Death of a Dictator: Ali Abdullah Saleh

Yemen's former President Ali Abdallah Saleh in 1993. (Photo: MANOOCHER DEGATI/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemen’s former President Ali Abdallah Saleh in 1993. (Photo: MANOOCHER DEGATI/AFP/Getty Images)

Yemen’s former president and strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was killed by militia forces as he tried to flee the capital of Sanaa on Monday. “The militias of treason are finished and their leader has been killed,” a statement put out by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels said.

Saleh ruled Yemen from 1978 until 2011, when he was forced to resign after protests against his rule gripped the country. He did not actually quit until February 2012. However, unwilling to retire from public life, he made a deal with the Iranian-backed Houthis. Armed factions loyal to him helped the Houthis seize the capital of Sanaa in 2014 from his successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Saudi Arabia then entered the war in an attempt to reinstate Hadi. In the process, they caused a humanitarian catastrophe.

Two days before his death, Saleh turned on his Houthi allies (who were formerly his enemies during his lengthy tenure as president). Instead he wanted to take back control. He betrayed them and attempted to seize Sanaa for himself. Saleh delivered a televised address blaming the Houthis for Yemen’s suffering and offering to negotiate to end the war with Hadi and Saudi Arabia.

Instead, Salah’s house, which was under siege for 48 hours, was stormed. He escaped but was later killed as he fled Sanaa for his hometown of Sanhan.

In many ways, Saleh was the epitome of a Middle Eastern dictator. His 34-year rule was marked with massive corruption, nepotism and mismanagement. He amassed a fortune of $60 billion. He oversaw the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, but struggled to bring about economic development or genuine progress. Despite partnering with the United States in the war on terror and allowing them to carry out drone strikes in the country, he also did not prevent al-Qaeda from taking territory in the South.

Saleh’s death is not likely to bring an end to the war nor what British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has described as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” UNICEF recently reported that a child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen. On the contrary, experts such as Peter Salisbury, senior research fellow at London’s Chatham House, predicts Saudi Arabia “will do everything possible now to destroy the Houthis.”



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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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