Ali Abdullah Saleh: the ‘wielder of power’ who never went away

With new international measures helping to boost his underdog image on the ground, Saleh looks set to make to a return to power

Paul Crompton
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Ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has teamed up with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels to reclaim power in Yemen. Yemeni army commanders loyal to him together with the Houthis have taken control of the capital Sanaa and put the internationally recognized President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest.

When Hadi managed to escape to the southern city of Aden and declared it Yemen’s temporary capital and received wide international and regional backing, Saleh and the Houthis tried to kill him.


In two incidents in March 2015, they bombed his presidential compound in Aden and later launched an all-out invasion of the south, capturing a key airbase where U.S. forces were stationed before they were evacuated last week.

The following is a profile that chronicles Saleh’s fall from grace and his bloody return to reclaim power.

In early 2012, Saleh stepped down after mass protests against his more than three-decade rule.

After months of attempting to stay in power and having survived a near-lethal bomb attack in the process that left with him with shrapnel wounds and severe burns, the man whom Western media referred to as a “strongman,” “dictator” and “autocrat” agreed to resign from his post.

With immunity from prosecution – passed by Yemen’s Parliament – in hand, Saleh stepped down in late February.

As part of the deal for his resignation, brokered months before by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saleh passed power to his vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had previously held the reins while Saleh sought medical treatment in the bombing on his presidential palace.

Despite being out of politics, Saleh remained in the country, opening a museum in the capital, Sanaa, documenting his presidency.

Saleh took up residence in a high-walled compound in Sanaa, continuing the exact same daily routine that he performed as president, according to a New York Times interview with the former president published early this year.

Although officially retired, Saleh remains a “wielder of great power,” but has slammed accusations – speaking habitually of himself in the third person - he was plotting a comeback.

Yemen, for years one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, according the World Bank, faced a continually deteriorating security situation and worsening shortages in fuel and electricity, which made widespread anti-government unrest continue long after Saleh’s ouster.

In September this year, after months of protests and demonstrations in Sanaa, Shiite Houthi rebels took over the capital and other parts of the country, forcing President Hadi to appoint a new cabinet.

Primary supporter

This surprise seizure of power by the Houthis was in part orchestrated by Saleh, who had long opposed the group during his time in office, but was now one of their “primary” supporters, according to the U.S. government.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on Saleh and two leaders of the Houthi rebels for endangering the stability of the country.

The United Nation’s most powerful body also ordered a freeze of all assets and a global travel ban on Saleh, the rebel group’s military commander, Abd al-Khaliq al-Houthi, and the Houthi’s second-in-command, Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim.

With the new international measures helping to boost Saleh’s underdog image on the ground – and amid ongoing pro-Saleh and anti-U.S. rallies in Sanaa – Saleh looks set to make to a return to power, Al Arabiya columnist and Yemen expert Abdullah Hamidaddin wrote on Friday.

“He is now David. America is Goliath,” wrote Hamidaddin, in reference to the biblical tale of a young shepherd boy defeating a warrior giant. “And Yemenis will always support David regardless of who he is or was. Saleh is now on the comeback.”

In addition to swelling support for Saleh, President Hadi on Saturday was dismissed from the leadership of his own party, having been accused of soliciting the U.N. sanctions against Saleh.

The ruling General People's Congress – which Saleh is still the chairman of – said it appointed two members to the posts of vice president and secretary-general in place of Hadi.

Despite no longer having party affiliation, however, Hadi is still formally Yemen’s president – for now.

Humble beginnings

Despite being Yemen’s most dominating political figure for decades, Saleh came from humble origins.

He was born in 1942 to a peasant family in a small village in the governorate of the capital.

In 1958, Saleh enlisted in the Yemeni military and beginning in 1962 saw action as a tank crew member in the eight-year civil war following the 1962 revolution.

Subsequently rising up through the military ranks, in 1977, the then-president of North Yemen, Ahmed bin Hussein al-Ghashmi, appointed him as a military governor of the coastal province of Ta’izz.

After Ghashmi was assassinated a year later, Saleh was appointed as a member of a provisional presidency council, and a month later was elected as the president of the Yemen Arab Republic – an area comprising the north of the country.

Within a month of being appointed to the country’s highest office, Saleh had 30 officers accused of plotting against his rule executed. He was elected as the secretary-general of the General Party Congress and was re-elected as president in 1983.

In 1990, as the Soviet Union headed toward collapse, Saleh led the reunification of the north and socialist-supported South Yemen – a fragile unity that seemed to briefly collapse in 1994 when civil war began.

Saleh, who once likened his rule of Yemen as “dancing on the heads of snakes” – as opposed to trampling on them – largely kept both Western and Arab powers on side and battled the presence of Al-Qaeda in 1990’s, which strengthened his ties with the United States.

Near the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, mass discontent at his 33-year-rule reached a boiling point.
Protesters swarmed on Sanaa’s streets, chanting “Saleh, leave, all the people hate you.” After a series of violent crackdowns and an announcement from Saleh that he would not seek re-election in 2013 failed to placate demonstrators the situation worsened.

Saleh’s other measures included the announcement of a referendum on a new constitution – quickly rejected by opposition groups – and the sacking of his entire cabinet. Weeks after backing out of a deal with opposition leaders to step down, Saleh was wounded in June 2011 after a bomb attack on the mosque in his presidential compound.

Due to his multiple wounds, Saleh went to a military hospital in Saudi Arabia for treatment, temporarily leaving Hadi, his deputy, in charge.

Three months later, in September 2011, Saleh returned to Yemen, and in November signed the GCC deal that would pave the way for his resignation in Feb. 2012.

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