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Ali Abdullah Saleh
علي عبدالله صالح
President Ali Abdullah Saleh.jpg
Saleh in the Kremlin, 2004
1st President of Yemen
In office
22 May 1990 – 27 February 2012
Prime Minister
  • Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas
  • Muhammad Said al-Attar
  • Abdul Aziz Abdul Ghani
  • Faraj Said Bin Ghanem
  • Abd Al-Karim Al-Iryani
  • Abdul Qadir Bajamal
  • Ali Muhammad Mujawar
  • Mohammed Basindawa
Vice President
  • Ali Salem al Beidh
  • Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi
Preceded by
  • Office established;
    Himself as President of North Yemen
  • Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas as President of South Yemen
Succeeded by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi
President of North Yemen
In office
18 July 1978 – 22 May 1990
Prime Minister
  • Abdul Aziz Abdul Ghani
  • Abd Al-Karim Al-Iryani
  • Abdul Aziz Abdul Ghani
Vice President Abdul Karim Abdullah al-Arashi
Preceded by Abdul Karim Abdullah al-Arashi
Succeeded by Himself as President of Yemen
Chairman of the General People's Congress
In office
24 August 1982 – 4 December 2017
Disputed with Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi starting 21 October 2015
Preceded by Party established
Succeeded by Sadeq Amin Abu Rass
Personal details
Born (1947-03-21)21 March 1947
Beit al-Ahmar, Sanhan District, Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen
Died 4 December 2017(2017-12-04) (aged 70)
outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen
Cause of death Assassination
Political party General People's Congress
(m. 1964)
Children 7, including Ahmed
Military service
Allegiance  Yemen
Years of service 1958–2017
Rank Field marshal
  • North Yemen Civil War
  • NDF Rebellion
  • Yemenite War of 1979
  • Yemeni Civil War (1994)
  • Hanish Islands conflict
  • Yemeni Revolution
  • Yemeni Crisis
  • Battle of Sa'dah
  • Battle of Sana'a (2011)
  • Yemeni Civil War (2015–present)
  • Battle of Sana'a (2014)
  • Lahij insurgency
  • Battle of Aden (2015)
  • Battle of Aden Airport
  • Battle of Taiz (2015–present)
  • Battle of Sanaa (2017) 

Ali Abdullah Saleh al-Ahmar (, ʿAlī ʿAbdullāh Ṣāliḥ al-Aḥmar; 21 March 1947 – 4 December 2017) was a Yemeni politician who served as the first President of Yemen, from Yemeni unification on 22 May 1990 to his resignation on 25 February 2012, following the Yemeni Revolution. Previously, he had served as President of the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen, from July 1978 to 22 May 1990, after the assassination of President Ahmad al-Ghashmi.

Saleh developed deeper ties with Western powers, especially the United States, in the War on Terror. Islamic terrorism may have been used and encouraged by Ali Abdullah Saleh to win Western support and for disruptive politically motivated attacks. In 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, which spread across North Africa and the Middle East (including Yemen), Saleh's time in office became increasingly precarious until eventually he was ousted as president in 2012. He was succeeded by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had been vice-president since 1994.

In May 2015, Saleh openly allied with the Houthis (Ansar Allah) during the Yemeni Civil War, in which a protest movement and subsequent insurgency succeeded in capturing Yemen's capital, Sana'a, causing President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to resign and flee the country. In December 2017, he declared his withdrawal from his coalition with the Houthis and instead sided with his former enemies – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and President Hadi.

On 4 December 2017, during a battle between Houthi and Saleh supporters in Sanaa, the Houthis accused Saleh of "treason", and he was killed by a Houthi sniper. Reports were that Saleh was killed while trying to flee his compound in a car; however, this was denied by his party officials, who said he was executed at his house.

