it possible for the Houthi armed group to take over and control Sana’a today.
President Hadi was forced to invite an Arab coalition of states, led by Saudi Arabia, to fight threats posed by the Houthi and Saleh alliance in March 2015. Since then one of the main partners, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has contributed to a major political shift in the original goals of the coalition, and has supported the Southern Transitional Council (STC), clearly defying the request by Hadi to assist in unifying Yemen. Hadi has called out the UAE as “occupiers” as opposed to the liberators they were invited to be this year. Saudi Arabia has remained silent on this new political shift by the UAE.
The Saleh-Houthi union which came about as a result of the civil war in Yemen marked a shift in relations for both sides. The Houthis have long held Saleh responsible for the death of the movement’s founder Hussein Al-Houthi in 2004, after he was targeted on the former president’s orders. The wounds of this strike are still raw for some Houthi fighters who were heard yesterday declaring Saleh’s assassination revenge for the Al-Houthi’s assassination.
As he had done previously, Saleh turned against the Houthi group last week and severed relations. This alliance of convenience was already rocky with both accusing each other of being “militias” which the Houthis took offence to early this year resulting in a short battle. He announced that he was ready for a “new page” in relations with the Saudi-led coalition which erupted fighting in Sana’a. The world thought that Saleh may have triggered a positive shift and be able to oust the Houthis from the capital, as the Houthis started to lose control. But overnight the Houthi armed group pushed on and overpowered Saleh’s loyal forces with their military strength.
Despite Saudi Arabian jets providing air cover for Saleh he was officially killed whilst attempting to flee Sana’a as the Houthi group executed an uptick in raids across the capital in search of him. Houthis posted several pictures of houses in which they found leftover utensils and alcohol in Saleh’s hideouts. Yesterday, he was killed whilst in a vehicle and taken away in a cloth in what resembled Gaddafi’s killing.
It is now unclear how the surrounding tribal and military dynamics will settle in Sana’a, Ma’rib and Nihm. Hadi has called upon the remaining Saleh loyalists to join forces but this comes as Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, called for revenge for the death of his father whilst in Saudi Arabia. “I will lead the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen… the blood of my father will be hell ringing in the ear of Iran”, Ahmed told Al-Ekbariya TV. Some reports claim that Ahmed Ali was under house arrest in Abu Dhabi but his release may insinuate that his father’s enemies have released him for revenge.
The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council has remained silent although reports emerged that they celebrated with fireworks following Saleh’s death. It is unclear whether UAE-backed forces will march north and support an offensive against the Houthis in Sana’a, whilst Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has spread positive remarks on the death through pro-AQAP accounts on social media and are most likely planning how to contribute to dynamics in central Yemen.