Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been killed aged 75, was the authoritarian President of Yemen who steered his impoverished Middle Eastern nation for more than three decades. Forced from office after a violent uprising, he remained a powerful and divisive figure in the country’s ongoing civil war.
In November 2011, several months after he was nearly assassinated in a bomb attack, Saleh bowed to protests against his rule that were part of the Arab Spring uprisings and reluctantly agreed to leave office. Protests had focused on Saleh’s inability to address rampant unemployment, virulent corruption and the security challenges in Yemen, a bastion of Islamist militancy that fell further into chaos as the protests raged.
But for Saleh, who once described his job as “dancing on the heads of snakes”, the resignation was hardly his final chapter.
He evaded pressure from Western and regional allies pushing him to leave Yemen. Instead, Saleh, who retained the loyalty of powerful security forces, struck up an unlikely alliance with the Iranian-backed Yemeni rebel group known as the Houthis.
Together they drove the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – Saleh’s Vice President and handpicked successor – into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2015.
The bloody civil conflict that followed had the elements of a regional proxy war, drawing in Saudi Arabia, its key regional rival Iran as well as the United States. The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and sparked a vast humanitarian crisis.
A former military commander, Saleh come to office in 1978 and proved an unusually resilient president for much of his time in power. His two immediate predecessors, one of whom had been his mentor, were assassinated within months of each other.
As wily as he was ruthless, Saleh had long ruled by carrot and stick, letting patronage and crucial tribal alliances determine key political appointments. He mercilessly quashed coup attempts and once ordered the execution of 30 military officers for their suspected role in a plot to overthrow him. Support from the US, which considered Saleh a key counterterrorism partner against a potent al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, helped cement his grip on power.
Saleh in the 1970s (AFP/Getty)
With unrepentant violence, he dismantled secessionist schemes to undo the strategic unification he had brokered years earlier between North and South Yemen. Soon after unification in 1990, Saleh helped arrange a deal to tap…