Yemen After Saleh: A Political Power Vacuum


 

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former president of Yemen who served for 33 years, was killed by former allies belonging to the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgent group. Saleh was killed while attempting to flee Houthi-controlled Sanaa after announcing that he was ending his alliance with the Houthis. He called for a new start between him on one side and Yemeni President Hadi’s government in Aden, Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the other side. The Houthis’ motivation for assassinating Saleh was likely to disrupt the political process and the reconciliation project that would have ended their rule over the capital, Sanaa. However, while the Houthis succeeded in removing Saleh from Yemen’s political arena, they now find themselves with no more influence than they had previously. This is largely due to a TV appearance by their leader praising the assassination and the presence of their supporters marching in the streets of Sanaa to celebrate Saleh’s death. The insurgent group is now viewed by many Yemenis as an entity fighting an Iranian proxy war within Yemen. Therefore, this new situation could likely advance the Saudi-led battle against the Houthis in Sanaa and lead to control of state institutions by the Yemeni government.

Saleh was an unusual politician and a skilled player in Yemen’s political arena. After the assassination of two Yemeni presidents within a year in 1978, he came to power and began perfecting the game of governance and politics in a country dominated by powerful tribes and divided by political doctrines[1]. He was known for his shrewd understanding of how to gain tribal alliances, as well as managing to rally support of neighboring countries and major international powers. Saleh was particularly pragmatic, always negotiating with his greatest enemies and turning them into allies. However, his last alliance[2] with the Houthis in 2015 led to his death. Before the 2011 revolution that ended Saleh’s rule, he and the Houthis were enemies; six wars[3] between 2004 and 2011 were caused by Houthi rebellions while Saleh was in power. The Houthis were well aware of his history of switching sides and manipulating alliances, and they never underestimated his ability to broker any deal to pursue his interests. The Houthis did not assassinate Saleh because he turned on them. Rather, they killed him because they feared that he might be capable of destroying their political agenda in Sanaa and pushing them back to the mountains in the north.

The assassination of Saleh has turned the Houthis into an enemy in the eyes of most branches of Yemeni society: tribes, state institutions, army factions and even the general public. Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis served as a shield for the group in Yemen and throughout the greater Middle East region. He let them control the capital and covered up the atrocities committed by their militiamen in several locations throughout the country, consequently allowing them to tighten their control over institutions and resources. However, the Houthis’ increased control of the capital incited clashes between them and Saleh, which led him to turn against them. His disavowal of the Houthis dramatically changed the war map of Yemen and led to Saleh willingly accepting the reconciliation agreement and a “new start”[4] with Hadi’s government and allies in the KSA and the UAE. Immediately after the televised announcement of his new alliance, and after a few days of infighting between Saleh’s allied factions and Houthi fighters, the Houthis launched an arrest campaign targeting over 200 officials and supporters of Saleh[5]. In addition, there were reports that Saudi-backed coalition bombings on Sanaa were targeting only Houthi locations, probably in support of Saleh.[6]

Prior to the emergence of the Houthi insurgency, Sanaa was a stronghold for Saleh and the tribes allied with him; now it is a stronghold for Iranian-backed insurgents. Saleh’s mistake was allowing the Houthis to infiltrate the capital[7] in which they acquired large amounts of weapons from the army’s warehouses[8] and were able to recruit military leaders. One likely effect of Saleh’s assassination might be the weakening of apparatuses directly empowered by the late president, mainly intelligence and the army. The Houthis might find themselves empowered for a short period because of their power in Sanaa. However, the political situation in Yemen is trending toward the unification of Yemen against the Houthi agenda. Therefore, in the next few days, it would not be surprising to witness new alliances forming in Yemen and possibly the greater region. If Saleh’s forces receive support from both the Saudi-backed coalition and the Yemeni army, and the two eventually come to control the capital, the coalition might have the opportunity to declare victory and cease military operations in Yemen. Even Saleh’s divided party, currently in a state of shock, is expected to unite and mobilize its forces against the Houthis. There have even been increased calls for Saleh’s son Ahmed to succeed his father[9]. If this indeed becomes the case, then Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh[10], the former leader of the Republican Guard, will bolster the anti-Houthi movement and forces, helping them counter the Houthis in the capital and possibly even in the north.

