By Abdullah Hamidaddin
8 November 2014
Former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh
A few days ago the United States decided to slap former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi movement with U.N. sanctions.
The timing could not have been worse and that decision fell right into the hands of Saleh. The Americans literally extended a lifeline to the former Yemeni strongman, pushed him to the limelight, and emboldened his supporters to chant his name again. Saleh’s thirty-three year rule has been the source of most ills we see in Yemen today, but America seems to see more of that.
American mistakes in the region are becoming the norm. Wherever you look the trails of failure are clear, most of the time imprinted with the blood and suffering of the peoples of the region. It failed – and continues to do so – in Iraq. The facts there speak for themselves. It failed during the so-called Arab Spring. Look at Libya and Syria. It had multiple failures in Egypt: first by the way it quickly estranged a thirty year ally; second by quickly supporting the Islamic totalitarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood; third by failing to recognize the changes which brought President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to power.
It failed in its relationship with its Gulf allies. All the Gulf could see was an administration keen on quickly moving away from old alliances - Mubarak and them - and rushing to establish new ones with the adversary of the Gulf States - Iran. I can go on but my purpose is not to count those failures; rather to place the latest American blunder in Yemen in the wider context of failures in the region.
Saleh has indeed been playing a dangerous game. It is enough to imagine that he put his life in the hands of the Houthis; a group he had waged war against for seven years, killing and injuring thousands. Him and his former allies supported the Houthi advance to Sanaa; knowing very well that he would be then at their mercy. This is as crazy as it goes! It was on his side a calculated risk to advance his interests; and in the process he actually served Yemen. Two of Yemen’s main obstacles to stability were General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and multimillionaire businessman and politician Hamid Abdullah al-Ahmar (not related to each other).
Good for All
The Houthi takeover of Sanaa ousted them both from Yemen. This is a good thing for Yemen and the region. Moreover the Houthi takeover has also resulted in a removal of all Muslim Brotherhood members from the main centres of power. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is being pushed back. Foreign Salafists in Yemen being sent home; all of this is good for Yemen and the region.
Saleh of course is not doing anything for Yemen. He simply wanted to clear the playing field from all capable contenders; which he in fact did. Then he directed his attention to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi - who in my view is doing his best in a very difficult situation. At this point international and regional actors had choices. One is to support the arising configuration of power; thus supporting Saleh.
Two is supporting the legitimate president but without showing animosity to Saleh and his camp. Three is supporting Hadi by lifting a stick against Saleh. Four is sitting on the fence. The Americans chose the third option which I think is exactly what Saleh wanted; or at least he saw in it a great opportunity.
Saleh knew that America’s position makes him a hero. He’s already being hailed as such. Even the Houthis might look up to him despite their past wars. The whole Houthi movement had actually started in order to confront American interventionism in the region. Moreover most Yemenis view America through the drone prism; which is a continuous source of energy for all sorts of hate towards America.
There is an unwritten norm in many countries that had suffered from America’s military: “If America is against someone then that someone is doing something good. And whoever America supports is a traitor.” Today Saleh is seen as a hero, some may even consider him Yemen’s Castro. On the other hand Hadi is now being branded as a traitor even by leaders in his own party; there is an upcoming government meeting to recommend he be ousted from it! Demonstrations will be held today - Friday - in support of Saleh. He is now David. America is Goliath. And Yemenis will always support David regardless of who he is or was. Saleh is now on the comeback.
Thank you America!
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London.