Absence of Yemen's Leader Puts Power Up for Grabs

As the first anti-government protests flared in Yemen, sucking the Red Sea nation into the uprisings unfolding across the Arab world, President Ali Abdullah Saleh turned to the maneuvering and manipulation that had served him well since he was a military cadet. Then he fell back on raw power.

His power was thrown into doubt early Sunday when Saleh, aged between 65 and 69 according to various estimates, flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after his opponents rocketed the presidential palace. His sudden departure threatened to leave a power vacuum in a country that he has ruled with an iron hand for 33 years.

This was a leader who could let large swaths of his impoverished, mountainous nation fall out of his control, showing little concern because he had key tribal leaders or local politicians in his pocket, their loyalty secured by patronage, access to shady business deals or prize government positions.

He was a leader who could, with one hand, strike deals with Islamic militants and use their fighters to suppress his enemies while, with the other, rake in millions of dollars from the United States to combat al-Qaida's branch in his country. His own ally Saudi Arabia fumed privately that he was "corrupt, unreliable and largely ineffective," but then rushed to funnel him military aid and cash to help him fight civil wars and domestic conflicts because it also saw him as indispensable.

Saleh's room to maneuver steadily narrowed in the face of anti-government protests that began in February and brought hundreds of thousands of Yemenis into the streets every day. He turned to the tactic he has used since he was a military cadet -- pure force.

But Saleh's security forces have proven no match for the powers against him. Yemen's powerful tribal leaders increasingly sided with protesters. Former allies, such as the United States, decided that the prospect of prolonged civil war in Yemen was worse than losing Saleh despite his role in battling a rising al-Qaida offshoot in the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden.

Week by week, Saleh's hopes of defeating the uprising grew more improbable. Each concession he offered -- even promising to step down early -- failed to weaken demonstrations fueled by Yemen's grinding poverty and a sense that the Arab world's epic revolts were a now-or-never moment to oust Saleh and his regime.

It was a lesson in power politics that echoed back to Saleh's upbringing, in a semi-desert nation with roots in the Old Testament, a distinctive architecture of ornate mud high-rises, and a universally shared habit of chewing the mildly narcotic plant called qat.

Saleh was born into a tribe allied with the mighty al-Ahmar clan, which then ruled a tribal confederacy in northern Yemen. The monarchy that ruled northern Yemen until 1962 would often send envoys to the al-Ahmar clan to hammer out policies and get approval for everything from road-building projects to royal decrees.

Saleh apparently took close notice of Yemen's pecking order and hungered to be part of it. He did not stay long in school, leaving before he was a teenager and enlisting in the armed forces in North Yemen, which would later come under the influence of Saudi Arabia and other Western-allied Arab states after the civil war. He was soon a cadet in the North Yemen Military Academy, heading for his first officer commission as second lieutenant.

His age isn't known for sure. His website gives his birth date as March 21, 1946, but many in Yemen say he was born four years earlier. On the other hand, he just happened to be 40 when he took power in 1978 and the constitution said the president had to be 40. And in the 2006 election, official statements alternated between saying he was 64 or 65.

Whatever his age, Saleh was ambitious and soon caught the eye of North Yemen's president, Ahmed bin Hussein al-Ghashmi, who appointed him military chief in Taiz. That mountain town would become one of the hotbeds of protest that brought him down decades later.

Saleh's moment came after a bomb in a briefcase killed al-Ghashmi in June 1978. Saleh was appointed to a provisional presidency council and within a month was president and head of the armed forces of North Yemen. Among his first acts was to order the execution of 30 officers -- some his former friends -- convicted of being part of the conspiracy to kill al-Ghashmi.

His reputation cemented as a tough leader, he also knew how to play Cold War politics. South Yemen was a Soviet client state, so Saleh reached out to Western leaders to leverage aid for North Yemen and boost his international credentials.

In 1990, with the Soviet Union unraveling, Saleh made his boldest political move: negotiating a unity agreement with the Marxist south. He had one condition: There would be one president -- himself. On May 22, 1990, he raised the flag of the Republic of Yemen at the southern port of Aden.

The peaceful transition was hailed in the West, but questions soon arose. Arab militants who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s needed a new home, and the deal apparently offered by Saleh was sanctuary in exchange for respecting his authority.

Meanwhile, Saleh was struggling in a new role as a regional outcast. His backing of longtime ally Saddam Hussein after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 brought serious rifts with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. that took years to repair.

Yet at home his powerful nexus of the military and tribes made him virtually untouchable. In 1997, Parliament rubber-stamped his promotion to field marshal. Less than two years later, he won Yemen's first direct presidential election with more than 96 percent of the votes.

And in 2000 the legacy of sanctuary for Afghan war veterans came back to haunt him when the Navy destroyer USS Cole was bombed in Aden harbor, killing 17 American sailors. Washington immediately boosted pressure on Saleh to expand his crackdowns on suspected Islamic militants.

Saleh's efforts were widely criticized as spotty and ineffective. But the West and its allies had little choice but to partner with Saleh, particularly given the rising profile of a faction calling itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The group was linked to the attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 and a shipment of explosive-rigged packages intercepted in Britain and Dubai last year. The death of bin Laden led to speculation that the Yemen-based group could take a higher profile.

Jane's Intelligence Review commented that "harboring terrorists has become something of a cottage industry in Yemen."
As the U.S. stepped up pressure on Saleh, he increasingly faced a difficult balance. He could not openly oppose U.S. counterterrorism operations -- including American missile strikes on suspected al-Qaida bases in Yemen -- but worried about being seen in the Muslim world as unable to control events in his own country.

He was right, but perhaps not for the reasons he expected. Inspired by the uprisings that toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, months of peaceful demonstrations to oust the regime erupted, morphing into a raging military conflict in the capital and elsewhere.

Saleh is believed to have been grooming his son Ahmed to succeed him, one of the reasons that fanned opposition against him. His son is in charge of the elite Republican Guard, which has been one of the main forces helping him cling to power.