Was Ali Abdullah a product of Yemen, or was Yemen a product of Ali Abdullah? The answer is a complicated mix of personality and history, and what it reveals promises an even bleaker future for this desperate and beautiful and time-torn land.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former tank commander who dominated modern Yemen and who was killed in an assault by his erstwhile Houthi allies on Monday, came to power in Yemen in 1978. He ruled until 2012, and was still the most important man in Yemen for the length of the punishing civil war which has destroyed his country. Even after his death, he will dominate what comes next, which threatens to be even more punishing.
The truth is, I don’t have any idea what will come next. A general splintering seems most likely, as the great player of Yemeni tribal, regional, and international politics played his last hand, and lost. Though his death isn’t the only reason, further centrifugal violence is what most people sadly expect, as Yemen continues to fall apart in a generational tragedy.
Any discussion of what comes next has to take into account the length of his shadow, and what he meant to Yemen, and who he was. And the question that needs to be answered, even if it can’t be answered, is one that I have wrestled with for a decade and a half: is Ali Abdullah the product of Yemen, or is Yemen the product of his particular style of selfish, can-kicking rule.
The answer, as you can guess, is both. Saleh was constrained by Yemeni history, by its politics, by its geography (and even geology), and by the incredible compression of time that happened in his remarkable life. But he also consistently made things worse by caring more about power and survival than the ultimate fate of his country.
In short, he both encapsulated and perpetuated the tragedy of Yemen, in ways we’ll be reconciling with for decades to come. Rarely has a man put such a stamp on a country, and the violence of his final moments, when at the end he was an old man running from death, was the understandable and almost inevitable capstone to his career.
Saleh As A Man Of His Time
In order to appreciate the scope of Saleh, we have to look at where he started. Brian Whitaker at The Guardian gives a very good summary of his start from nowhere to rise to global prominence, but I want to focus on where he made his bones. As I said today:
The war in which he was a young tank commander started in 1962 to bring down the Imam, the head of a political system that had lasted in an essential form for 1000 years. It was Zaydi rule based out of the north, with San’a seen as much a rebellious city as a capital.
Indeed, San’a in the early 60s wasn’t the height of modernity. It hadn’t been too long since tribal raiders had sacked the city in retaliation for another rebellion, and the gates of the town were closed overnight. It wasn’t some romantic Orientalist dream, but it certainly wasn’t exactly the swinging 60s either.
(Also, the tribal raiders sacking a city in the 20th century may seem absurd, but this happened shortly after WWII, where, if you’re a history buff, you’ll recall that civilized Europeans did a few savage things.)
It was in this war that Saleh proved his mettle, playing a small part in forming the new Republic, which rules the north (the south became Marxist in 1967 after kicking out the British, who were still colonizing it). He became President in 1978. His immediate two predecessors had been brutally murdered. It was a tough job.
But he survived.
He played a huge role in unifying the north and south in 1990, and played a huge role in alienating the south, leading to a civil war, in which he empowered returning jihadis to turn a secular region into an Islamist-dominated zone of subjugation.
But he survived.
After 9/11, he took George Bush’s “with us or against us” very literally, and signed up for the War on Terror. He allowed drones into his country, expanding an American war, and turned against his old allies. He also catered to them in secret, playing them and the US against each other. No party was satisfied.
But he survived.
It’s here I want to talk about the remarkable compression of time in his life. Think about it: when he was a young man, north Yemen and isolated backwater, dominated by the same Zaydi imamate it had been for 1000 years. The south was partially wild, with Aden controlled by the British. By the time he was entering his third decade in power, it was a unified nation (in name anyway) buzzing with drones piloted from a desert in Las Vegas.
The last imam’s grandfather personally approved flights in and out of San’a. Saleh’s city had an international airport. The imam handwrote his correspondence. Saleh was almost brought down by Wikileaks.
But there were still many similarities. Both ruled in a very personal way, mediating tribal disputes at the family level, being involved in every decision. He decided who to play against each other, who to embrace and who to push away, when to reconcile and when to fight. He received bribes and personally doled out payoffs to buy alliances. When tribesmen came to the capitol to negotiate or levy complaints, he’d decide where they were put up.
See, in this way, Ali Abdullah was a true man of Yemen. There were rules on behavior, and time-honored ways of doing politics. There were constant deals being made, and shifting loyalties depending on circumstance (which is different than disloyalty, if everyone is acting from the same playbook).
So, in many ways, Saleh did what he always had to do. He had to placate numerous constituencies in order to keep a fractious and historically disunited country from falling apart. He had to (from his point of view) turn toward violent radicals to win the civil war. He had to embrace George Bush while not really turning fully against al-Qaeda. He had to jail dissidents and empower Political Security.
But there is a problem here: most of what he did wasn’t for Yemen, but for the continued career of Ali Abdullah Saleh. And that’s where he isn’t Yemen, but Yemen is tragically him.
The Snake Dancer
If you were reading about Yemen today, you almost certainly came across his line where he compared ruling Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes”. And he’s right! It isn’t easy. Remember, his predecessors were killed, one via and exploding suitcase he thought was a bribe. You’d be a cautious cat, too.
