The ex-president is dead. Will the son rise over Yemen?

Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, son of the assassinated ex-president

When Yemen held parliamentary elections in 1997 Ahmed Ali Saleh, then aged 24, was a first-time candidate. Though new to politics, he won by a handsome margin – a victory that was no doubt helped by having his father, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and many of the ruling party's elite as voters in the district that elected him.

The son's effortless entry into parliament left Yemenis in no doubt that this was the first step in a succession plan: the grooming of Ahmed Ali to inherit the presidency from his father had begun.

In 2012, though, the succession plan was thrown into disarray. Months of street protests forced President Saleh to step down and he was succeeded not by his son but by his deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Disgruntled at being driven out of office after almost 34 years in power, Saleh set about undermining Hadi's presidency. In 2014, pro-Saleh forces helped Houthi rebels to seize the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, forcing Hadi and his government to flee. A Saudi-led military coalition then intervened to support Hadi and oppose the Houthi/Saleh forces.

While president, Saleh had fought a series of wars against the Houthis, so his decision, as ex-president, to collaborate with them marked a complete reversal of his previous stance. The Houthi-Saleh alliance lasted until the beginning of this month when Saleh again unexpectedly changed sides and attempted to drive the Houthis out of Sana'a.

If successful, that would have caused a major setback for the Houthis while also re-establishing Saleh as a key player in any post-war settlement. In the event, though, the ploy failed miserably and ended with Saleh's death at the hands of the Houthis.

Ahmed Ali to the rescue?

With the ex-president gone, attention has switched to his eldest son. Now aged 45, and rarely photographed without his dictator-style dark glasses, Ahmed Ali has been described as a man with "zero popularity and charisma" who would not be recognised in Yemen's streets unless with his motorcade. Regardless of that, there's talk of him stepping into his father's shoes. He seems to want to, and last week Saudi media quoted him as saying “I will lead the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen.”

The Saudis and their main coalition allies, the Emiratis, also appear eager to befriend him now. Last week the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who had previously kept him under house arrest, visited him at home offering "heartfelt condolences" on the death of his father. A succession of other Emirati dignitaries paid their respects too.

This has led to suggestions that he is being drawn into the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis. Whether that would be a good idea is another matter; anyone thinking of striking a deal with Ahmed Ali would be well advised to look closely at his career to date.

Ahmed Ali (left) visited by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi last week

Educating Ahmed

Before entering parliament in 1997, Ahmed Ali had spent several years in the United States where, according to differing accounts, he graduated from the American University in Washington with a degree in management and economics or administrative sciences. Following that, he is said to have received a masters degree in military sciences from a Jordanian university. He also had a brief spell at Britain's top military academy, Sandhurst, which according to stories circulating at the time did not go well.

These were apparently sufficient qualifications for a senior role in Yemen's security apparatus and before long he was put in charge of efforts to crack down on kidnappings – a problem that had plagued the country for years.

After that, it took Ahmed Ali only a few years to reach the highest levels of the military. By 2004, he was head of the Republican Guard – the regime's core protection against internal threats – and also head of the Special Operations Forces. These were generally regarded as the best-trained and most privileged branches of the military.

Under his command, the Republican Guard prospered as never before and doubled in size from 10 brigades to 20, but that wasn't rally due to Ahmed Ali's efforts. It was mainly the result of American aid.

How this came about is explained by Jean-Pierre Filiu in his book, From Deep State to Islamic State. American concerns about terrorism and, more specifically, terrorism emanating from Yemen created new opportunities that the regime was eager to exploit. Two months after the 9/11 attacks, President Saleh visited the White House, enthusiastically declaring his support for the Bush administration's "war on terror". Filiu writes:

"US advisers and advanced weaponry started pouring into Yemen, where 'suspects' were rounded up by the thousands, sometimes deported, and most of the time brutalised.

"The Republican Guard was the main recipient of American largesse. Nobody seemed troubled in Washington that the spearhead of the 'counter-terrorism' campaign was also the regime's praetorian guard, commanded by the son of the Yemeni ruler ..."

To a lesser extent, other security forces controlled by the president's relatives shared in the bonanza too – and this, Filiu says, led to the Saleh family tightening their grip on an ever-expanding security apparatus.

In 2009, a military parade in Sana'a to mark the 19th anniversary of Yemen's unification was the largest in the country's history:

"Yemen's Republican Guard, headed by presidential son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, was well represented by 12,000 marching soldiers as well as armored vehicles, T-72 and T-55 tanks, artillery pieces and self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. Among the armored vehicles was the first public exhibition of Iraqi Light Armored Vehicles (ILAVs) provided by the United States."

But there was more to come. A year later, the Obama administration dramatically stepped up its annual military aid to Yemen from $67 million to $155 million.

One problem with this was that it became increasingly unclear whether the aid was actually being used to fight jihadist terrorism or for other purposes such as settling scores with the regime's political opponents or waging war on the Houthi rebels in the north.

