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Ali Abdullah Saleh is the president of Yemen. In power since 1978, he is one of the Arab world’s longest-serving leaders. Ostensibly reelected several times, Saleh ruthlessly controls Yemen’s dysfunctional and nominal democracy and uses internal conflicts—with Houthi rebels in the north of the country, Marxist rebels in the south and al-Qaeda operatives to the east of the capital—to draw in foreign aid and military support and solidify his power. Saleh, once a fan of Saddam Hussein’s leadership style, is considered a Western ally, but his reliability as such is suspect.
Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Origins: Ali Abdullah Saleh was born into a peasant family on March 21, 1942, in Bait el-Ahmar (Arabic for Red House), a small village in the governorate of Sanaa, southeast of the nation’s capital. Saleh is a member of the Sanhan tribe, and a Zaydi, a Shiite Muslim sect that doesn’t follow the tenets of the more prevalent Twelver Shiites of Iran and Lebanon. Saleh was raised by his stepfather in a family that usually sent its sons to serve in the armies of the Imamate, the theocratic system of government the revolution of 1962 ended. Saleh’s Rise Through the Military: In 1958, Saleh enlisted in the Yemeni military and beginning in 1962, fought as a tank crew member on the side of Republicans, against the Imamate, in the eight-year civil war following the 1962 revolution. His official biography claims he participated in key battles and was wounded in 1963. His age and his rank at the time of the war argue against his having played a considerable role however. Paul Dresch, writing in A History of Modern Yemen, describes Saleh as a tank driver “shelling point-blank such symbols of leftist progress as the pharmacy and the Bilqis cinema.” Another Civil War: Reunification lasted until 1993, when parliamentary elections dealt a blow to the Yemeni Socialist Party and its leader, who had agreed to reunify. The country returned to civil war in April 1994. In July, Saleh’s forces sacked Aden, the South’s capital, and reasserted his power over the whole country. Her ran unopposed in the 1999 presidential election and won reelection again in 2006 in a dubious contest pitting him against an old candidate who was little more than a stand-in. Saleh as Self-Made Man: Still, Saleh’s political skills can’t be disputed. He made his way up the military’s ranks and waited for his opportunities.
In 1974, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, with Saleh’s help, led a military coup that exiled President Abd-el Rahman al Iryani. Al-Hamdi was murdered in 1977. His successor was assassinated the following year. Saleh had worked with both. On July 17, 1978, Yemen’s 99-member People Council elected Saleh president with 76 votes. He was considered a political novice with a doubtful future. He confounded his doubters, using nepotism as a shield for his personal safety and a building block for his power base. Keeping His Friends Close and His Enemies Closer: Saleh’s method of dealing with the enemy—as a strategy for self-survival—was apparent from the start of his presidency. While he seated friends and family in key posts, he also developed a network of patronage, showed little loyalty to permanent alliances, played enemies against each other and brought in former opponents as partners. Saleh’s reputation as a non-ideological and non-religious leader willing to make deals facilitated his biggest achievement in 1989 and 1990: leading the reunification of North and South Yemen, once the South had lost the Soviet Union’s backing. Reunification took place on March 22, 1990. Saleh’s Challenges: To Saleh’s credit, he was able to unify the country and has managed to keep it unified despite its poverty and challenges. Conflicts aside, Yemen’s one major export, oil, may run out by 2020. The country suffers from chronic water shortages (in part because of the use of a third of the country’s water to grow qat, or khat, the narcotic shrub Yemenis love to chew), rampant illiteracy and a severe absence of social services. Yemen’s social and regional fractures make it a candidate for the world’s list of failed states, alongside Afghanistan and Somalia—and an attractive staging ground for al-Qaeda. Saleh’s Double Games with al-Qaeda: Much as Pakistan sponsored the Taliban's rise and used its fighters to advance Pakistani interests in Kashmir, Saleh supported the use of Yemeni Mujahideen in Afghanistan's war against Soviet troops during the 1980s-then put those same mujahideen to work suppressing internal rebellions, especially those of the secular south. Just as Pakistan, an American ally, continues to play a double-game with the Taliban, so does Saleh with Yemeni elements of al-Qaeda, including Jamal al-Badawi, who is wanted for the U.S.S. Cole bombing and whom Saleh paroled.
The Bush administration criticized Saleh bitterly for enabling al-Qaeda operatives to roam freely in Yemen. Salih claims he knows how to use al-Qaeda operatives to his advantage, converting some as informants the better to infiltrate al-Qaeda’s operations in the country. Still, U.S. military aid to Yemen has averaged $20 million a year during the Bush administration. President Obama sought $50 million in total aid for 2010, including $35 million in development assistance.
The Outlook on Saleh: About half of the 200-odd prisoners still held at Guantanamo in early 2010 were Yemeni. The Pentagon had determined that about 40 or 50 of the Yemeni detainees could be repatriated. But the U.S. government refused to do so. “We all took a look at Yemen and said, Oh, man, this stinks, “ a State Department official told Time. “Normally, when you repatriate [detainees] to a government that is competent, they keep an eye on them. In Yemen, the government has less capacity [to do so]. We'd be negligent if we were ignoring that.”
Saleh’s presidential term ends in 2013. He has pledged not to run again. He is rumored to be grooming his son for the position, which would weaken Saleh’s claim, already shaky, that he intends to advance Yemen’s democracy. In November 2009, Saleh urged the Saudi military to intervene in Saleh’s war on the Houthi rebels in the north. Saudi Arabia did intervene, leading to fears that Iran would throw its support behind the Houthis. The Houthi rebellion is unresolved. So is the separatist rebellion in the south of the country, and Yemen’s self-serving relationship with al-Qaeda.