Saudi Arabia Backs Saleh’s Son
By Maher Farrukh
The Gulf States are likely supporting Ahmed Saleh, the son of the late Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, as a counter against the al Houthi movement and the successor to his father's patronage network. The death of Ali Abdullah Saleh will likely exacerbate Yemen’s instability and destabilize northern Yemen.
The Gulf States split former President Saleh from the al Houthi movement, assuming his forces would be victorious over the movement. Saleh intensified negotiations with the Saudi-led coalition in spring 2017. The Gulf States falsely assumed that Saleh was the dominant partner in the al Houthi-Saleh bloc despite evidence of a power shift in favor of the al Houthi movement in the late summer and early fall. Northern Yemeni tribes largely abstained from the fighting in Sana’a this week, demonstrating their lack of confidence in Saleh and allowing al Houthi forces to defeat Saleh’s loyalist faction in three days.
Ahmed Saleh will not be able to defeat the al Houthi movement. Saudi Arabia may be attempting to replace the former president with his son Ahmed. Ahmed Saleh reportedly swore vengeance on the al Houthi movement in a speech from Riyadh the day after his father’s death. Backing Ahmed is predicated on the same faulty assumption that led the Gulf States to pursue splitting Saleh from the al Houthi movement as a resolution to the war. Additionally, Ahmed does not hold the same influence as his father over Yemeni tribes, and many of the factions that may have supported the elder Saleh will be reluctant to back Ahmed after his father’s defeat. Al Houthi forces have already captured or killed several Saleh-affiliated officials, while others have escaped into Hadi government-controlled territory.
Saleh's death will further destabilize Yemen and create opportunities for U.S. adversaries, like Iran and al Qaeda, to advance on the ground. Saleh, the more pragmatic and secular partner in the al Houthi-Saleh bloc, likely acted as a limiting force for Iranian engagement in Yemen. His death further isolates the al Houthi movement and will drive the group to seek more support from Iran. Saleh’s death will also initiate a new power struggle in Yemen. Hadi government Vice President Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, a counterweight to Saleh with significant influence among northern tribesmen, may seek to consolidate his own power in northern Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) previously resurged during periods of major instability in 2011, during the Arab Spring, and 2015, as the civil war escalated, due to its ability to quickly fill governance gaps. A power struggle within Hadi’s coalition, combined with the ongoing contest in the south, threatens to destabilize all of Yemen allowing AQAP to once again resurge.
Critical Threats Project research manager and lead analyst Katherine Zimmerman and al Qaeda analyst Maher Farrukh forecast the consequences of the former president’s death in “President Saleh is Dead. What's Next for Yemen?.”
Additional takeaways from the week:
- The death of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh will benefit Iran and al Qaeda in Yemen. The Gulf States drew Saleh away from his partnership with the al Houthi movement in an attempt to advance a resolution to the civil war. The plan failed, and the al Houthi movement killed Saleh and several of his close supporters. The now-isolated al Houthi movement will seek more support from Tehran, which it will provide. The instability generated by Saleh’s death will reverberate beyond northern Yemen, allowing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula an opportunity to expand.
- Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri rejected Jabhat al Nusra’s split from al Qaeda in Syria as a violation of its bayat pledge and is attempting to bring the group back under al Qaeda’s leadership. Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the successor of Jabhat al Nusra, arrested pro-al Qaeda HTS officials, causing a public rift within the group. Zawahiri’s public statement indicates that private mediation efforts have failed to unite opposition groups under al Qaeda.
- The stage is set for a political and legitimacy crisis in Libya when the term of the UN-backed unity government officially expires on December 17. The U.S. policies to counter Salafi-jihadi groups and foster a political resolution in Libya currently rely on the unity government, which faces an impending challenge from rival political and military factions. Libyan factions will become increasingly embroiled in internecine conflict in the coming months, drawing security forces away from the growing Salafi-jihadi threat in the center of the country.