North Africa, West Asia

How Saudi Arabia and Iran shared the rise and fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh

The commonly held view that the conflicts in Yemen – and elsewhere in the region – are a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia must be revised.

Omar Sabbour
5 February 2018

A supporter of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Picture by Hani Al-Ansi/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.It is often said that the troubles of the post-Arab Spring nations is their unfortunate metamorphosis into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the case of Yemen, this takes the form of understanding the roots of the conflict as taking place between Saudi Arabia and the ‘pro-Iran Houthi rebels’. Such analysis, however, often presumes the disappearance of the original Arab Spring forces, and consequently the way regional status-quo powers such as Saudi Arabia reacted to their development. In the case of Yemen, a product of such approaches was the dangerous underestimation of the critical role of one crucial actor: the recently-deceased Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Even by the standards of the region’s dictators, Saleh was known for his desire never to hold onto power, constantly promising not to run for re-election and reneging at every cycle. Despite also being a member of the Houthis’ Zaidi sect, he had little regard for sectarian loyalty; in the pursuit of power he allied with Sunni Salafists against Zaidi Houthis, and later with the Houthis against everyone else. In power, he was accused of simultaneously fighting and keeping alive insurgencies in order to extol military aid from Saudi Arabia and the US.

For years after the coup, Houthi sympathisers and outlets portrayed Saleh as a ‘leader’ and ‘national symbol’

In the Houthis, it appeared that he had met similarly pragmatic allies, who were prepared to break with the consensus of Yemen’s various revolutionary forces and opposition parties - stretching from Islamists to socialists to Nasserists - to provide Saleh with the necessary public relations cover for the coup against the transitional government of Abd-Rabbo Mansur Hadi in 2014. For years after the coup, Houthi sympathisers and outlets portrayed Saleh as a ‘leader’ and ‘national symbol’. Somewhat similar to the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed partnership with the military during the post-Mubarak transitional setting, their opportunistic and counter-revolutionary alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh turned the plethora of Yemen’s Arab Spring forces against them. Eventually, the man who once said that “ruling Yemen is like dancing on the head of snakes” finally overplayed his cards, getting killed by the last pet snake he had empowered over the past three years.

Ironically, Saleh was the architect of his own death. Here, contrary to the notion often proclaimed by western media of a ‘Houthi rebel takeover’ of Sana’a in 2014, the capture of Sana’a was in reality far less a rebellion against the state than a coup by anti-Arab Spring forces within it. The Houthis would never have succeeded in entering Sana'a in September 2014 were it not for Saleh's loyalists in Yemen’s unreformed security forces; the majority of the Yemeni Army as well as the fearsome Republican Guard - armed for decades by Saudi Arabia and the United States - stayed loyal to Saleh and rejected the authority of Hadi. Expectedly, the ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC) sided with what became known especially in Arabic media as the ‘Houthi-Saleh forces’ in the coup against Hadi in 2014, decrying the latter as a ‘traitor’.

After the coup succeeded, it was Saleh who (perhaps somewhat surprisingly) conveyed to his loyalists the necessity to subsume themselves to the new official Houthi-fronted military and political command. Perhaps believing that they will always return to him when the time came, it is clear however that this plan backfired, and the events suggest that in the years since the coup the Houthis may have consolidated their position amongst the old Yemeni security forces to the extent that their authority outstripped that of Saleh.

Yet Saudi Arabia and the UAE could also be said to have unwittingly aided in the execution of Saleh, via the unlikely executioner of the Houthis. In recent months Saudi’s new effective ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, had effectively adopted the UAE position of supporting Saleh loyalists instead of President Hadi, and in recent weeks pursued a new strategy of attempting to wean Saleh off from the Houthis in return for Saudi support for his (or rather, his son’s) return to power. Previously, Saudi Arabia had been effectively allied with the various forces grouped within the anti-Houthi/Saleh Popular Resistance, prominently including unlikely allies such as the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood branch, the Islah party, and the Yemeni Socialist Party. Power-hungry as always, Saleh clearly could not resist the offer and in another one of his trademark U-turns, betrayed the Houthis. Surprisingly, however, the coup-master did not play his cards right and failed in the planning of the execution of his newest coup; his loyalists were not well-positioned in Sana’a at the time of his announcement, and the Houthis pre-emptively struck.