But only if you wanted to stay in power, and therein lied the problem. Every move he made was to stay in power, and he did so by placating enemies, playing sides against each other, manipulating situations to ensure the weakness of his enemies, and to make sure that no side ever got too strong. He sidelined rivals to stay in power, and he spent years grooming the system to plant his violent, callow, sunglassed son as his successor.
In every move he made, then, he made Yemen more and more ungovernable for anyone but him. He concentrated power in his hands as much as possible (which was much less in in Yemen than in, say, Iraq or Libya, but relative to the country it was an enormous amount).
Saleh wanted the country to be on the verge of chaos, so that he could tell international partners, especially the US, that he was the only one who could prevent the flood. He was a partner in the “War on Terror”, but only so much as he could guarantee a war without end. It was only with the rise of AQAP, who had no interest in playing ball, that he got serious. That came with its own problems.
He constantly moved tough decisions down the road so as to keep a divided opposition. The problem is, the road ran out. When he was deposed in 2012, something that could have been avoided had he stepped down in 2005 or agreed to resign during the Arab Spring (or even shown that he would leave in 2013, without paving the way for his son), the country’s civil wars became all-encompassing conflagrations.
These civil wars were, of course, a result of his rule. They were, at the end, the cause of his death.
The Death of Ali Abdullah and the Death of Yemen
Since 2004, Yemen has had overlapping civil wars and secessionist strife. The most globally famous of these were al-Qaeda’s, relatively small, but one that could be seen as a tribal revolt against Saleh, just with an ostensibly globalist spin.
Then there was the Southern Movement, a largely secular revolt against the remnants of 1994’s civil war. There were too many mutations to go through here, but this was in many ways a continuation of Yemeni history, which for all of history until 1990 was divided.
But the big one was the Houthi rebellion. It started in the northern strongholds where the Royalists ended up after the civil war of the 1960s (the one where Saleh made his mark). After some 30+ years of neglect, they got a little hot under the collar. It wasn’t just neglect: the Saleh-approved rise of Sunni militancy revived Zaydi Shi’ism as a backlash.
(So, to recap: in order to win against southern secularists and former Marxists, Saleh empowered Afghan-hardened jihadis. He gave them broad latitude in the country, and they threw their muscle around the far north, awakening a Shi’ite rebellion. That’s Saleh in a nutshell, man.)
This war went through many waves, with Saleh unleashing his full might, with no regard for civilian life. It was brutal, including one wave aptly titled “Operation Scorched Earth.” That’s not the kind of name that encourages reconciliation.
So, what was the great reconciliator doing? Possibly trying to force negotiation, but I think he was trying to destroy the Zaydi movement, wipe it clean off, and never deal with it again. He certainly seemed to take this more personally.
So what happened? In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Houthis bombed him, and helped lead to his toppling in 2012. In 2014 they sacked San’a, a repeat of gate-crashing horse-stomping invasions mere decades before. Then in 2015 Saudi Arabia attacked. Then Saleh partnered with the Houthis against Mohammed bin Salman.
It was the perfect cynical move by him, partnering with his longest and most intractable enemies. It was clear he was maneuvering a way to get back into power, and eventually, he found his opening. He made an agreement with the Saudis to turn on the Houthis, in exchange for the Kingdom lifting its genocidal bombing and blockade strategy.
In this, he acted as the hope to stop a war that was created by his decades of misrule. He was hoping to be the savior of a country he had done so much to wreck, and a father figure to people whose lives he dominated and ultimately destroyed. Reaching out a hand to the murderous MBS wasn’t an act of statesmanship, but another move by a politician who was always able to dominate his environment.
It…didn’t work. His supporters (the GPC and others) and the Houthis went to immediate war, plunging a broken San’a into even more chaos, killing hundreds. He tried to flee. He was caught.
So that was his last move. He once again tried to leverage misery and war and death and suffering to his political gain, and he failed. But his legacy is all around him. His country is a wreck, the bill finally coming due for his decades of power-grabbing misrule. The Saudis are mercilessly bombing the place, and with no real partner, will continue to do so. The Houthis are closer to controlling all of San’a. His people are starving and dying. The generations born under his rule have no future.
And now, neither does he. The ultimate survivor died in a shootout, an old man fleeing, his master plan gone to hell in a matter of days. I wonder about his final thoughts. I wonder if there was grim acceptance. I imagine there were a few fleeting thoughts of how to get away with it. There was a plan working its way through his mind, a chance to make a deal to save his hide, regardless of the consequences for anyone else. There was a thought of how to get on to the next day, and then the next, no matter what that meant day after tomorrow.
I wonder if that what was going through his head one last time before the bullets entered it, leaving those thoughts shattered and bloody, incomplete and hopeless, life flickering at the whims of someone else’s trigger, and for the final time a perfect representation of his country. He had finally arrived at the end of the road, nowhere to turn. He had finally reached the terrible future he had done everything to ensure.