Early life

Ali Abdullah Salih old picture
Saleh in his youth

Ali Abdullah Saleh was born on 21 March 1947 to a poor family in Beit al-Ahmar village (Red House village) from the Sanhan (سنحان) clan (Sanhan District), whose territories lie some 20 kilometres southeast of the capital, Sana'a. Saleh's father, Abdallah Saleh died when Saleh was still young and after he divorced Ali Abdullah's mother. His mother later remarried to her deceased former husband's brother, Muhammad Saleh, who soon became Saleh's mentor and stepfather. Saleh's brother Mohammed was a Major General and had three children: Yahya, Tareq, and Ammar, who all served under Saleh during his rule.

Saleh's cousin, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar from the Al Ahmar family, which is also part of Sanhan clan is often confused with the same-named leading family of the Hashid tribe, with which the Sanhan clan was ally. The Hashid tribe, in turn, belongs to the larger Yemeni parent group, the Kahlan tribe. The clans Sanhan and Khawlan are said to be related.

Rise to the presidency

Young Saleh of Yemen
Private Saleh in the Imamate Army of Yemen uniform

Saleh received his primary education at Ma'alama village before leaving to join the North Yemeni Armed Forces in 1958 at the age of 11 as an infantry soldier, and was admitted to the North Yemen Military Academy in 1960. Three years later, in 1963, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Armoured Corps. He participated in the Nasserist-inspired Army Coup of 1962, which was instrumental in the removal of King Muhammad al-Badr and the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic. During the North Yemen Civil War he served in the Tank Corps, attaining the rank of major by 1969. He received further training as a staff officer in the Higher Command and staff C Course in Iraq, between 1970 and 1971, and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He became a full colonel in 1976 and was given command of a mechanised brigade. In 1977, the President of North Yemen, Ahmed bin Hussein al-Ghashmi, appointed him as military governor of Ta'izz.

After al-Ghashmi was assassinated on 24 June 1978, Colonel Saleh was appointed to be a member of the four-man provisional presidency council and deputy to the general staff commander. On 17 July 1978, Saleh was elected by the Parliament to be the President of the Yemen Arab Republic, while simultaneously holding the positions of chief of staff and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Governance in the Middle East and North Africa: A Handbook describes Saleh as being neither from a "sheikhly family" nor a "large or important tribe", but instead rising to power through "his own means", and creating a patronage system with his family at the top. His seven brothers were placed "in key positions", and later he relied on "sons, daughters, sons-in-law and nephews". Beneath the positions occupied by his extended family, Saleh "relied heavily on the loyalty" of two tribes, his own Sanhan tribe and the Hamdan San'a tribe of his mentor, the late president Ahmad al-Ghashmi. The New York Times Middle Eastern correspondent Robert F. Worth described Saleh as reaching an understanding with powerful feudal "big sheikhs" to become "part of a Mafia-style spoils system that substituted for governance". Worth accused Saleh of exceeding the aggrandisement of other Middle Eastern strongmen by managing to "rake off tens of billions of dollars in public funds for himself and his family" despite the extreme poverty of his country.

North Yemen presidency

Saleh 1978
Ali Abdullah Saleh in 1978
Saleh 1988
Saleh in 1988

On 10 August 1978, Saleh ordered the execution of 30 officers who were charged with being part of a conspiracy against his rule. Saleh was promoted to major general in 1980, elected as the secretary-general of the General People's Congress party on 30 August 1982, and re-elected president of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1983.

The People’s Constituent Assembly, which had been created somewhat earlier, selected Col. Ali Abdullah Saleh as al-Ghashmī’s successor. Despite early public skepticism and a serious coup attempt in late 1978, Saleh managed to conciliate most factions, to improve relations with Yemen’s neighbours, and to resume various programs of economic and political development and institutionalization. More firmly in power in the 1980s, he created the political organization that was to become known as his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and steered Yemen into the age of oil.

In the late 1980s, Saleh was under considerable international pressure to permit his country's Jewish citizens to travel freely to places abroad. Passports were eventually issued to them, which facilitated their unrestricted travel.

