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Opinion: Bringing Yemen’s Fox to Justice | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012 when he formally handed over power to his deputy. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son Ahmed has seen his political future go up in smoke this week, and ultimately it is his father, the former president, who is responsible for this. Saleh, who is allied with the Iranian-backed Houthis, is the mastermind behind the current mayhem engulfing Yemen. Saleh, the wounded fox, was betrayed by his own intelligence apparatus and ousted from power in February 2012 after thousands of Yemenis took to the streets demanding an end to his rule which had lasted 40 years and lost all semblance of legitimacy and credibility. More than three years on, the ex-president cannot accept that he was ousted from power, and is determined to return. But just as he was burnt by the revolution, he has burnt the political future of his eldest son Ahmed with his plots and intrigues seeking to return to power. Just one week ago, Yemenis took to the streets in Sana’a calling for Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh to be appointed president, with the former president, of course, pulling strings behind the scenes.

However Saleh’s machinations have been brought low following the leaking of details of a secret message that he sent, via Ahmed, to Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. This letter was leaked after Saleh appeared on a Yemeni television channel to respond to the Saudi-led coalition’s shelling of his forces. Saleh claimed neutrality and patriotism saying that he’s always supported a political solution and that neither he, nor his family members, have any desire to return to power.

He put on his best face for the Yemeni people, claiming to have had no involvement in the coup against legitimate president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, while in reality he was behind all of this. It was these lies that prompted Riyadh to leak the details of the secret message he sent to Prince Salman via his son Ahmed. Al-Arabiya news channel’s report aired details of how two days before the Saudi-led military attacks began, Saleh sent his son to negotiate a deal with the Saudis. The deal stipulated that he would be willing to abandon the Houthis and back the Saudis in exchange for a series of demands—all of which served his personal ambitions, not the interests of the Yemeni people.

He demanded that the UN Security Council lift the sanctions that have been imposed on him, including ending his travel ban and unfreezing his assets. He also called for Riyadh to back his son Ahmed for president. Saudi Arabia leaked this information in order to show the Yemeni people Saleh’s true colors, and demonstrate his selfishness and lust for power. Riyadh also wanted to show how Saleh was seeking to leverage the fate of Yemen to meet his own personal demands, an act of political blackmail. Saleh threatened to continue his alliance with the Houthis and take full control of Yemen through force of arms if Riyadh did not acquiesce to his selfish demands. He said he would do everything in his power to sabotage the transitional process sponsored by the Gulf states and the UN if his demands were not met. Saudi Arabia refused to make the deal and launched its military campaign.

In the past, I have described Saleh as Yemen’s fox. While Saleh himself once described himself as “dancing on the heads of snakes” by being able to govern Yemen for so long, using his own political cunning, not by strengthening Yemen’s institutes or the rule of law. Saleh was able to follow this model of governance for decades, until the Yemeni people finally had enough and revolted against him. He did not step down willingly but was ultimately forced to cede power after he was injured in an attack and the issue was practically taken out of his hands. He sought medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, and from Saudi Arabia saw Yemen transition into a new political phase. But unable to accept this, he returned to Yemen and conspired against it, allying with the Iranian-backed Houthis to create chaos across the country, sabotaging Yemen and threatening the entire Middle East by placing the Gulf on a collision course with Iran.

Saleh’s cunning failed to tempt the Saudis. Indeed, Riyadh is well aware of the former president’s sly ways. The Saudis decided that the best thing for Yemen, and the region, would be a political solution and therefore moved ahead with a national reconciliation project backed by the UN, as this would be the only guarantee for the safety and security of all Yemenis, not just the Saleh family. This option would also have been better for Saleh, if the Yemeni fox had agreed to it. Engaging in national reconciliation for the sake of Yemen’s stability, instead of sabotaging it, would have turned him into a true Yemeni statesman and father figure, and would also have secured the future of his son Ahmed who conceivably could have become one of the possible future leaders of the country.

However Saleh in his short-sightedness and stupidity spurned this option and simultaneously destroyed his son Ahmed’s leadership hopes, both now and in the future. He failed to calculate the Saudi reaction. He sought to use the Houthis, confident that they would be the muscle to his cunning, that like Hezbollah in Lebanon they would assassinate, destroy and eradicate any rivals, while allowing him to take power.

However, he was surprised by the decisive Saudi response and has realized that this will not be so easy—Saudi Arabia is wiser and more decisive than he imagined. Saleh bet against foreign military intervention in Yemen, and he has now lost that bet. He thought that inter-Gulf differences would prohibit any unified military stance. He was wrong. He thought that the Americans would reject any Saudi intervention in order to avoid upsetting the Iranians, particularly in light of the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Geneva. He was wrong again. Saleh was taken completely by surprise by the extent of the military and political cooperation that has been brought about to oppose his alliance with the Houthis. Operation Decisive Storm has militarily brought together the Qataris and the Emiratis, while also gaining the support of the Egyptians and Turkey.

Saleh also saw the Americans rush to publicly support the campaign with US President Obama calling Saudi King Salman to personally voice support for the intervention. Washington is even providing intelligence and logistical assistance. The most recent Arab League summit also clearly backed the military campaign and voiced complete support for Yemen’s legitimate President Hadi. He received a standing ovation as he delivered a speech to the conference on behalf of the Yemeni people.

The Yemeni fox gambled, and lost. He is now in hiding, trying to escape the military operation that has been mobilized against him, while Yemen’s own tribal forces are also pursuing him on the ground in order to bring him to justice.