For years, the Americans saw President Ali Abdullah Saleh a key ally in the fight against al-Qaeda. He allowed his air bases to be used by US drones to strike at the movement’s operatives, and gladly received Western aid in development cash and arms supplies.
Yet according to claims in a United Nations report last month, one of the first things Mr Saleh did when his three-decade rule was threatened by the 2011 Arab Spring was strike a secret deal to give an entire southern province to al-Qaeda. The more he could portray Yemen as falling into militant hands, he calculated, the more the West want to keep him in office at all costs.
On this occasion, his unholy alliance failed in its goal: by the following year, his Western backers had quietly forced him out in return for immunity from prosecution. But last week, the man with a record of doing deals with anyone who will keep him in power was once again proving that his cunning should never be underestimated.
In a move that has brought new havoc to the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen’s main cities have been overrun by the Houthis , a militia drawn from the Shia minority from the north of the country. On Wednesday, their siege of the port city of Aden forced Mr Saleh’s successor, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to flee by boat to Oman, prompting bombing raids by neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Riyadh claims the Houthis are being clandestinely backed by Iran, its Shia arch-enemy and chief rival for power in the Middle East.
Tribesmen loyal to the Houthi rebels in the capital Sana’a (AFP)
While Tehran has denied any involvement, one person who is undoubtedly helping the Houthis is Mr Saleh. Having fought tooth and nail against the Houthis himself during his time in power, he has now joined their side, instructing cronies and relatives in the army to join forces with the rebels. Thus has a small local rebellion become a nationwide civil war – and thus has the wily Mr Saleh maneouvred himself back into the centrestage of power.
A Machiavellian leader even by the standards of Middle East, Mr Saleh once observed that ruling turbulent Yemen was like “dancing on the heads of snakes”. But his own spectacular comeback – by a man steeped in deals with tribal leaders, regional powers, and even al-Qaeda – has made many wonder whether he may the biggest serpent of all.
A Saudi-led, Western-backed coalition is now conducting nightly bombing raids against Houthi positions in an attempt to turn the tide. They are also threatening a ground operation if Mr Saleh and the Houthis do not withdraw, saying that the group’s Iranian links makes it a threat to Arab interests across the whole region.
According to Houthi-run government agencies, 45 civilians have been killed during the bombing raids. The attacks have divided the population of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, many of whom said they were opposed to the Houthis until the bombing started. “I am ready to fight with the Houthis because I cannot support the killers of my country people,” said Al-Ezz Ezzadin, a student.
Ali Abdullah Saleh’s successor Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi (AP)
Iran, which is accused of both arming and training the Houthis, has demanded that the coalition halt its attacks. But amid fears of a wider sectarian war, the extraordinary role of Mr Saleh has been overlooked.
The ease with which he has switched sides is yet more evidence of the hazards for the West in backing Arab dictators, whose ability to exploit concerns over jihadism depends in large part on their not actually tackling it.
There had always been suspicions that Mr Saleh was doing deals with the al-Qaeda militants he was supposed to be fighting. Those were often discounted; an American diplomatic summary released by Wikileaks said there was not much evidence.
But according to a recent UN report – prepared by a “panel of experts” for the UN security council – Mr Saleh met the local emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Sami Dayan, in his office in Sana’a in 2011. At the time, Yemen was facing the same anti-government protests that were already threatening the rule of fellow Arab strongmen in Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, left, with Muammar Gaddafi, centre, and Hosni Mubarak in 2010 (AP)
To the apparent surprise of Mr Saleh’s defence minister, who was also present at the meeting, Dayan was assured that the army was going to withdraw from all of the province of Abyan, which makes up a large stretch of the coastline east of Aden. It would then be easy pickings for the emir, who, as the astounded defence minister noted, had previously vowed to kill Mr Saleh.
As the report makes clear, that is precisely what then happened. In May 2011, as pro-democracy protesters besieged Mr Saleh’s ministries in the capital Sana’a, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula occupied Abyan province, and held it for a year. At the same time, the government’s Western-trained anti-terror unit, led by the president’s nephew, also mysteriously melted away.
The sudden incursions of al-Qaeda into government territory helped create Mr Saleh’s narrative that protests against him were undermining regional security.
Now, in a legacy of that strategy, the Houthis are citing the rise of al-Qaeda as one reason for their takeover.
Mr Saleh, however, may have other reasons to cling on to power. Another section of the UN report cited claims that he had accumulated a vast fortune while in office, much of it salted away by friendly businessmen around the world.
“He is alleged to have amassed assets between $32 billion and $60 billion, most of which are believed to have been transferred abroad under false names or the names of others holding the assets on his behalf,” the report said.
“These assets are said to take the form of property, cash, shares, gold and other valuable commodities.”
The figures might be an exaggeration: much of Mr Saleh’s ill-gotten gains would have been circulated back into payments to tribal leaders to win their loyalty. But one Saudi analyst estimated that while the $60 billion figure was too high, it could still have been “a quarter of that”.
What is also unclear is what Mr Saleh and the Houthis’ final strategy is. While Mr Saleh has remained largely silent about his ambitions, the Houthis claim to want inclusion in a broader government. It is not clear, however, whether they think they can exercise sway over the whole country, including its heavily tribal, Sunni, and al-Qaeda-infested hinterland.
In the meantime the Yemeni people, many of whom thought that by ejecting Mr Saleh they were likely to get a government more representative of their interests, now find themselves a playing field for competing regional, sectarian and ideological interests.
Some have welcomed the Saudi intervention, seeing it as the only way of restoring some sort of order against Mr Saleh, and his ilk. There have been competing demonstrations – for the Houthis in Sana’a, against them in the Houthi-held city of Taiz.
“The Houthis are servants for Iran and destroying our country for Iran,” Ghalib al-Ebbi, a grocery store owner said. “If they like Iran, they can go there and fight there, not in our homeland.”
Others don’t care who wins, as they as they stop bombing them. “I support the airstrikes if they target only the Houthis forces, but I am against them if they target the army or the civilians,” said Hisham al-Jawfi, a civil servant.
However, like everything else in Yemen, the choices are unlikely to be that simple.
Error: No connected account.
Please go to the Instagram Feed settings page to connect an account.