There is no denying it, Ali Abdullah Saleh has left a vacuum in Yemen and he will be missed.
A combination of the Godfather and George Carlin, he was corrupt, often ruthless, an autocrat with a fierce desire to hold on to power – but a charming host and an unpredictable interlocutor who never ceased to surprise and amuse.
First, his faults, and yes, there were a few.
Saleh’s ascent to power in 1978 and his election to the presidency in 1982 left in its wake a trail of intrigue and assassinations – starting with the demise of his predecessors, Presidents Hamdi and al-Ghashmi – with which he was at least associated, if not a central figure. His 33-year rule saw a ruthless leader who, while not committing any massacres along the lines of Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad, was nevertheless not loath to intimidate, threaten and have opponents disappeared when neither cajoling nor threatening worked. The southern secessionist rebellion in 1994 was quickly crushed and a prolonged and bloody civil war was thus avoided. In 2011, worried about being unseated by the Arab uprising, he was unsympathetic to the demands of the youth and sent his troops to disperse them by force from Taghyir Square, as the downtown Sanaa area they took over was dubbed. Dozens of civilian casualties and the split this caused within army ranks led to the GCC intervention and the deal which resulted in his resignation from the presidency.
Saleh presided over a regime in which corruption started at the top with graft, bribery and a constant hand in the till. Ministers and associates were constantly demanding kickbacks for contracts with foreign companies and bribes to license domestic industry and businesses. Saleh himself was not shy about demanding his own cut and was notably known to have received oil-for-food coupons from Saddam Hussein in the nineties. Arms smuggling and trafficking, long a tradition in Yemen, was not only tolerated by Saleh, but a business he actively joined via Yemeni arms merchants who were close friends and associates of his. Via his longtime friend and top general, Ali Mohsen, Saleh was not averse to dealing with al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Yemen, ostensibly to maintain contacts and avoid terrorism on Yemeni soil.
His demise leaves a power vacuum, certainly within his party, the GPC, but also in Yemen as no other leader has emerged with even the potential to rally supporters, keep the country united and perhaps stitch the right alliances to end the war that currently consumes Yemen.
To his credit, much of the money he controlled was used to buy off rebellious tribes and dole out favours to maintain a favourable balance of power between Sanaa and the outlying regions. He certainly lived in relative luxury compared with the average Yemeni, but the opulence of his home and presidential palace paled in comparison to those of his oil-rich neighbours. He did not own palaces and yachts abroad and was not fond of taking extended vacations overseas. Money was always about power and greasing the wheels to keep the vehicle of state going.
Always willing to consider alternatives, Saleh took the side of Saddam in the first Gulf war and paid a heavy price in loss of income from the Gulf and the deportation of close to a million Yemeni workers from Saudi Arabia. He switched positions in the ’90s, profiting from his support of the boycott against Iraq, and in 2003 sided with the international coalition against Saddam. Many of his Yemeni critics wished he had the done the opposite and supported Kuwait in 1990 and Saddam in 2003. Yemenis were among the highest numbers of foreign fighters who joined the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation.
Throwing in with the US, he allowed the FBI to investigate the bombing of the Cole in Aden’s port in 2000, and later supported the CIA in going after terrorists in Yemen.
Saleh’s most recent flips and major mistakes led to his death and included returning to Yemen after his hospitalisation in Riyadh in 2012 and allying himself with the Houthis in 2014 in hopes of getting back into power. Knowing the Houthis had never forgiven him for the death of Hussein al-Houthi in 2004 and that they sought power for themselves, he overestimated his manoeuvring powers and his ability to outwit them. His timing and planning his revolt against them this month were seriously faulty. His forces were surrounded in and around Sanaa and any forces that might have come in to help him were nowhere near the capital. His betting on the tribes around Sanaa to support him in fleeing to his hometown of Sanhan proved a fatal gamble.
During my tour of duty as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Sanaa, 2004 – 2007, Ambassador Thomas C Krajeski and I saw Saleh frequently. I particularly enjoyed bantering with him and offering him advice which he willingly took from me when he would scorn it from other foreign diplomats. He was surprisingly responsive to our suggestions on fighting corruption and arms smuggling, but for those efforts to yield results, we would have had to hold his hands to the fire and keep up international pressure. He was a master at making a complete turnaround as soon as no one was looking, and in those two cases, he did!
He loved poking his guests in the ribs, figuratively, and sometimes literally, to throw them off. If he was caught at it and his bluff was called, he laughed and moved on to other issues. His demise leaves a power vacuum, certainly within his party, the GPC, but also in Yemen as no other leader has emerged with even the potential to rally supporters, keep the country united and perhaps stitch the right alliances to end the war that currently consumes Yemen.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.