While outside observers fixate on al Qa'eda and the Houthis, a more consequential struggle is underway over the right to rule Yemen, Gregory D Johnsen writes. In early August Hamid al Ahmar, a rising young star in Yemen's opposition, appeared on Al Jazeera and accused Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, of "high treason". Saleh, Al Ahmar said, had turned the state into a family empire; at one point he even called on the president to step down for "violating the constitution". His remarks were so critical that the interviewer asked if he would be returning to Yemen after the show. "Without a doubt," he replied.
There was a long and heavy pause before Luna al Shibl, the host of the programme, repeated her question. One could forgive the Syrian-born anchorwoman her confusion and for asking yet again, moments later and still in apparent disbelief, if Al Ahmar was afraid for his life. But then Yemen has often confounded and confused outsiders, who invariably want to compare it to something it is not - most recently, Afghanistan or Somalia - instead of simply taking it as it is. Even those who are paid to dissect Yemen's politics tend to find themselves doing more imagining of the country from behind heavily guarded walls than they do investigating it.
The night Al Ahmar went on Al Jazeera I met a handful of political and economic officers from the US Embassy for dinner at the Mövenpick Hotel, Sana'a's newest and most expensive western import - and one of only two places in the capital where US officials are cleared to eat. I listened impatiently as one young diplomat boasted about her excellent connections across various segments of Yemeni society - and dropped the names of several prominent politicians she knew. After a couple of minutes I interrupted to ask about Al Ahmar. "Oh yes, we are great friends."
But when I asked if she was excited to see what he had to say that evening on Al Jazeera, she was surprised. "He didn't tell me he was going on." The fact that his appearance had been publicised in numerous announcements in the local Arabic papers seemed to have escaped the notice of the US Embassy's political section. The interaction was typical of my time with US officials. US policy towards Yemen is a frightening mixture of ignorance and arrogance. Much of Yemen has become a blank map that diplomats miss on their frantic commute between a fortified housing compound and a fortified embassy.
One of the many things that the US and other outside observers are missing is the growing struggle for political power and control of the state, in which Al Ahmar is a central character. Just prior to his television appearance on Al Jazeera, Al Ahmar was tapped as one of three candidates most likely to succeed President Saleh by the pan-Arab daily Al Quds al Arabi. The other two: the president's eldest son, Ahmad, and one of his nephews, Yahya.
The list is suggestive of the centralisation of politics in Yemen over the past three decades. Though in republican Yemen anyone could prevail in the elections currently scheduled for 2013, the contest for control of the state is now said to be one between two families, both of which are known, in a bit of an Arabic pun, as Bayt al Ahmar - a reference to Hamid's surname and to the village of Bayt al Ahmar, Saleh's birthplace.
Saleh, who is constitutionally mandated to step down in November 2013, has ruled Yemen for the past 31 years, a task he invariably likens to "dancing on the heads of snakes." In Saleh's interviews with western journalists that sentiment is often coupled with a reference to a 1979 Washington Post article from the early days of his rule, in which a US intelligence analyst predicts that Saleh will not last six months in power. The former serves to illustrate how dangerous attempting to govern such a fractious country can be, while the latter is a reminder that the west has never understood Yemen. Both do more than feed the ego of a man who once fashioned himself as a Yemeni Napoleon for a campaign poster, sitting astride a rearing white charger with a Yemeni flag draped around him like a cape.
The obvious, if unspoken point to each hint and reference is that only Saleh is capable of running Yemen. It is hard to argue with his logic. He has survived, which is often what passes for success in this part of the world. Of Saleh's four predecessors none lasted more than seven years in power; Yemen's previous two presidents were both assassinated within a nine-month span. Saleh survived his early, chaotic days in office by surrounding himself with relatives, childhood friends and close confidantes. This process of consolidating power has morphed to the point where the military and intelligence command structure - the true power of the state - resembles the family tree of Saleh's own tribe.
But the once-strong bonds of loyalty within Saleh's Sanhan tribe are beginning to show signs of strain. The trick for Saleh is to convince both internal and external powers that just as he was the only man capable of holding Yemen together in the past his son is the only one talented enough to replicate his feat in the future. It has been a difficult sell, exposing both personal and ideological fault lines within the president's family, or at least what passes for ideology in a world where survival dictates decisions. In the end, the clan will likely coalesce around a single successor, aware that allowing private disputes to become public will tilt the game beyond their control.
Hamid Al Ahmar remains the most credible outside contender, drawing on a strong base of family prestige and personal charisma. Like Yemen itself, Al Ahmar is a complicated mixture of what outsiders often like to think of as contradictions. He is a businessman, a politician and a tribesman, not so much switching hats as his audience dictates but rather wearing a unique arrangement of all three that allows him to be all things to each constituent.
The holder of a bachelor's degree in economics, Al Ahmar has amassed a business empire that includes a bank, a phone company, a newspaper and a satellite channel that the government has been attempting to block for months. In the West he would be labelled a career politician, having served in Yemen's parliament since it was established in 1993. But it is his identity as a tribesman that is most important in Yemen.
One of 10 sons of the late Sheikh Abdullah al Ahmar, the head of the Hashid tribal confederation, Hamid was born into power. In addition to his tribal role, Sheikh Abdullah was also the head of the country's largest opposition party, speaker of parliament and, importantly but unofficially, Saudi Arabia's main ally in Yemen. The most politically astute and ambitious of his brothers, Hamid was still passed over when it came time for his father to name a successor. Sheikh Abdullah's final will, written from his house in Riyadh, instead named his eldest son, Sadiq, to replace him as the head of Hashid.
Although Hamid was reportedly hurt by the snub, the move may end up benefiting him in the end, allowing him to bypass a narrow tribal constituency in favour of a more national following while still maintaining his tribal ties. In a sense it is the best of both worlds: he can depend on his tribe but is not beholden to it. Whether he can also depend on another one of his father's key bases of support will be an important question in Hamid's attempt to seize power. For all the uproar over his interview, one of the least-commented-on portions was his discussion of Saudi Arabia, the wild card of Yemeni politics. Critical and nearly xenophobic in his comments about the United States and its role in Yemen, Hamid was much more conciliatory toward his father's former patron.
Saudi Arabia is casting about for ideas on what to do with its southern neighbour. The Kingdom's decades-old policy of favouring the Hashid over the Bakil, Yemen's other large tribal confederation, has fallen out of favour. But other than evening out the subsidies between the two, the Saudis seem as lost as everyone else. The Yemen portfolio, which was once the carefully guarded territory of the recently ill Crown Prince Sultan, now appears to be up for grabs, with different princes making a play for as much of the file as they can hold.
Concerned with the threat from al Qa'eda and cautioned by its recent adventure on the border with the Houthis, Saudi Arabia is looking for a successor it can work with. Securing the Kingdom's support will do much to strengthen Hamid's hand. But he will need more than soundbites and Saudi money to prevent a relative of the president from inheriting the republic. There is still no road map for a peaceful transfer of power in Yemen, only empty rhetoric and scores of bad examples. Overthrowing both family rule and history will not be easy.
Gregory D Johnsen is a PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton.