Saleh, Yemen’s president for 33 years until he stepped down in 2012 amid an Arab Spring uprising, was killed on Monday by the Shiite rebels known as Houthis whom he had once allied with in the hope of a return to power but turned against in recent months.
Saleh was known as the man who “dances on the heads of snakes” for his ability to manipulate friends and enemies alike, using patronage, family bonds and brute force. That skill enabled him to stay on top in the Arab world’s poorest nation and one of its most unstable, where tribal and regional alliances and the sheer geography of mountains and deserts made central rule weak. But the decades of manipulation, corruption and conflict under Saleh left Yemen underdeveloped and dangerously fragile. Now the civil war, in large part caused by his manoeuvring, has pushed it to near societal collapse.
In the 2000s, Saleh was a vital ally of the United States in fighting al-Qaida’s branch in his country, a top priority for Washington after the branch tried to blow up a passenger jet and carry out other attacks on American soil. Even while taking millions in US aid, Saleh was suspected of striking deals with the militants and enlisting them to fight his battles.
Officials in his ally, Saudi Arabia, fumed privately to American diplomats that he was “corrupt, unreliable and largely ineffective,” then rushed to help him fight civil wars and domestic conflicts because they needed him.
After a popular uprising against his rule erupted in 2011, Saleh cannily managed to hang onto power for months, even surviving a bomb that detonated in the presidential palace mosque as he prayed there, severely burning him. Still, he stayed on, only finally resigning in early 2012 under a Saudi-brokered deal.
As president, Saleh fought multiple wars against the Houthi rebels in their heartland in northern Yemen, each time failing to crush them completely. Then after his fall, he allied with the Houthis against his own former vice president and successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – likely in the hope he could ride them back into power.
Saleh’s loyalist military units helped the Houthis overrun the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north and centre of the country. Hadi fled, his government moved to the southern city of Aden and Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a coalition air campaign in early 2015. Then in recent months, Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis fell apart as the rebels moved to weaken him and Saleh flirted with siding with the Saudi-led coalition.
Saleh rose to power in an era when Yemen was divided into two nations, north and south. He was born into a small tribe allied with one of the country’s mightiest clans, al-Ahmar. He did not stay long in school, leaving before he was a teenager and enlisting in the armed forces.
His exact age was unknown. His website gives his birth date as 21 March 1946, but many in Yemen say he was born four years earlier. On the other hand, he just happened to be 40 when he took power in 1978 – when the constitution said the president had to be 40. In the 2006 election, official statements alternated between saying he was 64 or 65. Whatever his age, Saleh was ambitious and soon caught the eye of North Yemen’s president, Ahmed bin Hussein al-Ghashmi, who appointed him military chief in the city of Taiz, south of Sanaa.
Saleh’s moment came after a bomb in a briefcase killed al-Ghashmi in June 1978. Within a month, Saleh was North Yemen’s president, backed by Saudi Arabia. Among his first acts was to order the execution of 30 officers – some his former friends – convicted of being conspirators in al-Ghashmi’s assassination. His reputation cemented as a tough leader, he also knew how to play Cold War politics. Marxist South Yemen was a Soviet client state, so Saleh reached out to Western leaders to leverage aid for North Yemen. In 1990, with the Soviet Union unravelling, Saleh negotiated unity with the south, ensuring his place as the president. In 1990, he raised the flag of the Republic of Yemen at the southern port of Aden. Four years later, he crushed an attempt by the south to break free.
His powerful nexus of the military and tribes made him virtually untouchable. He also sought to harness a dangerous new force in the country. Arab militants who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s needed a new home, and the deal apparently offered by Saleh was sanctuary in exchange for respecting his authority.
In 2000 that legacy came back to haunt him when the Navy destroyer USS Cole was bombed in Aden harbor, killing 17 American sailors. Washington demanded Saleh crack down on suspected Islamic militants.
When a popular uprising broke out against him in 2011, he responded with token promises of reform, then bloody attacks on the protesters. He faced a stream of defections from his party, politicians, Cabinet members, tribal allies and military units. Still, he managed to cling to power, then negotiate an exit deal that not only protected him from arrest and prosecution and let him stay in the country but kept many of his loyalists in place in the military.
That made Saleh a player in the civil war between the Houthis and Hadi. But the Houthis succeeded in weakening him in recent months, reducing their alliance on him.