Saudi folly

The whole Yemeni crisis can in the first degree be seen as a confluence of Saudi decisions. To start with, Saudi Arabia safeguarded Ali Abdullah Saleh with immunity as part of the GCC-initiative that sought to pacify the Yemeni revolution. Indeed, as well as keeping Saleh’s ruling party in power and his relatives and loyalists in place across the military and security forces, the GCC initiative even preserved Saleh personally as the head of the General People’s Congress, creating a bizarre scenario whereby his successor from the same party, President Abd-Rabbo Mansur Hadi, belonged to a party still headed by the dictator he replaced.

Between 2013-14 Saudi Arabia would even ally with the Houthis

Not only did Saudi policy set the groundwork for Saleh’s inevitable return and marginalise demands to either dismantle or radically reform state institutions, but between 2013-14 Saudi Arabia would even ally with the Houthis as a counterweight to the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood branch, the Islah party, which became increasingly influential within the transitional government and political setting. Thus, far from a proxy conflict, Saudi Arabia and Iran were at that point supporting the same forces.

This did not mean that Saudi Arabia ideally wanted the Houthis in Sana’a, but it did mean that a Houthi alliance with the counter-revolutionary forces of ‘stability’ represented in the Yemeni ‘deep state’ was seen as a lesser evil to the increasing reliance by President Hadi on the Islah - as well as combatting the unprecedented open democratic space which had opened for civil movements within the transitional setting. Iran similarly enticed Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saleh’s son who had been effectively exiled by Hadi as Yemen’s ambassador to the UAE and effective leader of Yemen’s feared Republican Guard, to not stand in the way of the Houthis in exchange for recognising a return to influence in Yemen.

Indeed, the majority of Houthi weapons had been supplied by Saudi Arabia and the United States to the Yemeni Army under Saleh – entire stockpiles which were then opened to the Houthis. In their drive to take the country – a process which almost culminated during the near-capture of Aden in 2014 – the Houthis would fight alongside the same army and Republican Guard units which killed hundreds of Yemeni revolutionaries in 2011. Crucial offensives by the Houthi-Saleh coalition were in fact dominated not by the ‘Houthis’, but by these loyalists. In their subsequent drive across the country after the coup, the Houthi-Saleh coalition led by the fearsome Republican Guard would rain misery on anti-Saleh sites of resistance such as Taiz (which they continue to besiege to this day), Aden and elsewhere. Indeed, whilst Saudi Arabia expectedly condemned the coup against the GCC Initiative-derived legitimate government of Abd Rabbu Hadi, the signals from Riyadh at the time were that Saudi Arabia was willing to acquiesce to the new arrangement of the Saleh-Houthi coalition in power, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, a far cry from its support of what it called the ‘legitimate’ Syrian president Assad and his family’s four-decade rule, Iran supported the “legitimate uprising” and Saleh-led coup against Hadi, in power since 2012.

With the death of King Abdullah in January 2015 and the ascension of the significantly more anti-Iran King Salman, Saudi policy would be completely reversed. Ironically, for the first time during the Arab Spring Saudi Arabia would take the lead in a decisive intervention on the side of Arab Spring revolutionary forces, fighting the onslaught of the Houthis and Saleh’s loyalists in the Yemeni Army and aligning with unlikely allies such as the Islah and Yemen’s southern socialists. The poignant image of Saudi bombing of Republican Guard headquarters or even the house of their erstwhile former ally Saleh, pointed to this radical reversal in policy under Salman. Unfortunately however, even this rare occasion of Saudi intervention on the ‘right’ side of the Arab Spring was nullified by the massive civilian casualties and humanitarian disaster inflicted by Saudi’s brutal military campaign, which would soon outstrip the deaths caused by the Saleh-Houthis forces. Saudi’s policy in Yemen, in short, has been folly from start to finish; both when siding with Saleh’s counter-revolutionary loyalists and even when opposing them.

