Yemen after Saleh: a free-for-all

  1. A strongman with slippery politics
  2. A son's revenge
  3. 'Everybody's fighting everybody'

Former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh was shot dead on December 4 by formerly allied Houthi rebels in the country’s capital of Sanaa. He led the country for more than three decades, after which he exercised power behind the scenes. Now with Saleh gone, Yemen’s war has become a free-for-all, though his son could rise up as a potential successor. 

On December 4, a graphic video of the former president surfaced on social media showing his bloodied body and a gaping head wound. Qatar-owned network Al Jazeera reported that an official on a Houthi media channel said that Saleh had been killed by his former allies.

Two days before his death, Saleh announced on a televised address that he was ready for a “new page” with the Saudi-coalition he had been fighting against, effectively switching sides.

The move proved to be his last as Saleh, a strongman with slippery politics, had finally ran out of luck.

The Houthis, a Zaidi Shia rebel group that he formed an alliance with in 2014, responded fast. They surrounded the convoy 75-year-old Saleh was in while he was traveling to his hometown of Sanhan and then they shot him.

Switching sides

“Once you turned against [the Houthis], something was going to happen. Either Saleh or the Houthis was going to prevail, and it’s obvious now that [Saleh] hasn’t. Theirs was always a marriage of convenience. To some extent, it was a question of when and not if, and his luck had ran out,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

“He effectively declared war on the Houthis before he was killed. Clearly, he underestimated the Houthi’s strength,” Ulrichsen told WikiTribune. “They weren’t going to just crumble once he reduced support and he was hoping to use them as a bandwagon and it turns out that, perhaps, they were using him.”

Before the alliance, Saleh and the Houthis had fought six wars against each other between 2004 to 2010. Their dynamic relationship went from antagonistic, to an unlikely partnership, and then back again.

A son’s revenge

His eldest son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, emerged from the United Arab Emirates and vowed to avenge his father’s death. According to Adam Baron, a fellow at the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, he is most likely to be his father’s successor.

“That being said, Ahmed has been out of Yemen in the UAE for the vast majority of this conflict. So that means there are other members of the Saleh family who were on the ground building legitimacy,” Baron told WikiTribune.

“But at the same time, almost all of those people are dead including Saleh’s nephew, Tariq Mohammed Saleh, who played a key role in fighting the Saudis and over the past two weeks the Houthis. So now it does seem to fall on Ahmed as the most obvious candidate to be the successor, though he’s always been seen as that.”

Ahmed, 45, is a powerful military leader who received training in the United States and was once a commander of the Republican Guard Unit of the Yemen Army.

“If he has the backing of the gulf, then he can play,” Baron said. “Right now, in Yemen it’s about channelling popular sentiment and appearing like you’re someone who’s going to be able to stand as the key leader. And I think in a lot of ways we’ll see how Ahmed goes in that.”

Potential allies

Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East Program Director at non-profit The International Crisis Group, told WikiTribune that though Ahmed may play a bigger role in Yemen’s war, two things may set him back.

“One, he’s not his father. His father built a reputation for being the leader of the country and was able to keep everything together for a long time, even if there were many problems. Secondly, I’m not so sure he has the support of the Saudi-led coalition,” Hiltermann said.

“But on the other hand, if the Saudis and the Emirates want to have any chance of defeating the Houthis, they will have to bring the anti-Houthi forces together under one umbrella. I’m not really sure who else they could use at this point. They don’t have a lot of options.”

Yemen’s war is in deadlock as the Houthis have proven themselves to be a more powerful force than expected. A recent piece in The Economist noted that the rebel group is “too weak to rule over Yemen but too powerful for Saudi Arabia to defeat.”

The Saudi-UAE coalition, spearheaded by Saudi crown prince Mohammad (CORRECTED: from Mohammed) bin Salman, has now appeared to turn to Ahmed as the potential figurehead in the anti-Houthi movement. Photos of him sitting with the Emirate’s de-facto leader Mohammed bin Zayed offering his condolences emerged on the UAE’s official news agency site on Wednesday.

On December 5, the UAE announced that it will form a military and economic partnership with Riyadh.

Where now for Yemen?

The future of Yemen is highly uncertain. This was also made clearer when WikiTribune made multiple interview requests from experts which got declined for that very reason, citing that it’s all speculation for the time being.

However, Ulrichsen from the Baker Institute did offer some insight for the immediate aftermath.

“There’s going to be an escalation right now, in the short term. I think everyone’s going to fight over the patronage network that [Saleh] left behind. He’s been there for 40 years and at the heart of it is a very intricate level of alliances which are now up for grabs. I think in the short term at least there’ll be a fight over those.”

The war has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. About 18 million people are on the brink of famine and 3 million are internally displaced, according to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The World Health Organization’s latest news release reported that the country’s outbreak of cholera has killed over 2,200 people.

Millions more were put at risk when, last month, Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade in response to Houthi rebels firing a missile towards Riyadh believed to be supplied by Iran. This week, U.S. President Donald J. Trump, a staunch ally to the kingdom, called on Riyadh to fully lift the blockade which it has only done so partially.

“At this point, there is no Yemen to lead. There are no winners. It’s becoming more and more fragmented. So for me it’s very hard to imagine any leader emerging any time soon who could reunify the country by force or otherwise,” said Hiltermann from the Crisis Group.

“Now it’s a free-for-all. Everybody’s fighting everybody.”

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