x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

Ali Abdullah Saleh and Abdul Malek Al Houthi: Yemen's destructive marriage of convenience heads for bitter divorce

Saleh's alliance with the Houthis was a one that the deposed president used for survival and now views, perhaps prematurely, as no longer necessary

A Yemeni man holds posters depicting former president Ali Abdullah Saleh ahead of an anniversary celebration of Saleh’s party, General People's Congress, in Sana’a, Yemen, 20 August 2017.  EPA/YAHYA ARHAB
A Yemeni man holds posters depicting former president Ali Abdullah Saleh ahead of an anniversary celebration of Saleh’s party, General People's Congress, in Sana’a, Yemen, 20 August 2017. EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president, has the markings of a man who has managed to survive one of the most politically toxic countries in the region.

A willingness to work with former enemies, an oratory style likening him to the masses and a knack of surrounding himself with the faces of a menacing entourage, were all on display as he addressed a crowd of supporters on Sunday.

His speech in Sanaa had two messages: celebrating 35 years of the foundation of his political party, the General People’s Congress and a threat directed to his “enemies”, including several of his former allies.

Saleh spelled out his warnings not like a deposed autocrat, but “in a brotherly way, from among you, from me to the Yemeni streets,” he said.

His sentences at times prompted the audience to erupt into chants of “in blood to defend Yemen”, while others triggered laughter from a hall full of supporters brandishing khanjars, the traditional dagger worn as an accessory but sharpened nonetheless at times like these.

This was a far cry from the man to whom he was responding. In the first sign that their alliance was breaking, Abdul Malek Al Houthi, the Houthi rebel leader, had a day earlier attempted to criticise Saleh but failed to mention him by name. 

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In contrast, two minutes into Saleh’s speech he addressed Al Houthi directly. The former president then spent the rest of his 15-minute talk bashing the Houthis’ attempts to supersede his authority and concluded by expressing a willingness to break away from their alliance, which has proved so essential to his survival.

This is part and parcel of Saleh’s great survival act, as seen during the Arab Spring when months of protests escalated to a rocket attack on his presidential compound in June 2011. 

Saleh went to Saudi Arabia to receive treatment and despite an adviser insisting that he rest, he appeared on television burnt and bandaged from the mortar that almost claimed his life and defiant that he would return to power.

Mr Saleh lashed out at those who had sought to end his nearly 33 years in power, saying they have an "incorrect understanding of democracy". This included the vast numbers of Yemenis who had for months protested against him in cities across the country and the hundreds killed by his security forces in response.

Saleh’s unique knack of finagling his way out of political situations have turned events that would spell suicide for others into opportunities for the man who likened governing Yemen to dancing on the heads of snakes.

Within months, he left Saudi Arabia and returned to Yemen where in November 2011 he finally signed a GCC-brokered agreement to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. Yet it is suspected he was already making moves to reassert his authority - a path which would eventually set him on course for war with Saudi Arabia, the very country whose hospitals nursed him back to health.

To achieve these goals, the ousted president teamed up with Abdel Malek Al Houthi, the leader of the Houthi rebel group in an unlikely alliance for survival.

Just a few years earlier Saleh’s government had fought a string of wars against the Houthis in their provincial homeland in the country’s mountainous north. The movement, which follows the Zaidi sect – an offshoot from Shiites, was founded by Abdel Malek’s elder brother who died at the hands of Saleh’s forces in 2004.

Yet by September 2014, Saleh had emboldened the Houthis to such an extent that when they became unhappy with the political process to restructure the country, they launched a takeover of the capital Sanaa.

Saleh still had the loyalty of large sections or Yemen’s military, which he threw behind the Houthis as they took control of large sections of the country and marched south towards Aden. By March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition, which included the UAE, intervened in support of Mr Hadi and drove the rebels from much of the south.

The alliance was a marriage of convenience, one that Saleh used for survival and now views, perhaps prematurely during the 35-year celebration of his party, as no longer necessary.

“I think it is the one thing that we all see coming. This is an alliance of convenience to get rid of common enemies,” Nadwa Al Dawsari, a senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “It lasted this long only because of the Saudi-led military intervention. The alliance was never sustainable because Saleh and Houthis are enemies and they never trusted each other.”

The split in the alliance seems to point towards Saleh positioning himself ahead of a political settlement to the conflict.

The Houthis have been nervous that Saleh will sacrifice them for a deal that includes him separating from the Houthis in exchange for guarantees for his family and for his party to play a role in the future of the country.

“And they are right to be nervous. Saleh has manipulated everyone and they won’t be the exception,” Ms Dawsari said.

The falling out between the two sides is likely to progress the political negotiations. While the Houthis publicly say they want an end to the war, the conflict provides scapegoat for the complete deterioration of the rebel-controlled areas.

Saleh, and his party, however might be open to political settlement given certain guarantees.

“He knows people are fed up with the Houthis cruelty and their corruption and he is capitalising on that,” Ms Dawsari said.

Whether the schism will open the way to a resumption of peace talks, the coming together of Saleh and the Houthis has contributed to Yemen descending into one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the region’s recent history.

Yemen is in the midst of one of the worst cholera outbreaks in history, with more than 2,000 people having died among the 500,000 cases of the viral disease reported since the beginning of the year.

The war with Yemeni forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition has killed more than 10,000 civilians and displaced 3 million people from their homes, according to the UN. An unwillingness from the Houthis and Saleh to help remedy the situation has only contributed to the devastation.

The conflict has also led to a breakdown in the economy in Sanaa. Conflict between warring factions over the central bank has meant that civil servant salaries have not been paid for months, weakening their constituencies and creating a blame-game that has clearly spilled over into political rhetoric.

“Where are the salaries?” Mr Saleh asked on Sunday, as he detailed the Houthis’ economic mismanagement in areas under their control.

Such criticism may have come too late for the Yemeni population suffering through years of devastating conflict.