The death of Ali Abdullah Saleh has bogged Yemen down into great uncertainty. The ousted president has been a political force in Yemen for over three decades, and was killed by an attack carried out by Houthi rebels on Monday.
Saleh was an ally of the Houthis for over two years, and his death sparked intense fighting on the streets of Sana’a. Easing calm has returned to Sana’a, but the war in Yemen, unfortunately, has no end in sight. Saleh and the Houthis have fought against the Saudi-led coalition and the internationally recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi ever since the war began in the wake of the Arab uprisings in 2011.
The partnership collapsed last week when Saleh announced that he was ready for dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition if it ended the blockade of Yemen’s ports and airports to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Yemeni people. Shortly afterwards, Saleh was dead.
In response, Hadi has called on Yemenis to rise against the Houthis and rebuild a united Yemen, but the thought of Yemenis answering this call is very slim. On January 2015, the Houthis pushed out Hadi’s government and setup their own administration prompting the Saudi-led coalition against them.
Yemen is split with the Houthi rebels controlling the North, and the Hadi government controlling the south. Saleh’s death could mark a turning point, and risk the conflict from getting worse; a conflict that has killed nearly 10,000 people, pushed the world’s poorest Middle East country to mass starvation, and triggered what the United Nations has called ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’.
Saleh, a former military officer became president of North Yemen in 1978 after a coup, and in 1990, he was elected the first president of a unified Yemen. In addition, Saleh was ousted in 2012, but managed to stay in the country and consolidate power as an actor behind the scenes. Saleh’s involvement in Yemeni politics was like dancing on the heads of snakes, and while it is not clear who will succeed Saleh, the war will certainly not come to an end anytime soon.
Saleh has loomed large in Yemen for over thirty years, and he is gone, but what will happen next? This is a very difficult question to answer because the worst-case scenario always plays out. The political cover Saleh provided for the Houthi rebels is pretty much gone, and now it is a pity between the Arab coalition against the Houthis on the ground without Salah.
Regardless of what happens, the humanitarian crisis will get worse, the aid is not being delivered under the Saudi blockade, and diseases like Cholera and small pox are spreading throughout Yemen. All the attention has been put on Sana’a, but what about the other governates in Yemen that are not entirely stable like Ta’izz and Saada, both victims of Saudi-led bombing campaigns? One could say that the death of Salah will only make peace harder, but others can say that with Salah gone, the sectarian narrative could be used as a forceful direction, and no one knows where this will go. Peace talks are the only way out of the Yemen conflict, but all parties must agree to this, and the worst-case scenario could be a fight to the death between the Arab coalition and the Houthi rebels that will only lead to increases in civilian casualties, and more unrest from the social population.
Salah played a devil’s advocate role by not only having an artificial alliance with the Houthis, but Saleh also negotiated a behind the scenes agreement with the Saudis and the Emiratis to allow Saleh to fight the Houthis, and at the same time, win Sana’a and remove the Houthis from power. Saleh decided to fight the Houthis by changing sides, and reach an agreement with the Saudis and the Emiratis.
Therefore, we must also not forget that both Saleh and the Houthis were Zaidis and were allies with the Saudis for decades. The Houthis turned against Saudi Arabia when the Saudis invaded Yemen militarily, and now with Saleh gone, this could be a positive measure because for the last two and a half years, the Saudis and the Emiratis believed that Saleh could play a role to remove the Houthis.
Therefore, Saudi Arabia was never ready to engage a real negotiation with the Houthis. The United Nations and the world powers could forcefully engage in the conflict by reaching a ceasefire, an immediate peace negotiation based on a power-sharing system, a transitional government, and free elections for the Yemeni people to decide their future which could save Yemen from more disaster.
The alliance between Saleh and the Houthis was a Machiavellian alliance. Saleh fought the Houthis when he was president of Yemen, and it was an attempt for Saleh to regain power. The Houthis now have significant abilities to project power and strike decisively. Saleh misruled Yemen for over thirty years, and there is no reason for Yemen to be as impoverished as it is.
On the other hand, the Houthis are not going to be any better at ruling Yemen than Saleh did, and the only certain factor we know for sure is that the humanitarian crisis will get worse with 10,000 dead, millions on the brink of starvation, and it is time to start thinking about the people of Yemen. The most important thing the Yemenis want right now is a return to normalcy.
It sounds easy for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to return to peace talks, but when all the parties of the conflict disagree, it is extremely difficult, thus almost impossible to reach a political solution. We have been pleading for a political solution ever since the war began, and there is no will coming from the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels to negotiate any real peace deal, and both sides are guilty for escalating the quagmire. Unfortunately, President Hadi could have played a more constructive role, but he continues to reside in Riyadh, he has never returned to Yemen, and Hadi has no ability to do anything to help the Yemeni people.
The Iranian role in the Yemen conflict is exaggerated, but analysts need to understand that the Arab coalition led by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, with the help of western powers, for over two years day and night, have been bombarding Yemen, and the United States has fully backed air, sea, and land strikes that have targeted civilian areas like schools, hospitals, funerals, markets, and homes. If Iran were deeply involved in this conflict, although indirectly involved in this case, Tehran would have no ability to defeat the United States which is the most powerful army in the world, and their ability to actually challenge the United States not only in Yemen, but throughout the region is extremely limited. Zaidis have been ruling Yemen for a thousand years, and they were removed from power when Egypt invaded Yemen in the early 1960’s. Ever since then, the Zaidis have been trying to regain power in Yemen. Both the Arab coalition and the Houthi rebels have been complicit in pushing their own agendas, and this is unfortunate because the victims continue to be the Yemeni people.
The death of Saleh marks a continuation of departures for authoritarian leaders in the Middle East. Unfortunately, there is no peace and stability in the region after the departures of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gadhafi in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt, and Ben Ali in Tunisia. The only way forward to resolving the conflict in Yemen is through direct negotiations between the parties of the conflict, a lifting of the Saudi blockade, and a will from both sides to diplomatically engage with each other that allows for the Yemeni people to decide the future of their country through free and fair elections.