Yemen’s former authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was killed by political rivals on Monday outside the capital, Sanaa. Saleh’s unexpected death at age 75 puts an abrupt end to his decades-long run as the country’s wily power broker ― a legacy that has left Yemen in crisis and ruin.
Saleh’s rule over Yemen lasted for 33 years until he was forced to resign in 2012 amid a popular uprising. He never fully accepted losing the presidency, however, and in recent years became a central player in the country’s devastating civil war.
As Yemen has sunk deeper into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises since its civil war began in 2014, Saleh’s unrelenting dealmaking and desire for power never stopped. But Saleh, who famously described ruling Yemen as “dancing on the heads of snakes,” saw his longstanding ability to maneuver and manipulate the country’s fractious politics ultimately fail this week.
Just days before his death, he had shifted his allegiances and signaled he would turn against the Houthi rebels he had aligned with and instead link arms with Saudi Arabia. The decision sparked days of fighting in Sanaa between the Houthis and Saleh loyalists until Houthi rebels gained the upper hand. The Houthis, members of an Iran-supported rebel movement, claim they ambushed Saleh’s motorcade as he attempted to flee the capital.
Now the civil war he stoked plunges into further uncertainty, and Yemenis face more suffering.
Saleh’s Legacy Of Ruin
Even before Yemen fell into civil war and became the target of Saudi airstrikes, Saleh’s rule left the country in a fragile state.
Yemen has long been one of the region’s most impoverished countries ― the year before Saleh was ousted, the annual income for the average Yemeni was around $1,000 U.S. dollars. As the country suffered from food shortages, falling oil production and economic mismanagement, Saleh amassed a fortune through corrupt dealings.
The United Nations alleges that Saleh managed to accumulate up to $60 billion during his time as president, most of which he shuffled out of the country and laundered.
Saleh was also notorious for playing different political and sectarian groups in the country, using government funds to buy allegiances from local leaders and political groups. He also launched crackdowns on those who sought to oppose his rule, including a deadly campaign in 2004 on the Houthi rebels who killed their leader Husayn al-Houthi.
When the wave of political uprisings that began across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 hit Yemen, Saleh’s supporters attempted to violently suppress the pro-democracy protests. About 2,000 people died in the crisis before Saleh accepted a deal in 2012 that saw him step down and make way for a new government and elections.
Yemen After Saleh’s Rule
Although he was no longer president, Saleh’s ambition to hold on to power and influence remained. He used his deep connections in security forces and political circles to undermine Yemen’s attempt at democratic transition.
When the Houthis launched an armed uprising against the post-Saleh government in 2014, Saleh threw his support behind his former enemies in a bid to gain power and create a political vacuum that would return him or his son to the presidency. With Saleh’s help, the rebels took Sanaa as fighting erupted around the country.
But when Saleh crossed the Houthis in favor of Saudi Arabia, his characteristic shift of allegiance led to his death.
Yemen’s civil war has now killed at least 10,000 people and spurred regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia to pick sides in a proxy war against one another. The U.S.-supported Saudi airstrikes have been devastating ― killing civilians, destroying key infrastructure and damaging much-needed medical facilities.
Yemen’s population is at constant risk of starvation and disease. The country is facing one of the worst cholera outbreaks in history, with over a million Yemenis, including 600,000 children, expected to contract the illness by the end of the year.
Saleh’s death could make the humanitarian situation even worse, leaving the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis to intensify their military campaign after the rebels killed their burgeoning ally. Increased fighting in the past few days alone has left thousands of civilians trapped and in desperate need of aid.