Echoes of Egypt

Whilst commonly being miscategorised as a ‘Houthi rebel takeover’, the Houthis thus presented an alternative front for the return of old regime interests under a new image – similar (though not identical) to the front presented by the Tamarod (‘insurrection’) movement for the military coup in Egypt. Here as with the Houthi movement, the Tamarod movement along with the military-backed media presented the movement as a ‘rectification’ of the path of January 25th revolution which had been ‘hijacked’ by the Muslim Brotherhood. Again, similarly to the “Death to America” slogans which became prominent during the Houthi rise to power in 2014, the military-backed Tamarod movement had similarly adopted an anti-US line as part of its official campaign (its logo was the burning of a US flag) – accusing Morsi of being a US stooge. Loyalists of the old Mubarak regime accepted the necessity of this revised rhetoric. In reality of course, this was merely a smokescreen for a vicious counter-revolution launched by the military against the January 25th forces, a reality which would eventually emerge into the open with explicit public and media condemnations of the January 25th revolution once the military regime had consolidated itself (after a period of expected diplomatic criticisms, with western backing).

The immediate aftermath of the coup saw a continuation of US drone strikes with “no discernible reaction” from the Houthis

Meanwhile, the immediate aftermath of the coup in Sana’a would see Houthi officials declare that they want a “good relationship” with the United States based on mutual respect (any implication of a rejectionist boycott implied by the ‘Death to America’ was rebuffed as “just a slogan”), engage in diplomatic talks with the US, and even enjoy intelligence coordination against Al-Qaeda. Indeed, the immediate aftermath of the coup saw a continuation of US drone strikes with “no discernible reaction” from the Houthis (indeed, even after the start of the US-backed Saudi-led intervention, the Houthis did not reject US airstrikes against Al-Qaeda outright, declaring only that they should be carried out mainly in coordination with them and not the Saudi-backed Hadi government). The US meanwhile has repeatedly criticised the Saudi intervention in the country and urged a political solution with the Houthi-Saleh forces – contradictorily even whilst facilitating the military campaign and selling the country arms.

The ‘new entrants’ of the post-Arab Spring state

However, unlike the case with the myriad of liberal and leftist groups grouped within Tamarod (and the post-Morsi ‘civilian’ transitional government) on the one hand and the military ‘deep state’ on the other - whereby the former’s influence was largely swatted away by the military within a short space of time, the Houthi alliance with Saleh’s loyalists constituted much more of an amalgamation of the two forces, not dissimilar to the increasing amalgamation between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state in Lebanon or the Shia Islamist Popular Mobilisation Units and the central government in Iraq. The consistent theme of such amalgamations was the reinvention of Iranian-backed Shia Islamists from excluded targets and opponents of the so-called ‘war on terror’ to active engagers and proponents of it. The reliance by the old regimes on previous ‘pariah’ sub-state militias was justified in the name of a renewed ‘war on terror’ targeting the Sunni Islamist forces which emerged in the post-Arab Spring (both ‘moderate’ such as the Muslim Brotherhood and ‘extreme’ such as ISIS).

In reality, this amalgamation resulted in both a degree of ‘moderation’ of the insurgent forces entering the state – making them willing to enter the realm of ‘pragmatic’ diplomatic dealings with previously-condemned foes – as well as a degree of ‘radicalisation’ of the rhetoric of existing regimes – entailing their adoption of populist criticisms of ‘imperialist’ powers they had long avoided condemning. Thus both previous and current western allies (both past such as Yemen’s Saleh and present such as the Egyptian military) would increasingly adopt criticisms of the west, whilst meeting them from the other direction, the ‘new entrants’ (the sub-state forces now increasingly relied-upon to prop up the besieged state) quietly accepted practical collaboration with both western-backed regimes and the west. In short, the new ‘stabilising’ post-Arab Spring arrangement required a formula whereby a historical ‘principled’ reluctance to deal with imperialist powers (quietly supporting counter-revolutionary regimes despite publicly condemning them) and their regional ‘lackeys’ was shedded, whilst a previous reluctance to rhetorically condemn allied ‘imperialist’ powers (portrayed as the cause of the upheaval by virtue of such ‘interfering’ condemnations) was abandoned.

