Ali Abdullah Saleh remains one of Yemen's most controversial figures. He once described governing Yemen as 'dancing on the heads of snakes.' What was behind the web of deceit and betrayal that led to his death?
A year after the death of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, he remains a divisive figure in the embattled nation. Some have hailed him as a hero who sacrificed his life to defy the UAE and Saudi agenda, while others disparage his legacy as a machiavellian political operator who shifted alliances and loyalties on a whim.
Looking back however, it seems increasingly likely that Ali Abdullah Saleh was a victim of betrayal by the Saudi-led coalition.
Dancing on the heads of snakes
Saleh compared governing Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes.” His final political gambit would be his undoing, as he allied himself with his former enemies, the Houthi rebels who blamed him for the death of their leader Hussein al Houthi in 2004, as part of a desperate bid to re-enter the political scene.
The Houthis are a prominent feature of Yemeni politics, having revolted against Yemen’s government for over 10 years. Initially enemies of Saleh, they withstood several military campaigns that had Saudi armed support.
Their success came from capitalising on the inequality between rich and neglected poor tribes, while claiming a prestigious Zaydi lineage that has dominated Yemeni power structures for nearly a thousand years.
Saleh was deposed with the arrival of the Arab Spring in Yemen, and replaced with his deputy, the Saudi-backed Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
In 2014, Saleh allied himself with the Houthis, and together they seized Sanaa with Iranian backing, toppling President Hadi who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia. In 2015, they moved on Aden, a strategic port on the Indian Ocean.
Saudi Arabia, alarmed that a Shia militia with strong ties to Iran and Hezbollah was gaining control over its southern neighbour, reacted by launching a coalition campaign against them in March 2015. This would mark the first major military campaign for King Salman, and then-Defense Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman, as he sought to prove himself worthy for the title of crown prince.
In an unexpected twist, Saleh broke ties with the Houthis on December 4, 2017, calling on his allies and the tribes around Sanaa to support him and rise up against the Houthis in Yemen.
"Yemeni citizens have tried to tolerate the recklessness of the Houthis over the last two and half years but cannot anymore," Saleh said.
"I call on our brothers in neighbouring countries … to stop their aggression and lift the blockade … and we will turn the page."
The Saudi-led coalition that had been bombing Yemen for over 33 months, welcomed Saleh's break with the Houthi militias, praising him for "taking the lead" in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
"The decision by [Saleh's] General People's Congress (GPC) to take the lead and side with their people, will free Yemen of ... militias loyal to Iran," the coalition said.
But this translated to little on the ground.
Few came to Saleh’s aid. His call for help was largely ignored. The Houthi’s accused Saleh of staging a “coup.” Two days after his announcement, Yemen’s longest-serving politician, Saleh, was surrounded and killed in a fierce battle.
A House of Cards
President Saleh’s political legacy relied on navigating a delicate domestic web of tribal alliances that began to fall apart after introducing his son Ahmed as his successor. This caused the Hashid, Yemen’s largest tribal federation, to begin pulling away from him as early as 2000.
In an attempt to undermine old allies who didn’t approve of his succession plans, and introduce new loyalists, Saleh would go on to weaken his traditional military and political support base. In 2011, during the Yemeni uprising, most tribes stood against president Saleh.
Forced to step down and depart politics through a deal brokered by the GCC, Saleh was forced to make a deal with his former enemies to restore his power. His former tribal patronage system was inaccessible to him, as it required his old finances, and influence over Saudi patronage of select tribes in Yemen.
The Houthi alliance worked at further alienating him; often undermining him through attacks on his former allies, as he maintained that his alliance was against the Saudi-led Gulf coalition.
His views would go on to change however. Having affirmed his political relevance, the decision to split from the Houthi alliance was planned in Abu Dhabi, UAE through consultation with Saudi Arabia.
The New Arab reported that Mohammed bin Salman sent Ahmed al Assiri, the former military spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, to Abu Dhabi to meet Saleh's son and discuss the possibility of forming a new government.
Assiri would go on to be implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the war on Yemen.
An anonymous official speaking to Al Jazeera commented that, “Mohammed bin Salman has been influenced by the UAE and thinks switching from Hadi to Saleh will help end the war.”
After attempting to remove Emirati-backed candidates from his cabinet, President Hadi was kept under house arrest and prevented from returning to Yemen, exacerbated by Hadi’s alliance with the Al Islah party, listed as a terrorist group by the UAE.
