[Hot Issue] Does Saleh’s Death Mark the Beginning of the End for Yemen’s Houthi Rebels?

Houthi fighters

On December 4, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president, was assassinated by Houthi rebels. Saleh’s death was precipitated by his attempt to end his alliance with the Houthis. His assassination marks the end of an important chapter in the history of modern Yemen and will result in a substantial reconfiguration of political and military relationships in Yemen. Most significantly, Saleh’s death and the Houthis’ deadly crackdown on Saleh loyalists has endangered the already fragile alliances between the Houthis and tribal and military elites. While the Houthis are now the sole power in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, their victory is Pyrrhic and may well help bring about their eventual defeat.


Longtime Yemeni president and strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh was assassinated on December 4. The news of Ali Abdullah’s death at the hands of Houthi fighters was as shocking as it was improbable (al-Jazeera, December 10). Saleh, who became president of North Yemen in 1978 and then president of the newly unified Yemen in 1990, made a career out of staying one step ahead of his enemies. Having reluctantly ceded power in February 2012, the 65-year-old Saleh was determined to reclaim his place in power, no matter the cost. Ultimately, this determination cost him his life, and it will likely cost thousands more Yemenis theirs.

Saleh’s legacy is one that is characterized by violence and corruption (al-Jazeera, February 25, 2015). In many respects, however, Saleh was a source of relative stability within Yemen—at least in the years before 9/11. For much of his reign as president of North Yemen and then of a unified Yemen in 1990, Saleh understood the limits of his power. He knew that there were, especially in North Yemen, very clear lines that could not be crossed if he wanted to remain in power. Saleh respected the authority of Yemen’s tribes—at least in the north—and worked assiduously over the years to curry the favor of the tribal elites that he needed to remain in power.

Saleh’s ability to build alliances—admittedly ones that reinforced his power—and co-opt Yemen’s numerous sources of authority acted as a force of stability. While Saleh never again enjoyed the degree of influence that he possessed before the 2011 popular uprising against him, Saleh and those around him remained key participants in Yemen’s often bloody and always complex political arena.

Saleh’s death will result in a significant reconfiguration of political alliances in northwest Yemen and will further harden the divisions between the Houthi rebels, southerners and what is left of the ancien regime. The assassination of Saleh is likely a Pyrrhic victory for the Houthis. His death further limits the Houthis’ options and gives the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) additional political cover for intensifying their attacks on northwest Yemen. With the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the future of Yemen—especially a unified Yemen—is even less certain. What is certain is that the war there will become even more deadly over the coming months—particularly for Yemen’s already long suffering civilians.

A Troubled Legacy

When Saleh first came to power in 1978, CIA officers bet that he would not last six months. [1] Saleh ended up serving as president of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and then a united Yemen for 34 years. Born into a poor family that was part of what was then a weak tribe, the Sanhan, there was little to suggest that Saleh would become one of the most important figures in the history of modern Yemen. Saleh spent his early years in the army— first as an enlisted man, and then as an officer— rising to the rank of colonel before he made the move into politics. After the assassination of President Ahmed bin Hussein al-Ghashmi in June 1978, Saleh cleverly maneuvered his way into the presidency.

Saleh’s pragmatic education, and his origins in a poor family from a weak tribe, facilitated his move into the presidency. Much like the CIA, Yemen’s elites underestimated his abilities. Saleh understood that he could only rely on himself and a small clique of trusted allies that he had been cultivating since he first joined the army. Unlike the presidents that preceded him, he could not draw on a large base of tribal support nor could he rely on connections to the Yemeni elite. Saleh learned early on how to build alliances that would stand the test of Yemeni politics. Saleh relied on two things to cement these alliances: first, he kept his word (at least in his early years as an army officer and as president) and came through with the government posts, lucrative business contracts and cash payments promised to those who supported him, especially those who supported him during his first years as president. Second, he was merciless with those who attempted to cross him. Though even in this he was careful not to go too far, Saleh knew that he had to limit his ruthlessness if he wanted to remain in power. Yemen’s tribes (at least in the north) and the well-armed Yemeni populace would not allow for the kind of violence used by other heads of state in the Middle East.