Thus the likes of Hezbollah would be hosted by the Israeli-backed Al-Sisi regime after years of being condemned by the Egyptian government as an extremist movement (and condemning Egypt in the opposite direction as an ‘Israeli puppet’), and Egypt would refuse to follow the Saudi line in branding Hezbollah a ‘terrorist’ organisation. In other domains, Hezbollah would even participate alongside US operations inside both Lebanon and Syria. The reality that sectarianism rather than ‘revolutionary’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ politics served clearly as the driving policy would be evidenced in the support groups such as Hezbollah provided to the US-installed government in Baghdad – which for years had fought and killed thousands of anti-occupation insurgents (both Sunni and Shia) – as well as more symbolic actions; thus Hebzollah would poignantly host the likes of Ahmed Chalabi, known as the architect of the ‘false dossier’ inviting the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, in a conference in Beirut – whilst the Houthis would routinely praise the former ‘US collaborator’ Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring policy: from Abdullah to Salman to Muhammed Bin Salman

Saudi Arabia’s general hostility to the Arab Spring nevertheless saw its regional popularity plummet to unprecedented lows 

Saudi Arabia’s policy towards the Arab Spring could be surmised as lying between the two poles of general support as represented by Qatar, and total opposition as represented by the UAE. The predominant part of Saudi policy towards the Arab Spring as established under King Abdullah could be seen to have been aimed first and foremost at weakening anti-status quo Sunni Islamist forces that found a popular constituency within the monarchy, forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and indeed Saudi policy entailed even aligning with Iranian proxies in certain domains as a lesser evil in pursuit of this aim. Nonetheless, King Abdullah recognised the need to support aspects of the uprisings in some capacity to avoid increasing domestic disquiet, though he did so whilst recognising a division of influence with Iran (thus Iran would be left by Saudi to take free reign in Iraq, its geopolitical ‘backyard’, in exchange for the expectation of having a free hand in Bahrain; meanwhile Yemen and Syria would see partial commitment from Iran to the Houthis and Saudi to the rebels).

Yet Saudi Arabia’s general hostility to the Arab Spring nevertheless saw its regional popularity plummet to unprecedented lows (unilaterally amongst Arab Spring Egyptians, Syrians and Yemenis), a reality which Salman sought to somewhat address. Thus whilst Saudi media under Abdullah would portray the Arab Spring in general terms as a Fitna or dangerous ‘strife’ to be avoided, under Salman Saudi Arabia would be portrayed as a ‘protector’ of the uprisings.

Saudi policy and priorities were considerably reversed under Salman. Thus Saudi Arabia would provide military support to the armed militias of the Islah in Yemen - a scenario unthinkable under Abdullah - as well as Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups such as Faylaq al-Sham (and even the Qatari-backed Ahrar al-Sham) which Saudi had long opposed arming in Syria. By contrast, such groups were designated as ‘terrorist’ organisations by Jordan and the UAE, which along with Egypt would support Russia’s military intervention on the side of Assad (and effectively Iranian militias) in 2015. Saudi relations with traditional allies such as Egypt, Lebanon and even the UAE deteriorated under Salman, with relations significantly improving on the other hand with Qatar and Turkey.

