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Ali Abdullah Saleh: Price of brinkmanship.

By Sajjad Ashraf, Special to Gulf News,Thinker

Ali Abdullah Saleh, 75, the authoritarian former president of Yemen who had steered his impoverished Middle Eastern nation for more than three decades, was forced from office in 2011 after a violent uprising, but remained a powerful and divisive figure in the country's ongoing civil war. He evaded pressure from western and regional allies pushing him to leave Yemen. Instead, Saleh, who retained the loyalty of powerful security forces, struck up an unlikely alliance with Al Houthi militia and together they drove the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi - Saleh's vice-president and hand-picked successor - into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2015. The bloody civil conflict that followed had the elements of a regional proxy war, drawing in Saudi Arabia, Iran as well as the United States. The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and sparked a vast humanitarian crisis.

A former military commander, Saleh ascended to office in 1978 and proved an unusually resilient president for much of his time in power. His two immediate predecessors, one of whom had been his mentor, were assassinated within months of each other. As wily as he was ruthless, Saleh had long ruled by carrot and stick, letting patronage and crucial tribal alliances determine key political appointments. He mercilessly quashed coup attempts. Although Saleh cultivated a reputation as a consensus builder, he alone dominated the political scene. Yemen, on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula and a gateway to the Red Sea, became a stronghold of international terrorism during Saleh's tenure. He approved a deal to allow US forces to fly Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles over Yemen. Yet, despite antiterrorism efforts, Yemen became home to one of Al Qaida's most sinister affiliates. The terrorist group's late leader, Osama Bin Laden, had Yemeni roots on his father's side.

Ali Abdullah Saleh was born on March 21, 1942, in Bayt Al Ahmar, near Sana'a. His family was part of the powerful Hashid tribal confederacy.

With only minimal schooling, he received a prestigious commission to the North Yemen army with the help of tribal patrons. One of Saleh's early mentors in the military was Ahmad Al Gashmi, an officer who became army chief-of-staff and president of Yemen. Soon, Saleh climbed in rank and became more involved in political affairs.

After Al Gashmi, then the president, was killed by a briefcase bomb in 1978, Saleh manoeuvred to succeed him. A month later, Saleh was elected leader of North Yemen, an Arab nationalist country that he united with the Marxist-oriented south in 1990 after the end of the Cold War. Soon after taking office, he sought to "coup-proof his regime" by placing close family and tribal kin into high-profile positions in the military. Saleh had five children and installed his son Ahmad as chief of Yemen's special forces. Saleh established close relations with Iraq's president Saddam Hussain and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at one time. He even sided with Hussain when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 to set off the Gulf War.

The move proved financially disastrous for Saleh and Yemen. The US dropped all foreign aid to Yemen. At the time, Saleh's government was dependent on US aid money and remittances from Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia.

In early 2011, Yemenis were inspired by the revolutionary fervour that ignited in Tunisia and Egypt. Pro-democracy demonstrators gathered daily in the streets of Sana'a to demand Saleh's ouster.

Instead of democratic change, the protesters' pleas were met with bullets and tear-gas canisters from Saleh's loyalist army and special forces. Saleh's legitimacy dissolved after more than 150 Yemeni citizens were killed in clashes throughout the country. Yemeni diplomats left their posts to protest the bloody crackdown, and army generals defected to the opposition. On June 3, 2011, a bomb exploded inside Saleh's presidential compound, killing four of his bodyguards and injuring several key members of his government. Saleh suffered burns and shrapnel injuries. After leaving Yemen for treatment, he returned in September, wearing special gloves and with his face badly scarred.

Frustrating human rights groups, Saleh reneged three times on offers to resign in exchange for immunity. In the end, faced with pressure from the US and its western allies, as well as regional powers, Saleh stepped down. But it was not before he managed to snag a major concession: He would be allowed to remain in Yemen, residing at one of his numerous homes in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a.

In the months after Saleh left office in 2012, Yemeni factions loyal to the former president skirmished with government forces. Amid the simmering civil war, Al Qaida terrorists raided towns in Southern Yemen, released suicide bombers on missions to attack government installations and American targets, and ruled over swaths of the country.

By late 2014, Saleh had joined forces with Al Houthi rebels as they entered the capital. During his rule, he had fought six civil wars against the deeply religious northern rebels. But in a marriage of convenience, they pushed out Hadi and seized control over the capital and much of northern Yemen.

By last week, the tensions had boiled over, triggering fierce clashes between Al Houthi fighters and Saleh's loyalists. And Saleh, the master tactician who ruled a fractious Yemen through tumult and despair, became the civil war's most well-known casualty.

- Washington Post

T. Rees Shapiro is a prominent journalist and columnist.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Dec 8, 2017
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