Ali Abdullah Saleh once described ruling Yemen as “dancing over the heads of snakes.” The former president’s reported death Monday, at the hands of Houthi rebels who were his allies just a few days ago, shows not only the perils of that balancing act, but also the political shifts in a country wracked by civil war since 2015. More importantly, perhaps, is that it shows how difficult it will be to resolve the civil war—and the proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran that helps fuel it—in the most impoverished country in the Arab world.
Saleh’s apparent death, six years after Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was killed and his body paraded on the streets of his hometown of Sirte, will send a signal to strongmen around the world, most notably Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Assad is more firmly in control of Syria than at any point since the civil war began in March 2011. But his rule, despite military and diplomatic support from Russia and Iran, is fragile. Syria’s Arab neighbors and Turkey all want him gone—as does the United States. As long as he remains in power, instability will almost certainly remain a feature of Syrian politics and life. But the fate of Saleh and Qaddafi before him is a powerful example of what dictators most fear—not just losing their power, but losing their lives. Assad could thus cling closer to his political benefactors in order to ensure he doesn’t meet the same fate.
After Saddam Hussein, who was hanged in Iraq in 2006, and Qaddafi, Saleh is the third former Arab dictator to be killed following a regime change in the region. Other longtime Arab leaders, from Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, were also ousted in the Arab uprisings of 2011, but survived. Where leaders clung on to power in the face of protests, such as in Syria and Bahrain, civil war and political unrest, respectively, have become the norm. And the fates of Hussein and Qaddafi, in particular, are believed to preoccupy another incumbent dictator outside the Middle East: Regional experts say Kim Jong Un accelerated his nuclear and missile programs in part because both leaders, after giving up such programs, saw their regimes and their lives ended. They say he sees these weapons as an insurance policy against ending up like them.
Saleh never possessed weapons of mass destruction. But in the nearly four decades since he assumed the presidency in 1978 of what was then North Yemen, he consolidated his power and that of his family. At various points, he allied with Saudi Arabia, the United States in its war on terrorism, and Saddam. But as the Arab Spring swept through the region, his hold on power became tenuous. Protests against him grew, he barely survived an assassination attempt, and agreed in 2012 to hand over power to his deputy, Abd Rabbu-Mansour Hadi.
Things might have stayed that way had it not been for the Houthis. In September 2014, the group which is allied with Iran, reached Sanaa and took control of parts of the Yemeni capital. In February 2015, they announced they were dissolving Parliament and taking control of the country. Yemen’s neighbors quickly took their positions. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies backed Hadi’s government. Iran supported the Houthis, its Shia brethren. Saleh entered the conflict on the side of the Houthis, his supporters fighting alongside the rebels. Hadi, the vice president-turned president, sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. The conflict that followed has resulted in the deaths of at least 8,000 people, the displacement of some 3 million people, the destruction of the country’s infrastructure, and well-chronicled outbreaks of famine and cholera.
The civil war appeared unending, as did the shifting political alliances. On Saturday, Saleh appeared on television to say his alliance with the Houthis was ending over political differences, and that he was open to dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition. The Saudis welcomed the statement. Saleh’s forces appeared to take control of Sanaa, but in the fighting that followed, more than 100 people were killed and 200 wounded. The Houthis, who accused Saleh of staging a “coup,” bombed his house, killing him. Pictures subsequently posted on social media appeared to show Saleh with a head wound. Houthi media reported that the former Yemeni president was dead. Al Arabiya, the Saudi broadcaster, also reported Saleh’s death.
Saleh’s killing dims the prospect of any political resolution of the Yemen conflict. Saudi Arabia and its allies, on one side, and the Houthis and Iran, on the other, are only likely to become further entrenched in their positions. The promise of the Arab Spring gave way to political nightmares in almost all of the countries where there were calls for political change. And in Yemen, one of the worst of those nightmares continues.