The Yemen war and family rivalries

The war between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, as regular readers will have gathered, has multiple dimensions: local grievances, tribal/religious conflicts and international rivalries among them. One further dimension – which I haven't mentioned so far – is a struggle to succeed President Salih, within his own family.

The Chatham House report published last year (which along with the ICG report provides one of the better analyses of the conflict) alluded to it in a single paragraph:

The government’s military campaign is conducted by army commander and Salafi convert Ali Muhsin, a Sanhan kinsman of the president who is widely expected to play a powerful role as kingmaker during a future succession. Rumours abound of rivalry between Ali Muhsin and President Salih’s son Ahmed, whose Republican Guard has also deployed in Saada. Several Yemeni newspapers have claimed there is a proxy war between the two men’s forces, under the cover of quashing the Houthis. [page 5]

Yesterday, the Land and People blog cast some more light on the matter:

A few days ago, I met a friend who has worked in Yemen for over 25 years and who was recently there. I asked him about the situation and this is what he told me:

"A big part of the problem with the Hawthi [Houthi] in the North has to do with the struggle for power between Ali Abdallah Saleh (the current president) and his relative (no one seems to be sure how they are related) Ali Muhsin. Muhsin was one of the officers who carried out the coup against the Imam but the story is that he let Saleh rule as he was bound to fail, and then Muhsin would take over and pacify matters. But Saleh did not fail in establishing his rule and in consolidating it, and Muhsin remained an influential army general. He now commands the Northern army units, fighting the Hawthi in Saadah.

Saleh is getting old and is probably tired. He is grooming his son to replace him. Ali Muhsin considers himself to be the more deserving than Saleh's son, especially that the latter has zero popularity and charisma and no one would recognise him in the street without his motorcade. So whenever Muhsin wants to put pressure on Saleh, he commands the army to engage the Hawthi who are always ready for a fight. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 September 2009.