Saleh’s assassination has set in motion changes that he planned to impose before his death. His presidency, decision-making and tribal alliances will continue to influence his supporters and the institutions that he built during his three-decade term. All these factors previously gave legitimacy to the Houthis, but now that Saleh’s blood is on their hands, these same factors will work against them. The death of Saleh will leave a power vacuum both in his party and in Yemen. Saleh first formed his party to secure powerful positions for his family[11]. With Saleh’s family now being pushed out of the political picture, there are two possibilities moving forward. First, the Houthis could seize control of the party by appointing new leaders who have proven their loyalty. Second, one of Saleh’s close relatives (most likely his son Ahmed) or assistants could succeed him. If the second scenario occurs, the new leader will need the support of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, as well as the support of the UAE and KSA. This situation would result in long-term issues for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who are likely to be the main parties responsible for dealing with Yemen. However, if the Houthis come to power after Saleh’s death and managed to control Yemen by utilizing Saleh’s party and power, they will pose two major threats to Saudis, Emiratis and the region as a whole. The first is a de facto state of division in Yemen between government forces and the Houthis, which would turn Yemen into a failed state ruled by warlords and acting as a safe haven for terrorist organizations. Second, Houthis will utilize all Yemeni state power and resources to maintain a powerful force on the border with Saudi Arabia, where they will be able to easily target the country with Iranian-made missiles. This situation would constitute both an economic and security threat to the Saudis, as they would have to increase defense contracts (particularly for a missile defense system) to protect themselves.

The next few days will be crucial for the future of devastated Yemen. Any solutions to the situation will rely on the effectiveness of neighboring countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which must oversee the unification of all armed forces and army factions allied with Hadi and Saleh to counter the Houthi threat. The assassination of Saleh risks the fragmentation of what is left of Yemen, but it could also represent an opportunity to find a way to end this bloody war. If Yemen fractures further, the domination of Houthis in Sanaa will lead to harsher sanctions and a tighter blockade, causing even worse conditions for the Yemeni people. However, if Yemen manages to consolidate the power of Hadi and Saleh, we could witness the beginning of the end of the Yemeni crisis.

Gulf International Forum

 

 

End Notes

[1] Al-Dawsari, Nadwa. “Tribal Governance and stability in Yemen.” The Carnegie Papers (2012): 13=14. Accessed December 08 ,2017.  http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/04/24/tribal-governance-and-stability-in-yemen-pub-47838

[2] Jazeera, Al. “Yemen’s Saleh declares alliance with Houthis.” Yemen News | Al Jazeera. May 11, 2015. Accessed December 08, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/05/cloneofcloneofcloneofstrikes-yemen-saada-breach–150510143647004.html. “Yemen’s Houthi rebels announce alliance with ousted president.” Fox News. July 28, 2016. Accessed December 08, 2017. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2016/07/28/yemens-houthi-rebels-announce-alliance-with-ousted-president.html.

[3] Boucek, Christopher. War in Saada From Local Insurrection to National Challenge. Publication no. 110. Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. May 5, 2010. http://carnegieendowment.org/files/war_in_saada.pdf.

[4] Aboudi, Sami, and Omar Fahmy. “Yemen’s Saleh says ready for ‘new page’ with Saudi-led coalition.” Reuters. December 02, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/yemens-saleh-says-ready-for-new-page-with-saudi-led-coalition-idUSKBN1DW08P.

[5] “Yemeni PM condemns Houthi’s arrest campaign against GPC party’s MPs.” The Baghdad Post. December 07, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. http://s.thebaghdadpost.com/en/20618.”Houthis ‘murder 200 prisoners’ and spread forces across Yemen capital.” Al Arabiya English. December 5, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/gulf/2017/12/05/Houthis-murder-200-prisoners-and-spread-forces-across-Yemen-capital.html.

[6] Aboudi, Sami. “Saudi-led air strikes support Yemen’s Saleh as he shifts against Houthis.” Reuters. December 03, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/saudi-led-air-strikes-support-yemens-saleh-as-he-shifts-against-houthis-idUSKBN1DX07O?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews.

[7] Salisbury, Peter. “Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh behind Houthis’ rise.” Financial Times. March 26, 2015. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/dbbc1ddc-d3c2-11e4-99bd-00144feab7de. Al-Mujahed, Ali, and Hugh Naylor. “Yemen’s Houthi rebels get boost from country’s ousted dictator.” The Washington Post. March 31, 2015. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/rebels-push-offensive-in-aden-killing-dozens-with-artillery-fire/2015/03/31/79f53d9e-d729-11e4-bf0b-f648b95a6488_story.html?utm_term=.50d1de8ac3b8.

