Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled Yemen, more or less, for 33 years, from 1978 to 2012. He described his governing technique in an image that became as famous as it was precise. It was, he said, “like dancing on the heads of snakes.”
Think about this description. First off, Yemen has always been a snake-pit for wannabe rulers. It is a very poor country of vast open spaces, high deserts separating rugged mountain ranges, with a few arable areas, very reminiscent of the American Southwest. The places where human life can be sustained are the bases of tribes whose independence is expressed in mutual hostility and suspicion of one another and, especially, of the central government in the ancient capitol city, Sana’a.
That’s where President Saleh did his dance, happy to play one tribe against another, as long as he and his tribal and family-based army and government were recognized as the rulers of the country and thereby, were allowed to steal from the national budget and place its allies in patronage jobs throughout the national government.
For 33 years, Saleh excelled at this delicate choreography. He killed and jailed his opponents, but not as sadistically as Saddam Houssein in Iraq, nor on such a broad scale as Muammar Qadafi in Libya. He was a quiet, pragmatic tyrant. He even allowed safe political opponents some space to propose policies and some share in government graft. Rivals could become allies…allies could become hated enemies.
It was said, Saleh’s government ruled only as far as Yemen’s paved roads extended, and the tribes ruled everywhere the roads were dirt. Since most of Yemen’s money stayed close to the pavement, this division of power suited Saleh fine.
But if your dance is all about fending off the fangs of local snakes, you can become vulnerable to foreign serpents. Regionally, Saleh’s dexterity was re-defined by his being not relatively powerful, but, as the ruler of the Arab world’s poorest country, relatively weak.
Thus, when Saudi Arabia bumped him from power in 2012, his last chance was a surprising alliance with his former domestic enemies, the Houthis.
3 things to know about the Houthis. 1) This confederation of tribes from northern Yemen, hundreds of years ago, ruled much of the country for centuries, and feels entitled to do so again. 2) They are distinct among Yemenis, not just tribally but religiously, as members of the Zaidi sect. 3) Zaidis are on the Shi’ite side of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, and this has gotten them some support from Iran.
Joining up with the Houthis brought Saleh some temporary power and patronage, but it also dealt him a losing hand when the Saudi Arabia, backed by the United Arab Emirates and thousands of mercenaries launched a full-scale war in Yemen.
The logic of that situation induced Saleh to offer to sell out the Houthis in favor of, if not the Saudis – who neither trusted nor liked him– then the Emiratis. When the Houthis learned of his latest snake-head-dance move, they killed Saleh…and if most experts are correct…have made Yemen’s terrible situation even worse.
Maggie Michael is a Cairo-based correspondent for the Associated Press (AP). She led the investigative team which uncovered the widespread use of torture against prisoners, many of them civilians, being held by Emirati forces based in al-Mukallah. One apparent aspect of the torture program is that although US personnel often interrogate prisoners, abuses never occur in the presence of Americans.