The Romans called it Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia). The Arabs called it Al-Yaman Al-Saeed (Happy Yemen). When I visited it for the first time, in 2005, it was amazingly secured and relaxed, if not happy. President Ali Abdullah Saleh met our Saudi media delegation on his country’s national day with a relaxed confidence. A former army colonel, he was very much the “Boss in Charge!”.
It was a long way from his humble beginnings, as a soldier with less than an elementary school education, and over a quarter of a century from his high-risk gamble to fill the institutional gap after the assassination of his mentor, President Ahmed Bin Hussein Al-Ghashmi, in 1978. Al-Ghashmi, in turn, was accused of the assassination of his popular predecessor, President Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, with the help of Saleh, a year earlier. Lt. Colonel Al-Hamdi came to power after leading a coup, in 1974, against the revolutionary government of President Abdul Rahman Al-Iryani.
In such a treacherous gang-like environment, it may be understandable that Saleh would act as mafia boss, like Saddam Hussein, Hafez Al-Assad and Muammar Al- Qaddafi, who came to power after a bloody string of coups. Like those conspiratorial dictators, Saleh assigned his trusted relatives, over 30 of them, to strategic army and security positions.
Some of these relatives were in charge of our tour’s security. A nephew visited with us one night and attended our private singing party. I learned from the awed Yemeni organizer that the man was the head of the Secret Service.
During our week-long tour that took us from the capital Sana’a all the way to Aden, former capital of the southern Socialist Republic before unification with the North in 1990, we were well protected.
In later years, changes started to accelerate dramatically. The Houthi revolt that began in 2004 when the army killed tribal leader Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi, and their wars with the government were not the only storms rocking the boat. There had also been the increasingly militant Southern separatist movement. In addition, Al-Qaeda had been evolving dangerously into a large, strong and effective organization. Its military cooperation with the Saudi affiliate was causing troubles for both countries. Then there was the ever-present tribal competition for limited resources of money, arms and authority.
In my opinion the worst of all challenges was the dire economic situation. The country was still living in olden times. Its infrastructure, rules and development projects suffered from Third World illnesses. Corruption and mismanagement were eating up most of the internal revenue and international donations and support. It was clear that sooner or later the poor and frustrated population would reach an explosion point.
Still, the president relied upon his old tactics. He bought tribal leaders with money, arms and prime properties in the rich, badly exploited South. Using a “divide and rule” policy, he managed to split the country along tribal, religious and business lines, pitting one region against the other.
Saleh created enemies, like Al-Qaeda, the Houthi and Salafi movements, to frighten the outside world into the political, military and financial support of his regime. The US and Gulf countries were his prime targets. Like other Arab dictators, Saleh did not realize that this Internet generation was different. The “social network” generation was much smarter and more politically savvy than former generations. They were adamant, persistent and united above tribal, political and religious dividing lines. The reactions and solutions of the regime were no different than those of other regimes in the Arab Spring: promises of reforms coupled with brutal force. As elsewhere, it did not work. Worried neighbors and international supporters were forced to interfere. It was no option to live with a failed state with a population that was hungry, angry, and armed to the teeth, with an estimated 80 million guns, including heavy artillery, tanks and anti aircraft weapons.
The president finally gave up power. But unlike other Arab dictators, he returned to lead his still-entrenched family members and allies, as the head of the former ruling party. His relatives in the army and security apparatus are resisting the new tide. His partners in business are keeping their grip on the largest companies and controlling the corrupt economy. Tribes are still divided, and some continue to support their former leader.
Why does the former president who almost died in an attempt on his life on June 3, 2011, insist on continuing the bloody fight, instead of enjoying the riches he had accumulated, protected by the immunity from prosecution Parliament granted him and his family?
Pride and power addiction could be the obvious answers, but in Saleh’s case it is much more. With huge investments in lucrative businesses, from communications to the oil industry, family and friends have much to lose without the protection of their privileged political and security positions. The Godfather has to fight on till the last breath - it has always been a one way road!
The challenges facing President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi will not fade away anytime soon. Saleh and “Familia” will resist every corrective move that will result in decreasing their power, so will the usual suspects from Al-Qaeda to the Southern separatists to the Houthis. But with the determination and support of his people and the help of the UN, US, EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council, Al-Hadi has a good chance of pulling it off - safely.