Instead, Saleh primarily relied on co-option, graft and bribes to sustain his power. His use of violence—before 9/11—was selective. For much of his presidency, Saleh adopted the tactic of Air Power Policing. This tactic was first used by the British, who controlled Aden and the surrounding protectorates (south Yemen) until its independence in 1967, to exert at least limited control over restive tribes in the protectorates. [2] The British air force would bomb the homelands of a tribe or section of a tribe in order to get the tribe to desist from behavior that the British disapproved of. In most cases, the British would issue warnings to the targeted group, which indicated that they would be bombed at a specific date and time. Casualties, if they occurred at all, were limited, although this changed dramatically after 1960 when the British launched lethal operations in an attempt to forestall independence.

Air power was critical to Saleh for much of his presidency. He used Air Power Policing tactics to punish tribes in restive provinces like al-Jawf and Marib. These areas and many like them were essentially off-limits to the Yemeni Army, unless they wanted to go in force. For the first three decades of his reign, Saleh’s policy of using measured violence and bribes worked—at least in the north. In the south, after the 1994 civil war in which southerners tried to re-assert their independence by seceding from a newly unified Yemen, Saleh relied far more on violence. This was because he could: southern Yemen’s tribes were relatively weak and poorly armed due to the policies of what was the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).

After the advent of the U.S.-led “war on terror,” Saleh’s approach to governance underwent a marked change. The United States began to provide weapons, money and Special Forces trainers to the Republican Guard—the branch of the army that was charged with protecting the regime and ultimately led by Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed Ali Saleh— to facilitate the Yemeni government’s targeting of al-Qaeda. The inflow of resources emboldened Saleh (Wikileaks, October 2004; The Guardian, February 3, 2015; al Jazzera, January 4, 2010). The hi-tech weaponry and hundreds of millions of dollars (the exact amount is classified) enhanced his ability to project power. Long referred to as the mayor of Sana’a by Yemen’s more powerful tribes, Saleh was determined to assert his control over the entire country and thereby secure the presidency for his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh.

Saleh did engage al-Qaeda, but he was careful not to eliminate the group whose presence was bringing him hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, weapons and technical expertise. Instead, Saleh focused much of his effort on targeting the Houthis—a Zaidi Shia rebel group—whose presence and influence were limited to their home governorate of Sa’da. Saleh fought six wars against the Houthis, all of which he either lost or ended in a stalemate (Wikileaks, December 2009). After years of economic and political marginalization, southerners began organizing and demanding an end to what they rightly viewed as a kind of economic strip-mining of the south by the north (most of Yemen’s oil and gas reserves are in the south). Rather than addressing their concerns, Saleh targeted the leadership of the parties that were advocating for either secession or redress of their many concerns.

With the coming of the so-called Arab Spring, the Yemeni people’s patience with Saleh and his increasingly violent and kleptocratic tactics drew to an end. The streets of cities across the country filled with protesters calling for him to step down. He only stepped down in 2012 in favor of his perennially weak vice-president, Abd Raboo Mansur Hadi, whom he had chosen because of his lack of a powerbase in either the south, where he is from, or the north. Just as Saleh could have easily predicted, Hadi failed to build any support in Yemen. By 2013, Hadi’s attempt to reform the military by purging it of Saleh loyalists was in tatters.

A Fatal Bargain: Learning From the Master 

In September 2014, Houthi rebels took over Sana’a with few shots fired (al-Monitor, September 22, 2014). The Houthis had been the de facto rulers of a large swath of northwest Yemen since shortly after the 2011 uprising against Saleh. Between 2011 and 2014, the Houthis consolidated their hold on the governorates of Hajja and parts of al-Jawf. They successfully eliminated the Salafists (both militants and quietists) that were active in areas near the border with Saudi Arabia. The presence of Salafists—many of whom were funded by sources within Saudi Arabia—was one of the key drivers for the initial organization of what became the Houthi movement. As Zaidi Shia, they are regarded as apostates by Salafists. Despite technically being a Zaidi himself, Saleh also funded Salafist groups—primarily militants—as a counterbalance to what he perceived as the Houthis’ growing power.

