The assassination of Ali Abdullah Saleh, one year on

Khairallah Khairallah
Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

A year ago, on December 4, 2017, Ali Abdullah Saleh put an end to a phase in Yemen’s history after the Houthis executed him. Ali Abdullah Saleh ended his own life when he thought he can trust someone like Abdulmalik al-Houthi and be allied with him, or at least reach an agreement with him.

Perhaps deep inside, Saleh, who governed Yemen for 33 years, knew that Abdulmalik will one day take revenge but he most probably was not aware that the tribes encircling Sanaa will so easily abandon him.


In the end, he confronted death bravely after he realized that his only option was to fight and honorably die along with the few men who stayed by his side such as Aref Al-Zouka, the secretary general of the General People’s Congress that he established in 1982.

The Yemen that we knew with Ali Abdullah Saleh went with him. This Yemen actually vanished before the death of Saleh who achieved unity in 1990 and set the bases for a political system which he could not maintain for several reasons

Khairallah Khairallah

The Yemeni president played an important role in the emergence of Houthi movements in 1994 under the name “Al-Shabab al-Mum’en” (the believing youth). This is what they called themselves at the beginning then the eventually called themselves Ansar Allah which was inspired by “Hezbollah.” Hezbollah is the Lebanese party that’s more involved in Yemen’s developments than it’s thought to be and it has been for a long time. Saleh’s only concern at some point was finding a balance with the Muslim Brotherhood after he lost the political and moral balance of the socialist party, which lost the separation war in the summer of 1994.

An inevitable fate

What can be concluded from the first anniversary of Saleh’s assassination? Before anything else, we must acknowledge that the man’s capability to maneuver could not save him from the inevitable fate, which the Houthis and those who stand behind them drew for him. Saleh knew from the beginning the meaning of Ansar Allah’s control over Imran in terms of paving the way to Sanaa to control it on September 21, 2014.

Ever since he exited power, i.e. since he accepted to cede his post as president based on the Gulf initiative, Ali Abdullah Saleh was no longer in control of the armed forces, not even over a part of it. The armed forces including the Republican Guards became under the command of interim President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi whose only concern was how to take revenge on Ali Abdullah Saleh and his top aides.

The fact that Saleh was no longer in command of the armed forces made it easier to assassinate him on that unfortunate day and it came after one last attempt to stand against the Houthis. In fact, Ansar Allah has since August 2017 never spared a moment to show that Ali Abdullah Saleh was an expired card.

OPINION: The fading shadow of Iranian dominance

Afterwards, this became clear during the General People’s Congress rally to mark the 35th anniversary of the party’s establishment. During the rally on August 24 that year, i.e. 2017, tens of thousands from the Tawq tribes headed towards Al Sabeen Square in Sanaa to participate in the rally and they had their weapons with them.

Despite the massive crowd, the Houthis did not let Ali Abdullah Saleh make a long speech and speak his mind. They threatened to kill him if he did. The result following external mediations between Saleh and Abdulmalik al-Houthi was that Saleh was allowed to deliver a short speech in which his criticism of the Houthis was limited to criticizing their interferences to change school curricula and books.

Afterwards, Saleh went to a safe house to live there while tribesmen went to their towns outside Sanaa. The fact that they did not stay in Sanaa was a clear sign that they did not stand with him. He probably understood this but he refused to accept the truth.

This was not the first sign that shows the Houthis have made a decision to end the partnership with him to get rid of him. Those who know Ali Abdullah Saleh know that he did not accept the idea that he lost all his cards. He was supposed to realize this especially that he was the one Yemeni to know Yemen and the Yemenis well and he particularly knew that the Houthis will not forgive him for fighting six wars against them between 2004 and 2011.

Houthi deception

He always thought that at some point the Houthis will remember that he was the reason behind their existence to begin with and that he was the reason that decisiveness was never restored to towards them, even when he was capable of it. This is at least what people close to the late president say as they’ve said that at a certain phase, Saleh was just around the corner in terms of completely ending the Houthi phenomenon.

ALSO READ: Coming Soon: Assad’s post victory retribution

The Yemen that we knew with Ali Abdullah Saleh went with him. This Yemen actually vanished before the death of Saleh who achieved unity in 1990 and set the bases for a political system which he could not maintain for several reasons. One of these reasons is that he could not abandon power when he should have in 2006 as he decided to re-nominate himself for the presidency thus backing down after stating that he decided to retire.

There is no doubt that the unity, which would not have been achieved if it hadn’t been for Saleh, had its pros and cons and an example is the North’s domination over the South especially after the 1994 war. Among the advantages of the unity is that it allowed Yemen to demarcate sea and land borders with Oman then with Saudi Arabia. If it hadn’t been for unity, the North would have hesitated to demarcate its borders due to the South’s bids. The opposite is true. If it hadn’t been for unity, there wouldn’t have been political pluralism neither in the North nor in the South.

With the absence of Ali Abdullah Saleh and even before that, unity became absent or rather Yemen became absent. If we look at what Yemen witnessed between Saleh’s ascendance to power in 1978 and his departure of power in February 2012, we can see that it would have been possible to build on what was achieved and develop it but on the hands of other men. But where in this Arab world do you come up with men who understand there is a need to rest and there is another life after being in power and that one can enjoy life especially when he has enough wealth?

If there is a word that summarizes Yemen’s current situation, then it would be the “unknown.” With Ali Abdullah Saleh, and despite all the mistakes he committed, the Yemeni knew where he stood and what was waiting for him. He knew that corruption was governed by certain formulas. After Ali Abdullah Saleh, there are no limits to anything. There are no limits to the extent which the deterioration in this country that has a massive human wealth can reach. Yemen has failed in establishing an educational system that makes it possible to benefit from this wealth. This point is the most significant failure of Ali Abdullah Saleh. This failure could have been resolved at a certain stage which now seems it’s too late for.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Khairallah Khairallah is an Arab columnist who was formerly Annahar’s foreign editor (1976-1988) and Al-Hayat’s managing editor (1988-1998).

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending