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YEMEN - Ali Abdullah Saleh (Al Ahmar).

Companies having access to President Saleh can be very successful. Companies like Hunt, Nexen and TotalFinaElf have managed to get Saleh to intervene personally to improve their E&P terms with the oil ministry. It is not easy to have access to Saleh, unless the visiting executive represents a major company. Getting the right man for the introduction and the man who knows when Saleh is in the best of his moods can be expensive. It was thanks to a meeting with Saleh that Total's CEO got his LNG project moving in 1995 and, more recently, the deadline for its implementation extended to June 2006.

Saleh is simple but shrewd. A hard-headed pragmatist, his main weakness is a combination of good ideas and lobbying by certain leaders of the Hashed tribes under Speaker and powerful head of the Islamist/conservative Islah Party, Shaikh Abdullah Al Ahmar.

In October 1999 Saleh began a new term in the presidency as he vowed at a swearing-in ceremony to fight corruption and chaos. In February 2001 he got an overwhelming vote for his term to be extended from five to seven years and for the term of parliament members to be extended from four to six years.

The next general elections will be held later this year. In the same referendum he also got the vote for a constitutional amendment giving him the power to dissolve parliament. In April 2001 Saleh appointed Abdel Qader Bajammal as prime minister to replace Dr. Abdel Karim Al Iryani who had health problems. More than half the cabinet was changed in favour of younger and more efficient figures.

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the US had a huge impact on Saleh's regime as radical Islamic militants in Yemen were accused to being allied to Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of the terrorist Al Qaida organisation whose family originates from Hadhramout. Immediately Saleh pledged his full support for the US war against global terrorism and in November flew to Washington, where he met with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and CIA Director George Tenet. Since then, Yemen and the US have been co-operating closely against terrorism and about 100 US military experts have been training Yemeni special forces in this country.

Speaking to Muslim religious leaders in early 2002, Saleh said: "Some people criticised my visit to the US. But I went there to avoid any danger to our country... There were reports putting forward Yemen as a second Afghanistan". Indeed there had been indications that the US may attack Yemen, because of links between Al Qaida and Yemeni Islamic militants including those who had bombed the US destroyer Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000, when 19 US 17 US sailors were killed. Indeed, US forces have conducted operations in Yemen, including one air attack on the Yemeni-Saudi border, which pulverised the car of an alleged Al Qaida member.

Now civilian operatives of the FBI and the CIA, having a "permanent" presence in Yemen, work closely with Saleh's security forces in pursuing terrorist suspects who are either arrested or deported. The alliance with the US progressed further after Vice President Cheney's visit to Sanaa for a few hours on March 14, 2002. On June 11, federal authorities ordered extra special scrutiny of all Yemeni citizens seeking to enter or leave the US.

On May 22, 2000, Sanaa had celebrated ten years of Yemen's unification and among Saleh's Arab guests was Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdel Aziz. By then Sanaa had won a power game with Riyadh by getting US support for compromise in the border dispute between the two neighbours.

In late 2000 Saleh, getting stronger thanks to high oil prices, boosted his political position by replacing many civilian and military figures in government with younger, more loyal figures, including his son Ahmad Ali who became chief of the special forces and his brother Tariq who was made commander of the elite presidential Republican Guard. To secure a badly needed $700m World Bank loan, he has ordered bold reforms - the direct responsibility of the prime minister.

Saleh, a Zaidi Shiite of the northern Hashed tribes, was born in the town of Al Ahmar in 1942. With less than elementary education, he joined the North Yemeni armed forces at an early age and became a corporal. He was promoted by his tribal leaders in 1977 when the then president of North Yemen, Ahmad Al Ghashmi - an ally of one Hashed tribe - appointed him as military governor of Taiz. After Ghashmi's assassination on June 24, 1978, Saleh became a member of a four-man provisional council of the presidency.

On July 17, 1978, Saleh became president of the republic, chief of staff and commander in chief of the armed forces - having been unusually promoted to the rank of major and then colonel. Later he became a general. In December 1997, parliament approved his promotion to field marshal and a statement said this was "in recognition of his historical role and the political, economic and social achievements" in the course of his mandate. Saleh now is the highest ranking military officer in Yemen.

On Aug.10, 1978, as president, Saleh ordered the execution of 30 officers on the charge of conspiracy to topple his regime, and he has since faced several assassination and coup attempts. He became president of unified Yemen on May 22, 1990, South Yemen's Marxist regime of Aden having merged with the conservative regime of Sanaa. He backed Saddam Hussein who invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

Many things happened after the merger, including complex intrigues both in the north and in the south, plus secession by the southern leaders who had become bold after big oil discoveries in Masila. Saleh fought the latter head on - the May-July 1994 war was devastating - until he defeated them. But Saleh gave strict orders for his troops not to target any of the oil installations in the country. He re-emerged as a stronger ruler of all Yemen. The border dispute with Saudi Arabia and various other developments after the war did not shake a stubborn Saleh who, nevertheless, proved to be an excellent diplomat.

Saleh had founded the General People's Congress (GPC), the ruling party, before the Yemeni unification. In the April 27, 1997, general elections, the first since the May-July 1994 war, the GPC scored a sweeping victory, which gave Saleh a free rein to push ahead with economic reform.

Under Saleh are some of the most educated technocrats in the Arab world. Saleh has numerous half-brothers. He is married to more than one wife and has a big number of children. To consolidate his control, Saleh has placed loyal relatives around him. His brother, Lt. Col. Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, has headed his special security force and in the May-July 1994 war was commander of a key force. Gen. Abdullah Hussein Al Bashiri, a relative, is head of the presidential office.

A key factor was Saleh's easing of travel rules for Israelis of Yemeni origin, who in March and April 2000 were allowed to visit areas in Yemen where Jews once lived. Then US President Clinton publicly commended Saleh for this as they met in Washington in April. Later Saleh told the Yemeni press the government dealt with the Jewish tourists not as Israelis but as "Yemenis living abroad". In May 2000, however, Sanaa was angered by a new American film, "The Rules of Engagement", portraying ordinary Yemenis as killers and terrorists. Ambassador to Washington Abdel Wahab Al Hajri, close to Saleh, said it ruined Yemen's image. "A little girl shooting at marines - can you believe it?" he asked the 'Boston Globe'. Arabs said the film was racist.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Operations in Oil Diplomacy
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Jun 23, 2003
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