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How a Longtime President Ended Up Dead in a Pickup

As Ali Abdullah Saleh's son swears revenge at the Houthis who apparently killed him
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 5, 2017 12:22 PM CST

(Newser) – "The blood of my father will be hell ringing in the ears of Iran." It's an oath of revenge spoken by the son of Yemen's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed Monday, apparently by the Houthi rebels he had until recently supported. It ends the life of a strongman who ruled a country—an act he famously likened to "dancing on the heads of snakes"—for 33 years before giving up power in the shadows of the Arab Spring in 2012. The New York Times reports son Ahmed Ali Saleh came out of "enforced seclusion" in the United Arab Emirates to publicly pledge that he would "lead the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen." More on the younger Saleh, the elder Saleh's death, and what it means for Yemen:

  • The sides: The elder Saleh had since 2014 backed his former enemies, the Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran and currently hold the capital of Sanaa. In recent days he realigned himself with the Saudi-led forces (who back a Yemeni government based in Aden) trying to push the Houthis out, only to see what Reuters calls a "pro-Saleh uprising" in the capital quickly decimated. The whole thing is viewed by many as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the BBC saw Saleh's alliance with the Houthis as "doomed to fail—it was, after all, between political rivals who had fought no fewer than six wars between 2004 and 2010."

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  • Saleh's death: Per the BBC, "few actually predicted [the alliance] would end in such fateful, dramatic, bloody fashion." While the specifics of his death remain hazy, a video of the Houthis' apparent attack on him is described by NPR's Ruth Sherlock as showing "the body of a man who resembles Ali Abdallah Saleh being lifted onto a pickup truck. The back of his skull is crushed, and there's blood on his shirt."
  • The son: The Times provides a brief primer on how Ahmed Ali Saleh ended up under house arrest in the UAE. He served as Yemen's ambassador to the country until he was confined to his home after the UAE joined the Saudi side two years ago. Reuters observes that with his emergence, he "gives the anti-Houthi movement in Sanaa a potential figurehead." The Washington Post speculates that his son may have played a role in Saleh's changed allegiance, writing that a "thirst for power ... was likely what drove Saleh to turn his back on the Houthis, possibly in the hope that his Abu Dhabi-based son could ultimately return home and take control."
  • The "fundamental awfulness" in Yemen: The Guardian describes the war as "in a state of stalemate," but one with an extreme toll: 10,000 dead since March 2015, another 7 million at risk of starving. And Saleh's death could only worsen things. As one Yemen expert puts it to the Post, "the Saudis must now decide whether to engage in mediation efforts in a climate of zero trust, or to push on with a military campaign that has had few notable successes. ... Saleh was a divisive figure, but he was also the person most likely to be able to broker some kind of settlement."
  • What's next: CNBC speaks with one expert on the Middle East who dubs it "generally bad news for Yemen and probably good news for Iran." He predicts Iran will double down, and that the Houthis, without Saleh, will be more reliant on the country's support. But the move was a gamble for the Houthis, too, as they now may have added another enemy to the mix: those loyal to Saleh. Adds a second expert, "the assassination of Saleh also delegitimizes the Houthi rebellion and it undermines its support base so Houthi rebels could also now grow weaker."
(Read more Yemen stories.)

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