Even as it negotiated with Saleh, the Saudi-led coalition was united in its goals for Yemen, which would quickly end any possibility for political reconciliation or settlement.
While Saudi Arabia sought a quick campaign that would justify prince Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince, and cement the new king’s reputation for decisiveness, the United Arab Emirates entered the fray with different goals altogether.
The two monarchies agreed on the need for a GCC-friendly government, and to reduce Houthi influence, which they viewed as an Iranian proxy. They also sought to crush militancy in the form of Al Qaeda and a nascent ISIS affiliate in Yemen.
But there, their interests diverged. The United Arab Emirates was primarily concerned with cracking down on Al Islah, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, at any cost. This undermined any prospect for a peaceful settlement brokered by the coalition, while empowering militant groups such as the Houthis at their expense.
Al Islah played a major role in Saleh’s fall during the brief "Arab Spring" experienced by Yemen in 2011.
While cracking down on Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in the UAE, and facilitating a coup against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi, the UAE turned against Yemeni Al Islah.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia would take on the UAE’s fear and hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, declaring it a terrorist organisation in 2014. With the Houthis going from one sweeping victory to another in the war-torn nation, Saudi Arabia would make an exception to its position on the Muslim Brotherhood, choosing to instead confront the Houthis, which it believed would turn Yemen into an Iranian proxy state.
Al Islah itself went on to align itself with the Hadi government supported by the Saudi-led coalition, given their ideological opposition to the Houthis. This contradiction would prove disastrous.
Where Saudi Arabia sought to restore Yemen’s status quo prior to the Houthis, the UAE sought to eliminate any form of political Islam. To achieve this, the UAE supported the southern Yemeni secessionist movement to counter and detain Al Islah members throughout the region, holding them in a network of at least 18 secret prisons.
This UAE-backed coalition, dubbed the ‘Security Belt,’ was instrumental to combating Al Qaeda and the budding Daesh in the region. However, it made little distinction between terrorists and Al Islah, who won more than 20 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in 2003. At times, this was in direct opposition to the GPC’s campaign against Houthi rebels, only prolonging the war.
Smoke and mirrors
But was Ali Abdullah Saleh a victim of betrayal?
Yasser al Yamani, a leader in the GPC and confidant of the late president believes that the former president was misled and betrayed, which ultimately led to his death.
“Saudi Arabia and the UAE asked Ali Abdullah Saleh to provide support to Houthi ‘militias’ by way of the republican guard and National Dialogue Conference,” Yamani states in an interview he provided shortly after Saleh’s death.
This was conducted, “with the motive of eliminating Al Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
He goes on to add, “The United States also supported the Houthi advance into Aden and Al Baydha.”
Due to the destruction of infrastructure, Yamani often served as a courier between Saleh and Riyadh. One letter he carried, called for “distancing” from the Houthis.
“To this day, we do not know who leaked word of the letter to the Houthis. There was a big mole that would leak everything that occured between Yemen’s NDC and coalition partners in Saudi Arabia.”
Saleh was unaware that the Houthi’s knew of his betrayal, and would pay the price with his life.
When he was surrounded, he attempted to reach out to his allies, “who closed their phones or didn’t respond to him.”
Yamani believes that this was by the coalition’s design. He points to the Saudi-led coalition’s media coverage during the time. The messages “were not supportive of Ali Abdullah Saleh, but rather told the Houthis that Ali Abdullah Saleh has betrayed you.”
“During that critical time, they could have used air support. The night of the attack, they announced they were moving seven coalition brigades to Sanaa. But in truth, not a single soldier was moved for three days.”
The betrayal runs deeper says a Yemeni politician who spoke to TRT World on condition of anonymity.
“It’s an open secret that the coalition didn’t want the Yemeni army to succeed. Brigades and companies only received enough equipment and weaponry to fight, but never to win. Brigades that made major advances such as the one that retook Taiz, were bombed shortly after by ‘accident’. Under President Hadi, the Yemeni National Army lost entire brigades or bases through the coalition’s ‘accidental’ or ‘friendly-fire’. There were no Houthis in the area.”
The anonymous politician believes that the coalition campaign was disparately managed, with the strikes against allies proof of a struggle and disorder in the chain of command.
“It reveals a clash of tactics between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They agreed on the goals. But their threat perceptions were different.”
When asked about the strategic logic behind the strikes on the coalitions stated allies, he responds simply, “They do not want a strong military or state.”