Read the full analysis on the National Interest.
Ali Abdullah Saleh’s violent death on December 4, after a weekend of intense conflict in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, brings to an end the remarkable three-decade-long career of Yemen’s most dominant political leader since the establishment of the Republic in 1962. He will be remembered for both the good he did, such as engineering Yemen’s unification in 1990 and promoting many of the steps to modernize the country over the course of his rule, but he will be remembered for some bad things, too. Saleh’s corrupt reign deprived Yemen’s people of billions of dollars that could have been used to advance its social and economic development, and his failure to foster real institutional development left the country ill-prepared to carry on after a popular uprising in 2011 forced him from office.
Not content to retire quietly after his resignation in 2012, Saleh maneuvered continuously to undercut his successor, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and to obstruct the political transition he accepted in 2011. Ultimately, his effort to regain his position at the top of Yemen’s political hierarchy led to his improbable alliance with the arch-rival Houthis. It was never a comfortable arrangement, and as the years of conflict ground on, the level of distrust between the parties grew until the Houthis successfully isolated and marginalized him. It was that reality that led to Saleh’s dramatic “Hail Mary” gambit over the weekend to renounce his Houthi allies and seek a rapprochement with the Saudis and their coalition. It was quintessential Saleh, “the man who danced on the heads of snakes,” and it failed spectacularly.