The Houthis successfully countered far superior forces of the Yemeni Army and, in 2009-10, Saudi Arabia. Two things aided them: first, rampant corruption in the Yemeni military, which allowed them to buy and “capture” large amounts of weapons and materiel. Second, they learned from Saleh and directed much of their energy toward building alliances with the tribes, clans and sub-clans on the periphery of their traditional homeland, Sa’da. These efforts were aided by the brutality of the Yemeni Armed Forces, which used punitive tactics that included leveling entire villages, and, much like Saudi Arabia is doing now, by targeting productive farmland in an attempt to starve the area into submission (Yemen Extra, January 3; The Guardian, December 12). The 2011 uprising against Saleh meant that the few remaining military forces in Sa’da left, thereby confirming the Houthis’ de facto control of the area.

After 2011, the Houthis continued to build alliances and mop up resistance. By 2014, with Hadi’s regime teetering, the Houthis swept into Sana’a and took over (al-Jazeera, September 27, 2014). As formidable as the Houthis are as guerrilla fighters, they would have never been able to take Sana’a without the aid of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Most of Yemen’s military—at least the better trained and equipped parts of it—remained loyal to Saleh. This allowed him to strike his bargain with the Houthis. They would be allowed into Sana’a without a fight and in exchange, Saleh—or so he thought—would use them to eliminate Hadi and his government. By letting the Houthis do the dirty work, Saleh could keep his hands clean; and when the time was right, he or his son would reclaim control of the country. Saleh was betting on the support of the tribes that surround Sana’a, the so-called collar tribes, to come to his aid when he decided to displace the Houthis. What he had not counted on was the political aptitude of the Houthis. They beat Saleh at his own game by slowly building alliances with those tribes whose support they needed. These alliances were, just as with Saleh, supported by bribes, graft and, when needed, force.

Sometime before December 4, the master of Machiavellian politics miscalculated. Saleh attempted to make a deal with the Saudis, betraying the Houthis in exchange for Saudi Arabia’s support (Gulf News, December 3). For once, neither the army units in and near Sana’a nor the tribal militias rallied to defend him. On December 4, Saleh was assassinated, killed by a single shot to the head, presumably by Houthi rebels (Gulf News, December 4, 2017). The questions around the “how” and “whys” of his death are already legion in Yemen. Like most things in Yemen, however, the story is complex and the truth may never be known. What is certain is that Saleh’s death has reconfigured the political matrix in Yemen.

The End of the Houthis?

Saleh’s death was greeted with consternation by many within the upper echelons of the Houthi leadership, which is itself diffuse and in a state of flux. The Houthi leadership—at least the less fanatical among them—understood that Saleh’s tacit support, while not to be trusted, provided a veneer of legitimacy to the Houthis. Saleh’s backing—however limited—allowed the Houthis to claim that they were ruling Sana’a and a large part of northwest Yemen as part of a coalition that included Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC). Saleh’s backing also brought with it the support of many of the Yemeni Army’s long-serving general and field grade officers. This allowed the Houthis to cement and maintain their control of northwest Yemen. Without the acquiescence of a large part of the army, it is likely that the Houthis’ core forces, which number well-under ten thousand men, would be forced to retreat to their strongholds in the governorate of Sa’da.

The initial reaction of the Houthi leadership in Sana’a following the news of Saleh’s assassination can best be described as controlled panic. The Houthi leadership feared that the alliances they had formed with Saleh-allied officers and even some parts of the tribes whose territory surrounds Sana’a would quickly unravel. To forestall this, the Houthis immediately dispatched liaisons to the heads of tribes and to those military officers whose loyalty was questionable. The liaisons were tasked with securing support through a combination of promises of additional contracts and payments and threats of violence by Houthi fighters, who are, to a considerable degree, feared by even Yemen’s best armed and organized tribes. At the same time, Houthi fighters fanned out across Sana’a and conducted a well-planned and brutally efficient mopping up operation. [3] They targeted Saleh loyalists by either killing them outright or arresting them (Arab News, December 8). Concurrent with this, the Houthis escalated their crackdown on journalists and anyone deemed to be critical of them (Arab News, December 26). The Houthis’ ability to lockdown Sana’a and eliminate those who posed a threat to their continued control is further evidence of the Houthis’ formidable ability to co-opt elites and to conduct highly efficient military operations in a challenging urban environment.