The development of this family-run security network also created serious problems for the future. When Saleh eventually stepped down – very reluctantly – from the presidency it proved difficult to bring key parts of his security apparatus under state control.

The succession plan

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, President Saleh was not the only Arab leader trying to establish a family dynasty. Similar moves could be seen among the Mubarak family in Egypt and the Gadafi family in Libya, while in Syria the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000 had led to his son inheriting the presidency. Arabs mockingly devised a new term for this by combining the Arabic words for "republic" and "monarchy" to form jumlukiyya which in English would be roughly equivalent to "repub-archy".

That trend was especially unpopular in Yemen where republican sentiment was strong, accompanied by a widespread aversion to hereditary rule. Before merging with the north in 1990 the southern part of Yemen had spent 23 years governed by Marxists, while the north had overthrown its monarchy in 1962.

In 2004 the arrest of a journalist raised fears that the president's son was beginning to acquire "royal" status – implying that the media would no longer be allowed to treat him as a normal citizen. Saeed Thabet, a correspondent for Quds Press Agency, was arrested by agents of the Political Security Organisation after writing about a rumoured attempt on Ahmad Ali's life.

According to the story, Ahmad Ali had been shot and wounded by a military commander at Suwad Haziz camp, a few miles south of the capital, Sana'a. The military commander was in turn said to have been shot dead and Ahmad Ali (again, according to the story) was flown in a private jet to Jordan for treatment of his injuries.

The story may have been untrue but tales of armed quarrels were part of the normal news-and-rumour mill in Yemen. Whether true or false, they did not usually stir the Political Security Organisation into action. Angered at Ahmed Ali's apparently special status, Yemeni journalists, lawyers and rights activists rallied to support Thabet.

Doubts about Ahmed Ali

In 2005, US ambassador Thomas Krajeski discussed the succession question in a secret diplomatic cable to the State Department. Ahmed Ali was the "most obvious choice", he wrote, but "there are considerable doubts as to his fitness for the job".

"The heir apparent does not currently command the same respect as his father," Krajeski continued, adding that Ahmed Ali was not yet old enough to become president under the rules of the constitution, which specified a minimum age of 40.

"Ahmed Ali is currently too young according to the constitution to hold the highest office. Saleh likely plans to use the next seven years to groom his son (a la Mubarak), make him increasingly visible, and place him in positions of higher responsibility so that he will be seen as an acceptable candidate in 2013 ...

"Faced with the absence of a viable alternative, Ahmed Ali might gain sufficient backing, but there is currently insufficient data to know if he would be able to navigate Yemen's political complexities like his father, the 'Master Balancer'. Reported feuding between the sons of Saleh and Sheikh al-Ahmar [Yemen's most senior tribal leader] raise additional doubts as to whether the current power-sharing arrangement could be extended to the younger generation."

A couple of years later another US diplomatic cable expressed continuing belief that Ahmed Ali was being groomed as the next president but quoted Yemeni suggestions that he was "too weak at this time to assume power" and that "regional military leaders were particularly uncomfortable with him as a successor".

Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar

Rivalry with Ali Muhsin

One potential obstacle to Ahmed Ali's rise was Brigadier General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armoured Division. Ali Muhsin (or Mohsen) hailed from the same village as the president and was often considered the second most powerful man in Yemen. His military command extended over a vast area of eastern and northern Yemen, and he was said to have more than half of the country's military resources under his control. In a diplomatic cable, US ambassador Krajeski described Ali Muhsin as "Saleh's iron fist".

Krajeski added that Ali Muhsin had been "a major beneficiary of diesel smuggling in recent years" and appeared to have "amassed a fortune in the smuggling of arms, food staples, and consumer products". The memo also described him as "a close associate" of Faris Manna, Yemen's most notorious arms dealer.

On the religious front, Ali Muhsin had long-standing Salafi/Wahhabi connections. In the 1994 war, when the south attempted to secede, he enlisted Islamist support which helped to achieve a quick victory. He also had some kind of relationship with the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan (linked to al-Qaeda) which kidnapped 16 western tourists in 1998. The kidnappers were expecting Ali Muhsin to help arrange the release of imprisoned Islamists in exchange for the tourists. Krajeski commented:

"Ali Mohsen's questionable dealings with terrorists and extremists ... would make his accession [to the presidency] unwelcome to the US and others in the international community. He is known to have Salafi leanings and to support a more radical Islamic political agenda than Saleh.

"He has powerful Wahhabi supporters in Saudi Arabia and has reportedly aided the [kingdom] in establishing Wahhabi institutions in northern Yemen."

Ali Muhsin's Saudi/Wahhabi connections, and his support for Wahhabi institutions in Yemen, also became a complicating factor in the Houthi rebellion. Saudi missionary activity in northern Yemen was one of the Houthis' key grievances, since they viewed it as a threat to their own Zaidi religious tradition.

In a Yemeni version of "Après moi le déluge", President Salih sometimes exploited Ali Muhsin's fearsome reputation as a way of discouraging his critics: if they removed him from office Ali Muhsin might succeed him. While it's unclear whether Ali Muhsin had serious presidential ambitions – some say he was more interested in wielding power behind the scenes – there's no doubt that he and Ahmed Ali saw each other as rivals.

