Yemen's Former Dictator Is Still Pulling Strings In Current Conflict

03/30/2015 06:09 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2015

When Ali Abdullah Saleh came to power in Yemen in 1978, analysts at the CIA predicted that he wouldn't last six months. Almost 40 years later, Saleh is still a political force to be reckoned with.

Saleh, now 73 years old, occupies a unique place among the old guard of authoritarian leaders in the Middle East and North Africa. As the wave of uprisings across the region left heads of state imprisoned or dead, Saleh opted amid massive government protests in 2012 to negotiate for immunity and resign his post after 33 years as president. But while the deal took Saleh from power, it didn't take the power from Saleh.

He remained one of the biggest power brokers in the country. Saleh's successor, current President Abd-Rabo Mansour Hadi, has accused the ousted leader of leveraging his influence to destabilize the transitional government and back rebel groups. The United States, which supports President Hadi, has expressed similar concerns.

Now, as the nation is in the midst of civil war between Houthi militias and those loyal to the Hadi government, Saleh appears to be using the crisis to assert his power once again.

Political maneuvering is second nature to Saleh, who once said that Yemeni politics is like "dancing on the heads of snakes." Analysts have described him as a veteran operator with a Machiavellian ability to manage Yemen's different sectarian demands, which under his rule involved tactical allocation of state funds to rival factions and careful alliance-building.

Saleh seemingly has no permanent allies, but only permanent interests. While he once fought multiple wars against the Houthi rebels, he is now widely accused of being a large factor behind their rise to power. Saleh still commands loyalty among many in the armed forces, and some key members of the country's air force and Republican Guard have defected to join the Houthi rebellion, The New York Times reports.

The U.N. Security Council levied sanctions on the former leader and two Houthi commanders last year for threatening the peace.

On Saturday, Saleh appeared on Yemeni television calling for elections, and attempted to stir up public support against airstrikes that a Saudi Arabia-led coalition has been conducting against the Houthi rebels.

While Saleh has claimed that neither he nor a member of his family would run for president, analysts say he still has his eye on power. Saleh's goal “is not particularly to create chaos in Yemen, but to create enough instability where he and his family are perceived to be the only viable candidates,” Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group, told Bloomberg.

Now that Yemen is the site of a war that includes Saudi-led airstrikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the instability Saleh helped create has indeed tipped over into outright chaos. Saleh may find ample opportunity for political gain in that chaos as the crisis continues to overtake his country.

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