It would be no small irony if, in death, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh advances the cause of peace in his impoverished homeland far more than he ever seemed interested in doing during the final years of his life.
Saleh, who died December 4 at the hands of the Houthi rebels, was an unlikely partner and major enabler of the Houthis, the armed insurgency that in September 2014 swept down from its northern redoubt on Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia and seized the reins of Yemen’s government by force. Saleh certainly had little affinity for the Houthis; as president, he oversaw six rounds of armed conflict against the group from 2004-10. However, he saw in them an opportunity to get back at Yemen’s Gulf Arab neighbors – Saudi Arabia principal among them – for forcing his resignation and replacing him with his long-time vice president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in 2011 as Yemen’s own Arab Spring protests deteriorated into violence that threatened to spiral out of control.
At the moment, it is difficult to imagine who might assume Saleh’s place on Yemen’s national stage. For all his flaws, and they were many – he was vain, vindictive, fond of humiliating those who served him – he proved during his 33 years as Yemen’s president to be almost uniquely capable of presiding over a fractious, young nation that only came into being in 1990, after a civil war united what had been until that time socialist South Yemen with the Yemen Arab Republic in the north. Saleh jealously guarded this legacy, fancying himself the father of Yemen, and seeing the country’s well-being as indistinguishable from his own. I once said to a Yemeni friend that Saleh and his offspring treated the country as if it was a family owned and operated corporation, to which he replied: “On the contrary. If it were, they would take much better care of it.”
In the short term, Saleh’s death is much more likely to simply exacerbate the violence that has wracked the Arab world’s poorest country for over three years, as his loyalists seek retribution for his death. In this effort, they can expect support from Saudi Arabia, which since March 2015 has been a major combatant in Yemen, having injected itself into what was up to that point a civil war. The Saudis justified their intervention by asserting that regional rival Iran was exerting growing influence over the Houthis, to the extent that Saudi national security was threatened. While there is no doubt the Iranians have provided financial and military support for the Houthis, over the years, Saleh’s assistance was by any measure far more decisive. In recent months, though, the uneasy alliance that Saleh had forged with the Houthis began to fray very publicly: Armed clashes between forces loyal to each side increased in and around the capital. This was an outcome that surprised almost no one, given how little the two sides had in common, other than deep animosity toward Saudi Arabia and the government of President Hadi.
What became clear from the outbreak of violence between the ostensible allies was that Saleh’s influence was waning. While he could still muster large and adoring crowds of Yemenis to public rallies in Sanaa, the Houthis had increasingly little need for the military heft he once provided their forces. In fact, just days before his death, Saleh – seeming to read the writing on the wall – made a dramatic public offer to “turn the page” with Saudi Arabia and, presumably, turn his back on his Houthi allies, a gesture that may have provoked the retaliation that led to his death.
Ultimately, the Houthis may come to regret their hand in Saleh’s demise. He lent them a veneer of legitimacy among Yemenis who have chafed under the heavy-handed, sometimes abusive rule they have imposed over the capital and areas in the northern highlands they control. With Saleh out of the picture, this popular discontent may grow and prove to be an impediment to the Houthis’ ability to continue to rule over large segments of Yemen’s population.
An official at a Washington-based international nongovernmental organization recently referred to the “equilibrium of misery” that prevails in Yemen: The war has ground to a stalemate, and neither party seems able to gain a decisive advantage. Meanwhile, both sides of the conflict are profiting handsomely from a war economy that has sprung up in recent years, even while the civilian population teeters on the brink of famine and suffers outbreaks of disease that could – and should – have been easily avoided.
If, by his death, Saleh is able to knock Yemen into some disequilibrium, perhaps the warring parties will be forced to consider if their long-term interests are being served by continuing to wage a war neither side can win. If this comes to pass, Saleh belatedly will finally have done something unquestionably in the interest of the Yemeni people whose well-being he so often claimed was his principal concern.