04.02.11

Yemen's Enigmatic Ruler

Ongoing protests could topple President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who presents himself as the only bulwark against al Qaeda. A writer's rare report from Yemen.

Yemen's capital Sana'a—the fortified place—is nestled in the arid mountains of the north, its gridlocked streets a chaotic sea of ramshackle taxis, glistening SUVs, fruit vendors, and hawkers of cheap Chinese goods. In its heart stand two vast structures: the president's mosque, with its six white minarets reaching into the ever-blue sky, and the president's palace, now a well-defended bastion guarded by camouflaged men in the turrets of M60 Patton tanks.

Karim Ben Khelifa: Exclusive Photos from Sana'a

On Friday, dueling protests took place in Yemen, with a pro-government rally gathered outside the palace. Here, people climbed flagpoles to get a glimpse of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose rule is now under threat. His arrival was met with a roar of approval. Flanked by bodyguards, the leader's diminutive stature was obvious. Saleh's left hand, bearing a large tribal ring of silver, shook a little as it rested on the podium. But his voice was steady. "I will sacrifice my soul and blood for you," he shouted, in the equivalent of a Kentucky drawl.

In Sana'a, he is ubiquitous—posters showing him in an ageless, stately pose adorn shop walls and car windows. But to the rest of the world, Saleh is little-known, the enigmatic leader of a strategically vital country, who presents himself to Washington as the bulwark against the forces of al Qaeda.

Like other Middle Eastern leaders, Saleh, who has ruled for three decades, has sought to get out in front of the revolutionary forces sweeping the region by promising reform and his own early departure from power. Yet, trouble persists, with hundreds already killed in battles with government forces.

"I want to leave power like kicking off my shoes," Saleh recently said in connection with talks with other political leaders. "But it has got to be a peaceful transition." The how and when aspect of the presidential handover is the repeated sticking point of government talks in Yemen, which are now in their third week.

“I want to leave power like kicking off my shoes,” Saleh recently said.

To rule this young and poor country of 24 million people, where more than 60 percent of the population is under 30, and the oilfields are about to run dry, Saleh has long managed the high-wire act of selling himself abroad while appeasing his subjects at home. (Two of his three predecessors were assassinated.)

On a trip to Marib province east of the capital recently, the president spotted a rare black camel and sent two of his men to bring him the unusual beast, a member of the party recounted. As they approached, looping a rope around its neck, the camel took off, dragging the pair with it. Saleh laughed uncontrollably at the sight of the two grown men lying in the sand, calling over a young Bedouin boy to fetch the frightened animal. When the wiry boy returned, mission accomplished, Saleh told his men: "That is how you have to handle the Yemeni people: Approach them aggressively and they will run from you. Handle them gently and you will win them over."

From his beginnings in the army as a skinny 12-year-old boy to his assumption of power in 1978 as the sixth president of North Yemen, Saleh has always relied heavily on a handful of people in his inner circle, showing a bias toward his own family and relatives when handing out senior roles in the military and government. Married four times—the traditional maximum at any one time in Yemen's Muslim culture—the president's large family base sits on the edge of the capital Sana'a's exclusive Hadaa district. His son Ahmed heads the elite Republican Guard while his nephew Yahya leads the Central Security Forces and the highly trained Counter Terrorism Unit.

The sprawling presidential compound in the shadow of the Saleh mosque is outwardly austere but, on the inside, richly decorated. In the heart of the compound, beyond tight security checks and metal detectors, wide marble corridors display pictures of Saleh with world leaders, and plush arm chairs of pale satin, embroidered with gold-colored thread, line the walls of the reception room decorated by a giant mural of Sana'a's Old City skyline.

The president's rural retreat in the port city of Hodieda on the Red Sea is rarely used. Saleh prefers to relax by playing table tennis and billiards at the palace or by taking road trips in his luxury Toyota pickup truck around the hills and mountains surrounding the capital.

The lavish lifestyle of the aging leader is a far cry from his birthplace, the rural village of Bait Al-Ahmar, home to the Sanhan tribe—a sub-sect of Yemen's most powerful Hashid tribe. Raised by his uncle after the death of his father, Saleh made a career in the military, commanding the armed forces before becoming president of the republic. Noted for turning enemies into allies, he managed to maintain a delicate balance between Yemen's competing tribes, powerful families, and even Yemen's al Qaeda network, a feat he has often described as " dancing on the heads of snakes."

"I wanted to hate him when I met him," said one anti-government activist following a meeting with Saleh. "But I liked him more after speaking to him. He's very direct and convincing. You'd believe him… I believed him. He spoke to me like my father would. But then I also know he's lied to all of us so many times. I had to remind myself of that."

The U.S. has invested billions of dollars in military aid and training in Yemen to the fight the country's rising al Qaeda insurgency and Saleh has often visited Washington to coordinate with U.S. officials. (While there, he likes to go bowling.) But Saleh's domestic dealings have challenged the rapport between Washington and Sana'a. Among other things, Saleh has maintained a relationship with Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a religious cleric and spiritual leader listed as a terrorist by the U.S. over links with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

As Ellen Knickmeyer, a Daily Beast contributor, wrote in Foreign Affairs last fall: "No one doubts that the threat to Saleh's government from the few hundred al Qaeda fighters here is real. But no one doubts, given Saleh's history, that the Yemeni leader is trying to exploit that threat to gain foreign aid and squelch political opponents and dissidents."

According to American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year, Saleh told Gen. David Petraeus after U.S. drone strikes killed 55 people in December 2009 that "we'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."

Another leaked cable suggested that Saleh was happy to have whiskey furtively brought into the country, "provided it's good whiskey." In Yemen's religious society, alcohol is strictly forbidden.

This—and the refusal to give up power—has meant that his subjects are losing confidence in him as a president, says Saleh Zayf, a prominent member of Saleh's own tribe. "He was one of us," Zayf said. "We fought for the same cause in the 1962 revolution, we come from the same blood. But this is a new revolution… now it's time for him to leave."

—The Sana'a-based writer of this piece preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons.