Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh isn’t settling into a quiet retirement.
Hosting loyalists during Ramadan, inviting tribal leaders for meetings and slamming the “failures” of the transitional government, he’s still an active player in Yemeni politics, in contrast to the other Arab leaders ousted last year and now exiled, jailed or dead. Months after Saleh stepped down in the face of mass protests, his son and nephew hold top army jobs.
“I went through the same security check I used to go through when I paid my felicitations to Saleh when he was president,” Fuad Ali, 36, a leader of the ruling General People’s Congress, in southern Taiz province, said after he met Saleh during Ramadan. “He continues to behave just like when he was in power.”
Saleh’s political encore may undermine the Saudi Arabia-and U.S.-backed plan for stabilizing Yemen, which has been used by al-Qaeda as a base for attacks on both countries, and reviving the poorest Middle Eastern economy. The rift in the army between supporters of the ex-president and his successor, Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, risks a revival of last year’s violence, when street protests escalated into a near-civil war on the doorstep of the world’s biggest oil exporter.
“He is trying to keep his family, friends and allies in power,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political science at King Saud University in Riyadh. “He has a huge social, economic and political network all over Yemen and wants to prove that he isn’t out of the picture. He is very clever.”
Yemen’s economy shrank 10.5 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund, more than anywhere in the world bar Libya, where a civil war halted oil output. Crude production in Yemen also slowed, with repeated attacks on the Marib oil pipeline, and the country suffered regular power shortages as its budget plunged into deficit.
To prevent the slump from continuing, a Saudi-U.S. axis is leading a push for aid to help reconstruction, with $6.4 billion already pledged and donors due to meet again in New York on Sept. 27. The U.S. has more than doubled its aid to Yemen this year to $345 million, said Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“Without security, you won’t have development, you won’t have private investment and you won’t tackle a 40 percent youth unemployment rate,” Shah told reporters at the last donor meeting in Riyadh on Sept. 4.
Under a Saudi-brokered deal, Saleh received full immunity from prosecution, while aides and family members are also exempt except for charges of terrorism. Hadi, who like his predecessor is a member of the General People’s Congress, was elected unopposed in February to head a transitional government for two years.
In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in London, Hadi urged Yemenis to put away their differences and engage in national unity talks, saying they’ve spent decades in a state of “endless wars and fights.”
He said progress is being made in Yemen at a steady, though sometimes slow, pace because of the sensitivity of the domestic situation. “It’s like a car driving on a sandy trail, where the driver has to get out from time to time to clear the sand off the tires,” he said.
Hadi said he was optimistic about Yemen’s future and that Yemenis have overcome many obstacles, including the risk of civil war.
Yemen, bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is struggling to suppress al-Qaeda militants and separatist movements, including a rebel group in the north that has clashed with Saudi troops. Yemen has been used to mount attacks on the U.S. including an attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound plane in 2009.
Saleh has denounced Hadi’s handling of the transition. In a speech in Sana’a on Sept. 3, with thousands of supporters there to mark the 30th anniversary of the General People’s Congress, Saleh launched his fiercest criticism of the government.
“What have you done so far?” he asked in his first speech at a public venue since an assassination attempt in June last year. “Have you managed to arrest those responsible for blowing up the oil pipelines, or those responsible for cutting off electricity from residential areas?”
Saleh’s direct influence on the government persists in the security forces. His son Ahmed commands the Republican Guard and nephew Yahya heads the Central Security Services, a military force that protects embassies. The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a was attacked by protesters condemning an anti-Islamic film earlier this month.
In August, forces loyal to Ahmed attacked the Defense Ministry, prompting the deployment of government troops to protect the building and the nearby central bank. Four months earlier, Saleh supporters in the security forces fanned out in the southern part of the capital after Hadi removed some of their commanders.
Hadi has chosen to avoid direct confrontation with Saleh’s more powerful relatives, said Sam Wilkin, an analyst at Control Risks in Dubai.
“Yahya and Ahmed are the only close relations of Saleh who still have important military commands,” Wilkin said by phone. “Hadi realizes that if he backs them into a corner, and leaves them with nothing to lose, he might push them into open rebellion, and that would be very destabilizing.”
Saleh loyalists who have lost their posts include Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar as head of the air force and Tariq Mohammed Saleh, Saleh’s nephew, as commander of Presidential Guard.
Saleh, who moves around Sana’a in convoys larger and better-equipped than Hadi’s, retains elements of the Presidential Guard and special forces as his personal guard. He uses al-Yemen al-Youm satellite television as a platform for his battle against the transitional government.
It’s a contrast with the fate of the other Arab leaders ousted in last year’s revolts. Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali lives in exile in a Saudi palace in Jeddah on the Red Sea, and was sentenced by a Tunisian court to life in prison for complicity in the deaths of protesters. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is in jail appealing a life sentence on similar charges, and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was pulled out of a drainage pipe and executed by rebels.
“Saleh’s network is one of the most extensive in the region,” Eman Alkadi, an analyst at Eurasia Group, said by phone from New York. “The patronage system he has put in place is extremely strong. There isn’t anything that happens in the country without Saleh being involved one way or another.”