The Houthis’ ability to maintain their power over the medium term is questionable. While the Houthis were able to rapidly overcome the immediate challenges to their leadership following Saleh’s assassination, which made them the sole power in Sana’a, it is likely that his death also marks the beginning of the end for the Houthis’ control of northwest Yemen. Several high-ranking Houthi leaders recognize this. Following the assassination of Saleh, the Houthis began moving heavy weaponry and other materiel to strongholds in the governorates of Amran and Sa’da—both located north of Sana’a—in preparation for a possible retreat from Sana’a. [4]

The Houthis are under pressure on three fronts. In the east, a combination of tribal militias, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) units, and Saudi and Emirati funded proxies are pushing Houthi aligned forces out of the strategic province of al-Bayda (al-Masdar, December 24). In the west, Saudi and Emirati backed forces, along with some reconstituted units of the Yemeni Army, are pushing up Yemen’s Red Sea Coast toward the critical port of Hodeidah (The National, December 10). In the north, in the governorate of al-Jawf, which abuts the Saudi border, tribal militias and Saudi and Emirati proxies are engaging in offensive operations against Houthi aligned forces in what appears to be an attempt to link up with anti-Houthi tribal militias in the governorate of Marib.

A war on three fronts will push the battle-tested Houthi fighters’ capabilities to their limits. However, a defeat of the Houthis’ militarily is unlikely. The success of the Saudi and Emirati backed forces is ultimately dependent on the dubious reliability and loyalty of key tribal militias. If the alliances that the Houthis have built with tribal and military elites are sustained, it is unlikely that the forces opposing them will be able to evict the Houthis from Sana’a. With even the tacit support of just some of the so-called collar tribes that ring Sana’a, the Houthis can easily hold off the forces opposing them. The port of Hodeidah, which is critical to getting food and aid into northern Yemen, is not so easily defended. Thus, it is likely that Emirati and Saudi backed forces will focus much of their effort on taking the port. However, the fight for Hodeidah is likely to be incredibly costly for all sides and, in particular, for civilians. Even if Saudi and Emirati backed forces do take Hodeidah, the Houthis can easily retreat to the rugged and easily defended mountains just east of the port.


The Houthi leadership and the capabilities of their fighters have been continually underestimated by Yemeni elites and by foreign governments, most particularly those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saleh himself underestimated the Houthi leaderships’ ability to model his own strategy of building alliances, co-opting tribal and military elites by sharing the spoils of war, and by threatening or eliminating those who do not comply.

The Houthis are now deeply embedded in the political, martial and economic fabric of northwest Yemen. They have slowly and methodically peeled away many of those who were loyal to Saleh and other longstanding sources of authority. However, the majority of these carefully crafted alliances are fragile and subject to ongoing renegotiation. The Houthis’ position has undoubtedly been weakened by the assassination of Saleh. Their initial reaction to Saleh’s death was swift and deadly. It preserved their hold on Sana’a, but it has cost them a great deal of political capital. Their heavy-handed tactics, which include mass arrests, summary executions and hostage taking, have endangered their alliances with northwest based elites. Much like Saleh post 9/11, the Houthis are viewed by many Yemeni tribal and military leaders as having gone too far in their quest for power and, increasingly, wealth.

More than anything else, it is their own hubris that will likely defeat the Houthis. However, this defeat will not be in anyway total. At worst, the Houthi leadership and their core contingent of followers and fighters will retreat to Sa’da where, if necessary, they could fight on for years. Though, this scenario is unlikely to play out anytime soon. While the Saudi and Emirati led war in Yemen is—for the first time in nearly three years—making limited progress in pushing Houthi allied forces out of some of the areas they control, their involvement in Yemen helps sustain the Houthis. The Saudi-led aerial campaign has devastated northwestern Yemen and has resulted in hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties. Antipathy toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE — both are viewed as invaders, with the UAE also viewed as a colonizing force — is the one thing that unites many Yemenis. As one of the best organized and most capable fighting forces in Yemen, the Houthis feed on this antipathy and use the actions of the Saudis and Emiratis to cast themselves as the defenders of Yemen.



[1] See: Sarah Phillips, Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, Routledge, 2011.

[2] See: David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939, Manchester University Press, 1990.

[3] Interview with Yemen based journalist, December 2017; interview with a former government official, December 2017.

[4] Interviews with Yemen based analysts, December 2017.