The death of Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh shows that Saudi Arabia is paying for its betrayal of the Arab spring in Yemen in 2011.
Saleh, Yemen’s former president, was killed on Monday by Houthi forces, who were his former allies. He was the sort of wily, corrupt Arab leader that would have been deposed during the Arab Spring. After watching allies and “frenemies” fall in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the late Saudi King Abdullah established a hard-line position against any similar moves on the Arabian peninsula. In the case of Yemen, Riyadh acted pre-emptively: fears of instability on the southern border led Saudi Arabia to orchestrate a leadership change in the country. The Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council drafted an agreement with Saleh to step down from power in return for immunity for him. He remained a key political player in Yemen despite the fact that he was a corrupt tyrant who killed his people. In 2012, Saleh’s longtime deputy, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi was elected president. He was supposed to be a transitional leader, to lead Yemen in to the first full and free parliamentary election. King Abdullah and then King Salman could have worked with former President Barack Obama to guarantee the transition timetable set out in the unfortunate and complex “Gulf Initiative” that received U.S. and E.U. support.
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But King Abdullah did not do so, and the dreams of free elections were delayed over and over again. In the end, this top-down “Arab Spring” was a strategic mistake for Riyadh, one that my country has only exacerbated in nearly three years of war in Yemen.
Saleh’s alliance with the Iran-backed Houthis, whom the Saudis see as a strategic threat, destroyed his relationship with Riyadh. Saleh, along with his army and weapons, has become a key element in the war between the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis since March 2015. But everyone knew that Saleh and the Houthis were a marriage of convenience. He was a dictator; the Houthis are ideologues who want to impose their fundamentalist vision. Neither cared for the core values of the Arab Spring — representative, accountable governance. In the end, their “divorce” was inevitable; each saw an opportunity to eliminate the other.
I knew Saleh well, having interviewed and met with him several times. He was a professional Machiavelli, fluent in all forms for political maneuvering. Throughout his time in power, he went from fighting the Houthis, to allying with them against his longtime Saudi allies. The art of self-preservation was his real strength; his weakness was that he was totally incapable of good governance. When he left power in 2012, having injured and killed scores of peaceful Yemeni protesters calling for his ouster, Yemen’s illiteracy and poverty rates were (and continue to be) the highest in the region. Like Gaza, the country has a potable water crisis that predates the Saudi-led war of March 2015. Yet, he received full immunity and kept a staggering fortune of $60 billion, according to a U.N. report. This injustice helped undermine the fragile transition that followed.
Last Friday, there were rumors of a secret deal between Saleh and Riyadh, that he would reject Iran’s interference in Yemen. The Saudi media celebrated his initial victory against the Houthis. However, by Sunday, the news of Saleh’s death crushed Saudi euphoria. Now, the Houthi control Sana’a and most of northern Yemen, home to the majority of the population that is suffering from starvation, cholera and complete collapse of basic infrastructure.
So what comes next? Tragically, Saleh’s death is a signal that Riyadh’s policy in Yemen needs a complete overhaul — a sign that Saudi Arabia will likely miss. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may try to mend fences with Saleh’s son Ahmad, who is currently in Abu Dhabi. In 2015, just days before the war started, they tried and failed to reconcile. Now, there is likely a rage from both sides, so pervasive and deep that it will require the traditional medicinal approach of throwing around millions of dollars in order to heal the rift. Ahmad will attempt to lead his father’s forces and ally them with the Aden-based, pro-Saudi government. The battle for Sana’a will continue, and Yemeni rather than Saudi forces will try and retake the city in brutal building-by-building clashes.
The choice of waging even more war is tempting for those in Riyadh who want an overwhelming defeat for the Houthis and to get them out of the political game, but it will be very costly — not only for the kingdom but for the Yemeni people who are already suffering immensely. This conflict is the horrific result of preventing the people of Yemen from achieving their desire for freedom. Now the Houthi has become a significant force, and they do not hold the values of the Arab Spring based on power sharing. The world is watching Yemen; not only should the Saudis stop the war, but there should be pressure for the Iranians to stop their support for the Houthis; both sides must accept a Yemeni formula to share power. Perhaps the fall of Saleh the tyrant is a chance for peace in Yemen.