Yemen's former president was a shrewd political operator. He was also known for rampant corruption which saw to the devastation of his nation.
Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed on Monday at the age of 75.
Over his 34 years in power, he controlled Yemen with an iron fist, amassing a fortune of up to $60bn for himself and members of his immediate family.
While in office, his seven brothers, sons and son-in-laws controlled various branches of the air force, armed forces and the government.
His embezzlement of funds helped precipitate Yemen’s decline into chronic poverty and fragility; the country was consistently regarded as fragile by the world community. A UN report said Saleh’s wealth was obtained through corruption and kickbacks with oil and gas suppliers.
He became president of Northern Yemen in 1978 at the age of 36. When he was first groomed for the position, diplomats give accounts of his unkempt appearance, and that he was stage-managed for the role – from his personal hygiene to his public addresses.
He created an uneasy alliance between the nation’s military, tribal leaders and the Muslim Brotherhood, with the aim of defeating communist rule in the country’s central region. When Yemen’s fractious split between north and south was overcome in 1990, Saleh assumed the role of president for the whole of Yemen.
His governance of Yemen was fraught with challenges; he ordered the execution of 30 opponents in 1978. After the country’s unification, his General People’s Congress won 122 of 301 seats in the first parliamentary election, but his support of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein damaged relations between the Gulf and Yemen for years to come.
He partnered with the US in the war on terror, allowing the US military to launch drone attacks throughout the nation, but frequently disassembled as to their role. Under his tenure, the militant group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, flourished in the nation’s south, winning territory and tribal allegiances.
The uprising that sought to oust him in 2011 saw Houthis, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Islah Party and powerful tribal leaders ally to seek an end to the regime. Saleh’s response to the revolution was quick, brutal and fierce. He launched attacks against protesters in Sanaa, leading to the death of 52 protesters.
An attack on his home injured Saleh in June 2011 led the Saudis to force Saleh to step down, placing him under house arrest in Riyadh. But Saleh managed to flee, sequestering a plane to transport him out of the country.
The US State Department, which had a major part to play over Yemen affairs through the then Ambassador, Gerald Feierstein, was taken aback at the time. Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi was placed in his role in his stead in 2012, after running for election in a widely discredited plebiscite where he stood with no opponents.
Saleh had waged six wars against the rebel Houthi group from 2004-2010. But when the group seized the capital, Sanaa in 2014, he threw their weight behind the group, whose slogan was “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse the Jews! Victory to Islam!”.
After his ouster, opponents were loathe to assume that his days were numbered. True to form, Saleh was quick to capitalise on the disarray; hours after a Saudi coalition strike on his home in May 2015, he condemned it as “unjustified and reprehensible.” And as Houthis began to amass more power with the help of Iranian support, and as ever the operator, Saleh made overtures towards the group, declaring his support for his long-time foes. “I haven’t previously allied with [the Houthis],” he said. “But I declare today, from this place, that the Yemeni people as a whole would team up with all of those defending this nation.”
The nation that once sought to oust him in 2012 came to rally behind him within the space of three years. In his bid to return to power in Sanaa, he used former army generals and troops who were still loyal to him to back the Houthis, while attempting to claim authority over areas under their control.
But things didn’t go as planned. A conflict of interest arose as Iran was averse to his manoeuvering. The Houthis placed him under house arrest and after a couple of months, he reportedly asked for the support of the Saudis, reminding the kingdom that he retained the loyalty of a powerful group of soldiers.
In December of this year, he tried to publicly split with the group, with whom he had vacillated over the years, and was killed thereafter. With his demise comes the end of an era for Yemen.
— Ali Abdullah Saleh, former president, born 21 March 1942; died 4 December 2017.