Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh appears to have patched up a violent rift with his allies in the armed Houthi movement, but the drama has left friends and foe alike wondering anew at the wily political survivor’s next move. Forming a surprise alliance with the Houthis when they seized the capital Sanaa in 2014, Saleh’s army loyalists and Houthi fighters have together weathered thousands of air strikes by a Saudi-led military coalition in 2 1/2 years of war. Fearing the Houthis are a proxy for their arch-foe Iran, the mostly Gulf Arab alliance seeks to help the internationally recognised government push up from a base in Yemen’s south towards Sanaa. Saleh’s guile has been key to resisting the push.
For 34 years Saleh ruled over one of the world’s most heavily armed and tribal societies with expertly balanced doses of largesse and force. He battled the Houthis for a decade in office before he befriended them when out of power. Cornered by pro-democracy “Arab Spring” protests, Saleh wore a cryptic smile when signing his resignation in a televised ceremony in 2012. Then as now, few could discern his intentions. But his desire to preserve by any means necessary his influence and that of his family – many of whom occupy top military positions – seems beyond doubt. His influence has outlived that of other Arab leaders left dead or deposed by uprisings and civil wars since 2011.
As the conflict has wrought a humanitarian crisis, weeks of mutual sniping about responsibility for economic woes in northern Yemeni lands that they together rule peaked with a deadly gun battle between Houthi and Saleh supporters last week. Leaders from Saleh’s former ruling party and the Houthis met and pronounced the split healed.
Though they pledged to focus on the war effort against Yemen’s internationally recognised government that is backed by the Saudi-led coalition, the tensions suggest Saleh is seeking to stake out his own political strategy as exhaustion sets in on all sides. “Saleh wants to capitalise on popular opposition to both the Houthis and the government, positioning himself as an alternative,” said Adam Baron, a Yemen expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
The war has killed at least 10,000 people, displaced 2 million from their homes, led to widespread hunger and a cholera epidemic which has left 2,000 people dead. Militias and Yemen’s powerful Al Qaeda branch have gained ground in the chaos. Any total breakdown within the alliance between Saleh and the Houthis would be bloody and pit scores of local leaders, tribesmen and army units cultivated by Saleh for decades against others loyal to the fighters.
Saleh appeared eager to avoid that showdown in an interview which aired on Monday on Yemen Today, a TV channel he owns. “There is no crisis or disagreement at all except in the imaginations of trouble-makers and sowers of discord at home and abroad,” he said. But the ex-leader, at times referring to himself in the third person, said that “imbalances” remained in the alliance, suggesting not all wounds had been salved. Analysts say he remains annoyed at the continued existence of a Houthi “revolutionary committee” which ruled alone before its alliance was formalised with Saleh’s General People’s Congress party in a “governing council” where they shared power.
Anxiety also flares over appointments of local officials and control over financial policy – both former GPC prerogatives. Beyond local squabbles, the good relations Saleh enjoyed with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during his presidency raise Houthi fears of a grand double cross. Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, lives under house arrest in the UAE where he once served as ambassador before it joined its ally Saudi Arabia to make war on the Houthi-Saleh alliance.
A powerful former military chief whom his father appeared to be grooming to succeed him, Ahmed Ali and the passing of Saleh power to the next generation may figure into his calculus. “He certainly wants to secure a place for his family in any post-war order … the Houthis are very paranoid that Saleh may cut a deal with Saudi Arabia and the UAE that will leave them out to dry,” Baron of ECFR added.
Saleh has denied seeking to advance his son’s political career or any backroom dealing with their enemies. To salvage their alliance, the Houthis will need to convince Saleh that despite their violent history, they make for stronger allies than some GPC members – like Saleh’s successor, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi – who turned on him in the past.
“I say to President Saleh, out of sincerity and love, beware of these snakes,” Houthi official Hamid Rizq wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday. “They are the ones who pushed you to fight wars against the honourable and loyal people in your society then abandoned you and called you are a thief and a criminal.”