Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is regularly accused of fiddling as the country burns. For months he has confronted larger protests than those in Egypt as well as military and tribal defections on a greater scale than those in Libya. Echoing Syria, regime forces fire on demonstrators, while the economy—already the poorest in the region—disintegrates. With the cities seething, collections of security services, tribal militias and extremist militants battle in the countrywide vacuum.
Yemen is a largely tribal society with precious few resources and a rapidly growing population, and these harsh conditions—not the government—impose the strongest and most immediate burdens on the average citizen. However, Saleh’s reign exacerbates these problems and alienates much of the populace. Thus his opponents have become more numerous and aggravated the longer and more blatantly he clings to power, though his abdication would neither solve the country’s underlying challenges nor seal its fissures.
This is the context for Saleh’s return from Saudi Arabia on September 23, where he received medical care following an assassination attempt in June. He has ruled longer than his six predecessors combined, precisely by harnessing Yemen’s limited resources and tribal, regional and sectarian divisions. His statecraft relies on three tools. The first is an elaborate patronage network based on oil and natural gas revenues. By spreading government spoils through major tribes, political parties, security forces and civil servants, he buys loyalty and sets these groups against the rest of the population. He also subsidizes key commodities, in particular diesel and food. Second, he maintains a strong grip on the military. The Yemeni state never enjoyed a monopoly of force in its own fractious territory, so Saleh relies on strategic tribal appointments, lavish spending, and a panoply of overlapping institutions to contain defections and ensure the most trustworthy units are the strongest. Finally, he secures military and financial aid by playing on outside powers’ fears of threats emanating from Yemen, from Soviet-backed Marxists in eras past to al-Qaeda and the Houthi insurgency today.
Paradoxically, these practices built the most stable regime in modern Yemeni history while steadily destabilizing the country underneath it. Patronage breeds corruption and hinders economic and political freedom. Security services suppress domestic discontent and drain the state coffers. The government accepts counterterrorism assistance without systematically addressing extremists’ growing appeal and capabilities. The past eight months have been especially chaotic and bloody, but Saleh always plays the fiddle and Yemen usually burns.
These deep-seated grievances manifested themselves in jihadist, secessionist and sectarian conflicts along Yemen’s peripheries long before the Arab Spring propelled them into the streets. This is hardly shocking. Perhaps more surprising is that the opposition’s insistence on Saleh’s departure is matched only by his determination to stay despite defections, international censure, spiraling violence and an attempt on his life that forced him out of Yemen for nearly fourth months. The question naturally arises: what makes Saleh think he can remain in power?
Simply put, he believes the factors that inured his regime to internecine warfare and allowed him to muddle through the previous three decades, while dulled, still obtain. Politically, the ongoing uprising imperils his patronage network by disrupting energy exports, devaluing the currency, curbing imports and foreign aid, and prompting desertions by tribal and political allies. At the same time, it exposes the many divisions plaguing the opposition, thereby creating opportunities for Saleh to continue divide-and-conquer governance.
He has never rejected the U.S.-backed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plan for him to transfer power to a transitional unity government. Instead, he has quibbled for months over its provisions and raised proposals he knows will be shot down, all the while drawing out the rivalries among his variegated opponents. It is working thus far. The parliamentary opposition—Saleh’s counterpart in the GCC negotiations—is a loose coalition of Islamists, socialists, secessionists, democrats, tribal sheikhs, ruling party defectors and others. Fearing these career politicians will hijack their revolution, the largely prodemocracy street protestors set up a transitional council, which provoked the formal opposition to create a competing council. The two groups ultimately fashioned a delicate government-in-waiting upon hearing Saleh would return and even pulled in some rebel military commanders guarding the demonstrators. Ironically, this played further into the president’s hands. The GCC plan authorizes a power-sharing agreement between ruling and opposition parties, not a parallel governing body. Now back home, Saleh can resume casting himself as the spurned negotiator.
This impasse bolsters Saleh militarily as well. After he reneged on the GCC plan repeatedly in the spring, firefights erupted in Sanaa as powerful opposition tribes tried to pressure the regime. While he recovered in Riyadh, political deadlock brought tenuous summertime calm to urban areas. Frustration over his return has translated back into bloodshed as heavily armed loyalists clash with emboldened protestors and the defected troops claiming to protect them. Throughout, rebel army and tribal units held up in skirmishes with Saleh’s security apparatus but wisely avoided pitched battles once the armed forces closed ranks. Indeed, many defectors are infantry units, while the Republican Guard, armored brigades and internal-security bureaus still protect the bastions of regime power. Even in peacetime Yemen is a collection of well-armed factions, where political compromise comes only through brinkmanship. Saleh still has reason to think his opponents will blink first.
Finally, diplomatic strings can still be pulled. The regime is using ground forces as tourniquets in major cities, leaving the air force and tribal levies to deal with preexisting provincial conflicts. Al-Qaeda affiliates quickly overtook strategic crossroads and towns across the south, and the longstanding Houthi insurgency spread rapidly in the northwest. Washington and Riyadh are taking matters into their own hands. The United States escalated unilateral airstrikes and drone attacks on al-Qaeda and provided direct combat support to Yemeni counteroffensives. Saudi Arabia—remembering its own 2009–10 Houthi war—sends money and weapons to contain a group it fears has Iran’s support and also provides armored vehicles to fight al-Qaeda. This enables Saleh to keep elite units at home, underscores the broader security implications should his regime fall and demonstrates the value of continued cooperation. For instance, he says that Yemeni security services provided human intelligence for the successful September 30 U.S. strike on Anwar al-Awlaki.
What does this all mean for Yemen’s future? Saleh feels little need to back down, so murmurs of civil war abound. Avoiding this outcome requires addressing two hurdles. First, Saleh’s rule is premised on internal discord, leading directly to the dizzying array of overlapping axes of conflict today. At best, his continued presence will perpetuate these divisions and accompanying violence, but in a land with eight coups d’état since 1948, his removal (under any circumstances) should not be conflated with removing underlying challenges. Second, Yemen’s six civil wars since 1962 have been ferocious, but unfortunately not fundamentally different from the myriad unshakable lower-level conflicts that scar the landscape. With minor exceptions, war in Yemen tends to accumulate rather than break out, gradually drawing in domestic and foreign participants. Current events seem to confirm that trend.
Jonathan Ruhe is a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center.