The events of the past few months however have demonstrated a shocking reversal from the foreign policy direction established under Salman, as symbolised in particular with the crisis with Qatar. Whilst initially unexplainable to many observers, this was eventually explained by what was described as a ‘palace coup’ by Mohammed Bin Salman, months before the purge of rival power centres that would take place. From the early signs so far, it would appear that the approach Mohammed bin Salman is attempting to undertake is a radical combination between the two approaches, in what can perhaps be described as ‘purest’ and most unapologetic adoption of an anti-Arab Spring Saudi policy and the closet yet to the UAE approach.

Giving up any necessary pretences to undermine ‘stability’ (that is, support some of the Arab Spring revolutionary forces in such places as Syria and Yemen), bin Salman seemingly expects Iran to similarly reign in its ‘disruptive’ expansionist activities in return for Saudi Arabia giving up its support to anti-Iranian Arab Spring forces (such as arms to the Syrian rebels and the Yemeni Resistance, and diplomatic criticisms of the Iraqi government). To put it simply, whilst Abdullah was somewhat acquiescent to the expansion of regime-aligned (Iranian-backed) Shia Islamists at the expense of pro-Arab Spring Sunni Islamists, and Salman to the opposite direction, Muhammed bin Salman is attempting to take a hard line against both Sunni Islamist and Shia Islamist forces. After years of being urged to do so by the UAE, Saudi Arabia is now back to supporting Saleh’s forces (led by his son, Ahmed), a policy which had been rejected under Salman.

Saudi Arabia may find that it cannot turn the time back

In this ‘reinvigorated’ confrontation with Iran, Bin Salman’s Saudi hopes to rely on the backing of Donald Trump’s administration (and perhaps covertly, Israel), which has given off signals that it will attempt to contain Iran after years of accepted (and in certain domains, arguably facilitated) Iranian expansion under Obama. However, whilst the signs from Israel have been a consistent rejection of western normalisation with Iran since the Obama years (whilst having initially quietly acquiesced to Iranian expansionism in Syria, seeing it as fomenting a distractive sectarian war) and as a precursor to increased western pressure on finding a peace settlement with the Palestinians in a new ‘normalised’ Middle East (whereby Israel has routinely been reluctant to arrive at peace treaties even with pliable neighbours, such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria - preferring to maintain a scapegoating image of ‘hostile neighbours’), the US policy is yet to be seen – with Trump’s statements masking an alarming reality of practical US support for Iranian expansion in Syria, and even explicit praise for pro-Iran proxies in Iraq.

The UAE preference in Yemen has been to back Ahmed Abdullah Saleh, but in lieu of Saudi approval till recently, it has been wary of practically doing so. Instead, it has found allies in the secular (and anti-Islah) forces represented in the Southern secessionist movement of the old socialist South Yemen, and has focussed its efforts on targeting the Islah and other Sunni Islamists. This, however, may not succeed; simply speaking Saudi Arabia may find that it cannot turn the time back, and that the ‘original’ military and security apparatuses of regimes like Saleh’s and Assad’s are no longer strong enough to stand without the propping up of Iran’s Shia Islamists (this however is certainly far more the case for Assad than Saleh).

It is thus likely that Bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia will have to find itself again choosing between whether it would prefer to back Sunni Islamists represented in the revolutionary forces, or acquiesce to the expansion of Iran’s Shia Islamists. With the anti-democratic and anti-Arab Spring impulse of Bin Salman appearing even stronger than that of Abdullah, it is not unlikely that they come to accept the latter; indeed, signs which have emerged so far are that Saudi Arabia may effectively end any resistance (partial and lacking as it was) to Iranian domination in Syria and Iraq, but may hope to test its luck with Saleh’s loyalists in Yemen. Ultimately, the stage in the short-term is set for a confrontation between Saleh’s loyalists (now headed by a vengeance-promising Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh) and the Houthis, in which Saudi military support for the former – depending on how many Saleh loyalists abandon the Houthis and return to the son’s side – may be expected.

Ultimately in perhaps the greatest irony of all, the dream of thousands of Yemeni revolutionaries of Saleh being brought to some justice was achieved by one half of that counter-revolutionary alliance he had forged against Yemen’s Arab Spring.

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