[8] United Nations, Security Council, Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen established pursuant to Security Council Committee resolution 2140, S/2015/125 (20 February 2015): 36-37, available from http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2015_125.pdf

[9] Almosawa, Shuaib, and Alan Cowell. “Son of Slain Yemen Leader Is Said to Vow Revenge.” The New York Times. December 05, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/world/middleeast/yemen-ali-saleh-revenge.html.

[10] Aboudi, Sami, and Noah Browning. “Exiled son of Yemen’s Saleh takes up anti-Houthi cause.” Reuters. December 05, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/exiled-son-of-yemens-saleh-takes-up-anti-houthi-cause-idUSKBN1DY12V.

[11] Erlanger, Steven. “In Yemen, U.S. Faces Leader Who Puts Family First.” The New York Times. January 04, 2010. Accessed December 08, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/05/world/middleeast/05saleh.html.

“Factbox: Saleh family entrenched in Yemen security, business.” Reuters. February 20, 2012. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-family-power/factbox-saleh-family-entrenched-in-yemen-security-business-idUSTRE81J0JE20120220.

 

 

References

Aboudi, Sami, and Omar Fahmy. “Yemen’s Saleh says ready for ‘new page’ with Saudi-led coalition.” Reuters. December 02, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/yemens-saleh-says-ready-for-new-page-with-saudi-led-coalition-idUSKBN1DW08P.

Aboudi, Sami, and Noah Browning. “Exiled son of Yemen’s Saleh takes up anti-Houthi cause.” Reuters. December 05, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/exiled-son-of-yemens-saleh-takes-up-anti-houthi-cause-idUSKBN1DY12V.

Aboudi;, Sami. “Saudi-led air strikes support Yemen’s Saleh as he shifts against Houthis.” Reuters. December 03, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/saudi-led-air-strikes-support-yemens-saleh-as-he-shifts-against-houthis-idUSKBN1DX07O?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews.

Al-Dawsari, Nadwa. “Tribal Governance and stability in Yemen.” The Carnegie Papers (2012): 13=14. Accessed December 08 ,2017.  http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/04/24/tribal-governance-and-stability-in-yemen-pub-47838

Al-Mujahed, Ali, and Hugh Naylor. “Yemen’s Houthi rebels get boost from country’s ousted dictator.” The Washington Post. March 31, 2015. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/rebels-push-offensive-in-aden-killing-dozens-with-artillery-fire/2015/03/31/79f53d9e-d729-11e4-bf0b-f648b95a6488_story.html?utm_term=.50d1de8ac3b8.

Almosawa, Shuaib, and Alan Cowell. “Son of Slain Yemen Leader Is Said to Vow Revenge.” The New York Times. December 05, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/world/middleeast/yemen-ali-saleh-revenge.html.

Boucek, Christopher. War in Saada From Local Insurrection to National Challenge. Publication no. 110. Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. May 5, 2010. http://carnegieendowment.org/files/war_in_saada.pdf.

Erlanger, Steven. “In Yemen, U.S. Faces Leader Who Puts Family First.” The New York Times. January 04, 2010. Accessed December 08, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/05/world/middleeast/05saleh.html.

“Factbox: Saleh family entrenched in Yemen security, business.” Reuters. February 20, 2012. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-family-power/factbox-saleh-family-entrenched-in-yemen-security-business-idUSTRE81J0JE20120220.

“Houthis ‘murder 200 prisoners’ and spread forces across Yemen capital.” Al Arabiya English. December 5, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/gulf/2017/12/05/Houthis-murder-200-prisoners-and-spread-forces-across-Yemen-capital.html.

Jazeera, Al. “Yemen’s Saleh declares alliance with Houthis.” Yemen News | Al Jazeera. May 11, 2015. Accessed December 08, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/05/cloneofcloneofcloneofstrikes-yemen-saada-breach–150510143647004.html.

Salisbury, Peter. “Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh behind Houthis’ rise.” Financial Times. March 26, 2015. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/dbbc1ddc-d3c2-11e4-99bd-00144feab7de.

United Nations, Security Council, Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen established pursuant to Security Council Committee resolution 2140, S/2015/125 (20 February, 2015): 36-37, available from http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2015_125.pdf

“Yemen’s Houthi rebels announce alliance with ousted president.” Fox News. July 28, 2016. Accessed December 08, 2017. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2016/07/28/yemens-houthi-rebels-announce-alliance-with-ousted-president.html.

“Yemeni PM condemns Houthi’s arrest campaign against GPC party’s MPs.” The Baghdad Post. December 07, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2017. http://s.thebaghdadpost.com/en/20618.

 


Comments

Add Comment