Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 November 2020

Saleh blocks key reforms needed in a 'new' Yemen

The regime has changed but precious little has been done to tackle corruption, nepotism and patronage politics.

When Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February, he pledged to hand over "the banner of the revolution, of the republic, of freedom, of security and of stability ... to safe hands". What he didn't say, but what many Yemenis suspected, was that those "safe hands" would belong to members of his own family, his own tribe and his own loyalists.

President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi has since shown more independence than many expected. But Mr Saleh's negotiated departure earlier this year (in exchange for judicial immunity) did not end the political feuds - and occasional armed skirmishes - that have hamstrung the country for too long. As the International Crisis Group put it recently, Yemen remains locked in "a political game of musical chairs", with competing factions jostling for positions of power. During his decades-long misrule, Mr Saleh always relied on playing one party off against another. This "new" Yemen looks remarkably familiar.

At the weekend, members of the Republican Guard (an elite force commanded by Mr Saleh's son, Ahmad Al Saleh) encircled the defence ministry in Sanaa. The demonstration, which defied a government order that would break up army divisions commanded by Mr Hadi's rivals, ended without incident, but underscored how divided the military remains.

Mr Hadi has challenged the old order - of which he once was a part. His attempt to reorganise the army would establish a "presidential protection force", taking three brigades of Republican Guards as well as another from the First Armoured Division, commanded by General Ali Mohsen, another powerful figure in the military. The jury is still out if Mr Hadi is reforming a broken political system, simply consolidating his own power or - most probably - doing a bit of both.

Sanaa has also increased cooperation with the US military, leading to intensifying drone attacks (that are contributing to radicalisation of the countryside) and ground offensives that have taken territory back from Al Qaeda-related militants. But precious little has been achieved to tackle Yemen's dire developmental challenges, as the US and GCC states continue the security-first focus that typified relations with Mr Saleh.

Yemenis call their ousted president "the ghost" - his presence is still felt, although he is rarely seen. The Saleh faction may be weakened, but it is still a player in this power struggle.

With or without the Salehs, however, Yemen's ruling class is plagued by corruption, nepotism and patronage politics. Exorcising Mr Saleh's ghost would not solve all of those problems, but it might be the essential first step.

Updated: August 13, 2012 04:00 AM

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