This rivalry became apparent during the Houthi wars (2004-2010) when both men were leading operations – separately – against the rebels. A report from the British thinktank Chatham House in 2008 said:

"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."

Relations deterioriated to such a point that during the last of the Houthi wars under Saleh's presidency, someone connected with the regime tried to trick the Saudis into killing Ali Muhsin. The Saudi air force had joined the war and was bombing Houthi positions, based on targeting information provided from Yemen. One of the targets scheduled for an airstrike turned out to be the headquarters of Ali Muhsin, who was reportedly present at the time. Fortunately for him, the Saudi pilots realised something was wrong with their targeting instructions and aborted their mission.

Ali Muhsin abandons the regime

In January 2011 the Arab Spring protests spread to Yemen and by mid-March at least 30 demonstrators were reported to have been killed. Ali Muhsin formally abandoned the regime and announced his support for "peaceful revolution", sending troops under his command to protect the crowds demanding Saleh's resignation who had gathered in the capital. This brought an immediate response from Ahmed Ali. The Guardian reported:

"Minutes after Ali Mohsen's defection, tanks belonging to the republican guards, an elite force led by the president's son Ahmed Ali, rolled into the streets of Sana'a, setting the stage for a standoff between defectors and loyalists.

"Republican Guard tanks took up a strategic location across the city at Saleh's residence, the ministry of defence and at the central bank. Meanwhile, tanks of Ali Mohsen's First Armoured Division took positions elsewhere in the city."

President Saleh remained defiant and it was not until February 2012 that he eventually stepped down and his deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, became "temporary" president for what was envisaged as a two-year transition period.

However, a major flaw in the GCC-brokered transition plan allowed Saleh to remain in Yemen and granted him immunity from prosecution. That created oppotunities for Saleh and his family to continue causing trouble, first by undermining Hadi's attempts to establish control and later by helping the Houthis to overrun large parts of the country.

Hadi's struggle for control

Despite Saleh's resignation, his relatives maintained their grip on the security apparatus – including Ahmed Ali with his Republican Guard.

In April 2012, Hadi attempted to remove some of them, including the long-serving air force chief, General Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar, who was the ex-president's half-brother. Ahmar, however, was determined not to go quietly and Sana'a airport was briefly closed as a result of threats against civilian planes from the adjacent air base.

A few months later, Hadi turned his attention to Ahmed Ali and began chipping away at his power by transferring units from the Republican Guards to other commanders. In December 2012 Hadi went a step further, ordering Ahmed Ali to hand his forces' long-range Scud missiles over to the defence ministry. Ahmed Ali refused and a stand-off ensued.

A week later, though, Hadi issued decrees abolishing the Republican Guard as well as Ali Muhsin's First Armoured Division. Both were to be brought under control of the defence ministry. Meanwhile, Yahya Saleh, a nephew of the ex-president was removed from his post as chief of staff at Central Security.

Ahmed Ali, the ambassador

Ahmed Ali was eventually shunted off to the UAE as Yemen's ambassador. Meanwhile his rival, Ali Muhsin, was named as an "adviser" to Hadi and has since been appointed vice-president in the exiled government.

Ahmed Ali's ambassadorial career lasted only a couple of years. In March 2015, with the outbreak of full-scale war, Hadi dismissed him from his post and the UAE cancelled his diplomatic immunity.

The following month, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on him. The announcement said:

"Ahmed Ali Saleh has engaged in acts that threaten the peace, security, and stability of Yemen.

"Ahmed Ali Saleh has been working to undermine President Hadi’s authority, thwart Hadi’s attempts to reform the military, and hinder Yemen’s peaceful transition to democracy. Saleh played a key role in facilitating the Houthi military expansion. As of mid-February 2013, Ahmed Ali Saleh had issued thousands of new rifles to Republican Guard brigades and unidentified tribal shaykhs. The weapons were originally procured in 2010 and reserved to purchase the loyalties of the recipients for political gain at a later date.

"After Saleh’s father, former Republic of Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, stepped down as President of Yemen in 2011, Ahmed Ali Saleh retained his post as commander of Yemen’s Republican Guard. A little over a year later, Saleh was dismissed by President Hadi but he retained significant influence within the Yemeni military, even after he was removed from command."

Ahmed Ali remained in the UAE under house arrest – though that has since been lifted.

The question now is whether the Saudi-Emirati coalition has a use for him. Aside from the continuing UN-imposed sanctions on him, his previous quarrels with Hadi and Ali Muhsin are not a good omen. There's nothing to suggest either of them would be prepared to place their trust in him.

It's also unclear what Ahmed Ali might be in a position to contribute. He is not an inspirational leader and it's far from certain that the ex-president's remaining supporters in Yemen will rally around him. More broadly, the Yemeni public would be unlikely to welcome his return. And for the coalition, attempting to work with him could be far more trouble than it's worth.