Three decades of Saleh’s pragmatism and tribalism [Archives:2008/1177/Opinion]

July 31 2008

By: AbdulSalam Al-Qarari
H.E. President of the Republic Ali Abdullah Saleh marked this monh the 30th anniversary of his presidency that meets the 17th of July. Throughout his three decades of leadership Yemen has witnessed several upheavals. His leadership has great influence on the country's politics over the past 30 years and will continue to have impacts on the Yemeni political landscape for several years ahead.

The main characteristics that have featured president Saleh's reign can be boiled into: Pragmatism and Tribalism. In fact, it was his tribal oriented character that propelled him into the helm of power, on 17th of July 1978. Driven by his tribal sense and motives, the junior lieutenant had initiated to undertake the leadership to avenge his president Ahmed Al-Ghashmy 's assassination that said to be president Salim Rabee'a of the southern part of the country was blamed for.

Then, Saleh had come to power with a retaliatory agenda, at least at that moment, and not with a visionary political and economic platform. Yet, he was really too brave and adventurer to assume the office at that turbulent time, notwithstanding his primary real motivation, whether to lead the country to the safe anchor or to carry out his reprisal. Many of his colleagues and fellows suspected that he would face the fate of his predecessors, not long time later.

The young ambitious commander of Taiz-brigade, with no career as a politician and not to mention the lack of academic studies of statecraft, had managed to command the approval of the General Assembly to steer the ship. Soon, he had proven out to a man of great potential as a pragmatic leader. He had already learned the rules of the game very quickly- particularly, in the area of security.

How has he managed to hold on the top job for three decades? It can be said with quite certainty that he has been very pragmatic at both domestic and regional levels. He has never had a permanent foe or ally, neither locally nor regionally. He has been ready to make concessions, to accept half-way solutions and to forge temporary coalitions as well as to reach a compromise as long as that serve his own policy and doesn't target his own power.

He has opted for an appeasement and reconciliatory approach to contain the potential opposition groups. He had begun with forging an inextricable link with the main influential tribal figures around the country, most important of all the late Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahamer. Then, he had pursued an active cooperation with the Islamist groups to fight the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). After that he had created the General People Congress (GPC) to include: leading politicians of all political stripes, social dignitaries and prominent sheiks.

Not long time later, he seemed as if he had come to power to carry out a specific regional and international agenda, to counter the socialism in southern part of Arabian Peninsula. To this end, he had been offered all required resources. Yemen was the largest recipient for direct and indirect financial assistance from the Gulf states, in the 1980s.

In exchange, the regime in Sana'a under president Saleh had devoted its security and intelligence capacities to crack down pro-Aden regime of socialist and secularist oriented politicians and intellectuals. The younger generations were overwhelmingly exposed to an aggressive anti-socialism, communism and secularism campaign all the time, in schools, mosques and media. Religious scholars, preachers and teachers were given a free hand to attack (YSP) and preach intensively the Wahhbi-style of Islamic attitudes. That was really a blunder as it has started to backfire seriously.

His pragmatism had actually helped him to deal reasonably with the regional and international powers. In the first decade of his presidency, his pragmatic manner enabled him to effectively manipulate the political forces in the domestic scene, thus to bring a relative political and economic stability in the north of the country, thanks to the generous financial support of the Gulf nations. To his great credit, his pragmatism had already played a key role in Yemen's re-union. This great achievement, indeed, covers all defects that might be a by-product of his pragmatic approach and policy.

The bad news, is that both his tribalism and pragmatism were counterproductive. Since the early years of the second decade of his ruling, his tribal-style leadership has been causing huge damage to the country's economy, stability and image. While pragmatism in politics is a norm, tribalism is lethal. Remember, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Yemeni leadership led by president Saleh had acted tribally. That tribal reaction to that Arab catastrophe had nothing to do with politics, in deed, Saleh was given in to his tribal sense rather than his proven pragmatism. That uncalculated maneuver had opened pondera -box for Yemenis who had to pay high price for his tribal attitude.

Tribalism has been steadily and increasingly promoted under president Saleh. Today sheikhs and tribal figures yield much more influence than intellectuals, politicians and community leaders. His 30 years leadership has largely tribalised the state's institutions in terms of manners of leadership, management and function. This can be seen clearly in the Parliament. He also has inspired great deal of tribal oriented actions, such as vengeance and kidnapping, to mention few.

In short, his pragmatism has largely enabled him to put northern local opposition under control in 1980s, to defeat southern rivals in 1990s, to do away with his partners in the early years of the recent decade. Meanwhile, his tribalism has seriously undermined his pragmatism. Hence, has constantly failed to build an institutionalized state, enforce the rule of law and bring up good governance.

AbdulSalam Al-Qarari is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Afaq Gadidah Magazine.