Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – Last week I was granted a meeting with a man who, for the past two years, has been vilified by friends and foes alike: Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
When I arrived at the gate of the palace, there were no signs of heavy security. I simply showed my ID card and that of my driver and we were quickly ushered in.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
A few minutes later, a security guard escorted me to a large room where Hadi was waiting. We shook hands and he asked how I was doing.
In the hour or so that followed, I gained an insight into a man whose media appearances are rare – perhaps because he is ill-suited to them or simply doesn’t like journalists – and found him to be quiet, cordial and spontaneous.
There are no problems between me and Bahah. I agreed to appoint him as vice president during a critical phase in Yemen’s history. Others have also supported that [decision].
For the past two years, Hadi has been viewed by many – inside and outside of Yemen – as a weak, hesitant and conspiratorial person. At least this is how media outlets, particularly that owned by the ousted former President Ali Abdulla Saleh, portray him.
In fact, if you have been following the Yemeni media, you will have been led to believe that Hadi had assisted the Houthis in Saadah province, their stronghold in northwestern Yemen, when he kicked out thousands of Salafis from Dammaj, a small town there.
You might also have heard that he collaborated with the Houthis to bring down Sanaa in order to undermine his rivals from the al-Ahmar family, and to render irrelevant Yemen’s Islamist al-Islah party.
After all, these are some of the many accusations that have been levelled against him.
He has struggled to refute these charges, but his efforts have been in vain.
I suggested that he might do well to allow history to be the final arbiter.
It was not my intention to confront Hadi with what the country’s media and activists perceive as his failures.
After all, it has not been all doom and gloom, and many Yemenis have shown support for their president.
I remember when, in late 2012, Hadi sacked Saleh’s security and military apparatus, including Saleh’s son Ahmed, who headed Yemen’s powerful Republican Guards. Yemenis welcomed Hadi’s decision.
Hadi came to power after ousting Saleh, who had ruled the country for 33 years and still resides among those who ousted him, living off a fortune estimated at $60bn by the United Nations.
Saleh is also supported by a complicated network of alliances affiliated with the country’s military, civil and tribal institutions, and suspected to have ambitions towards seizing power again.
Hadi told me that during his time at the National Defence Council, which was headed by Saleh back in 2012, he opposed the shelling of al-Taghyeer Square in Sanaa, where thousands of Yemenis held protests against Saleh’s rule.
Hadi, along with other political parties, struggled to spare the country the tragedies of war by assisting with the drafting of the GCC initiative for a transfer of power in Yemen.
What Hadi told me during our meeting seemed to confirm what many Yemenis already believe about Saleh: that he is somebody who thrives on planting the seeds of strife.
Saleh’s personality is dominated by two traits, he said: violence and holding grudges.
Many people think that Hadi’s 17-year service as Saleh’s vice president is proof of his weakness. Hadi begs to differ.
While he does acknowledge that he benefited a great deal, he, nonetheless, points out that disagreement with Saleh over many issues was a key feature of their relationship.
During our short interview, I discovered how well the 75-year-old from the southern province of Abyan would know the answer to the most important question to Yemenis: What is going on in Yemen?
Hadi explained that he believes a federal Yemen, a state with defined provinces, and a return to the draft constitution that was an outcome of the Gulf initiative, is the way forward in order to bring stability back to Yemen.
Fifteen minutes into our conversation, Hadi was still talking about the aftermath of the 2011 revolution.
I tried to steer the discussion to the present time, but to no avail. A phone call from Washington asking Hadi about his recent decision to sack his vice president and prime minister, Khaled Bahah, brought us closer to the issue.
I asked about Bahah – and his reported keenness to communicate with the Houthis. Hadi chose his words carefully, but his general description of a year-long series of disputes with Bahah implied a clear divergence between the two men over crucial issues.
When I asked whether or not he consulted with his allies, Hadi replied that he consults with Saudi Arabia – and other countries – on all matters. He did, however, stress that his decisions always aim to serve the welfare of Yemen.
I understood that Hadi believed that there was a plan being plotted by Bahah to push the Houthis into handing power over to him instead of Hadi. That way, Bahah would be able to return to Sanaa, form a national unity government and remove Hadi from power. He believes Bahah was trying to execute this plan before the Kuwait talks, due next week.
“There are no problems between me and Bahah. I agreed to appoint him as vice president during a critical phase in Yemen’s history. Others have also supported that [decision],” Hadi said.
Of Bahah’s alleged plot, Hadi said: “It was a defeat for all of us, and I will not accept that.”
I understood what he meant when he spoke about defeat, particularly after the sacrifices, the civilian casualties and the destruction that have hit Yemen.
Hadi stressed several times that “we will not allow the Houthis and Saleh to defeat us, and this is what I have told our brothers [the Gulf states]”.
For Hadi, the defeats that have befallen Yemen since 2011 are a cause for serious concern.
He hopes that a federal Yemen will soon prevail and will, he insists, work hard to achieve this goal.
I asked him: “How many times have you come close to death or were targeted in assassination attempts?”
“More than once,” he replied.
I told him that all of this would pass, but history would only mention whether Hadi had worked for Yemen or against it.
I told him: “It will not be your own personal defeat, if it happens. It will be the defeat of Yemen.”