There is no denying it, Ali Abdullah Saleh has left a vacuum in Yemen and he will be missed.
A combination of the Godfather and George Carlin, he was corrupt, often ruthless, an autocrat with a fierce desire to hold on to power – but a charming host and an unpredictable interlocutor who never ceased to surprise and amuse.
First, his faults, and yes, there were a few.
Saleh’s ascent to power in 1978 and his election to the presidency in 1982 left in its wake a trail of intrigue and assassinations – starting with the demise of his predecessors, Presidents Hamdi and al-Ghashmi – with which he was at least associated, if not a central figure. His 33-year rule saw a ruthless leader who, while not committing any massacres along the lines of Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad, was nevertheless not loath to intimidate, threaten and have opponents disappeared when neither cajoling nor threatening worked. The southern secessionist rebellion in 1994 was quickly crushed and a prolonged and bloody civil war was thus avoided. In 2011, worried about being unseated by the Arab uprising, he was unsympathetic to the demands of the youth and sent his troops to disperse them by force from Taghyir Square, as the downtown Sanaa area they took over was dubbed. Dozens of civilian casualties and the split this caused within army ranks led to the GCC intervention and the deal which resulted in his resignation from the presidency.
Saleh presided over a regime in which corruption started at the top with graft, bribery and a constant hand in the till. Ministers and associates were constantly demanding kickbacks for contracts with foreign companies and bribes to license domestic industry and businesses. Saleh himself was not shy about demanding his own cut and was notably known to have received oil-for-food coupons from Saddam Hussein in the nineties. Arms smuggling and trafficking, long a tradition in Yemen, was not only tolerated by Saleh, but a business he actively joined via Yemeni arms merchants who were close friends and associates of his. Via his longtime friend and top general, Ali Mohsen, Saleh was not averse to dealing with al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Yemen, ostensibly to maintain contacts and avoid terrorism on Yemeni soil. Read More …