Unified Yemen presidency

Qaddafi and saleh 1990
Libyan leader Gaddafi and Saleh in May 1990

The decline of the Soviet Union severely weakened the status of South Yemen, and, in 1990, the North and South agreed to unify after years of negotiations. The South accepted Saleh as President of the unified country, while Ali Salim al-Beidh served as the Vice President and a member of the Presidential Council.

After Iraq lost the Gulf War, Yemeni workers were deported from Kuwait by the restored government.

In the 1993 parliamentary election, the first held after unification, Saleh's General People's Congress won 122 of 301 seats.

Terrorist links

Saleh Giovanardi
Saleh shaking hands with Carlo Giovanardi in 2000

Around 1994, jihadists from Ayman al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad attempted to regroup in Yemen following a harsh crackdown in Egypt. In this, they were tacitly supported by the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, as he found them useful in his fight against southern separatists in the war of 1994. After using Islamic militants to repress the separatists and keep the country under his rule, Saleh turned a blind eye to their activities, and allowed their sympathizers to work in his intelligence services.

Military promotion

On 24 December 1997, Parliament approved Saleh's promotion to the rank of field marshal, making him highest-ranking military officer in Yemen.

He became Yemen's first directly elected president in the 1999 presidential election, winning 96.2% of the vote. The only other candidate, Najeeb Qahtan Al-Sha'abi, was the son of Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi, a former president of South Yemen. Though a member of Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party, Najeeb ran as an independent.

1999 election

Aa salih with cheney
Dick Cheney and Saleh in Sanaa, 2002

After the 1999 elections the Parliament passed a law extending presidential terms from five to seven years, extending parliamentary terms from four to six years, and creating a 111-member, presidentially-appointed council of advisors with legislative power. This move prompted Freedom House to downgrade their rating of political freedom in Yemen from 5 to 6.

2006 election

Vladimir Putin with Ali Abdullah Saleh
Saleh and Putin in the Kremlin, 2004

In July 2005, during the 27th-anniversary celebrations of his presidency, Saleh announced that he would "not contest the [presidential] elections" in September 2006. He expressed hope that "all political parties – including the opposition and the General People's Congress – find young leaders to compete in the elections because we have to train ourselves in the practice of peaceful succession." However, in June 2006, Saleh changed his mind and accepted his party's nomination as the presidential candidate of the GPC, saying that when he initially decided not to contest the elections his aim was "to establish ground for a peaceful transfer of power", and that he was now, however, bowing to the "popular pressure and appeals of the Yemeni people." Political analyst Ali Saif Hasan said that he had been "sure [President Saleh] would run as a presidential candidate. His announcement in July 2005 – that he would not run – was exceptional and unusual." Mohammed al-Rubai, head of the opposition supreme council, said the president's decision "show[ed] that the president wasn't serious in his earlier decision. I wish he hadn't initially announced that he would step down. There was no need for such farce."

Ali Abdullah Saleh
Saleh and George W. Bush in 2007

In the 2006 presidential election, held on 20 September, Saleh won with 77.2% of the vote. His main rival, Faisal bin Shamlan, received 21.8%. Saleh was sworn in for another term on 27 September.

In December 2005, Saleh stated in a nationally televised broadcast that only his personal intervention had preempted a U.S. occupation of the southern port of Aden after the 2000 USS Cole bombing, stating "By chance, I happened to be down there. If I hadn't been, Aden would have been occupied as there were eight U.S. warships at the entrance to the port." However, transcripts from the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee state that no other warships were in the vicinity at the time.

Colluding with terrorists

Dmitry Medvedev 25 February 2009-1
Saleh with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, 2009

After 9/11, Saleh sided with America in the War on Terror. Following the mysterious "escape" of Al Qaeda convicts in Yemeni custody during the 2006 Yemen prison escape, Saleh would demand more American money and support in order to catch the fugitive.

In an investigative documentary allegations were made that Saleh's government supported and directly helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

An informant for the National Security Bureau (NSB) and Political Security Organization (PSO) made these allegations.Richard Barrett, who was with Britain's MI6 intelligence agency before becoming director of the Al-Qaeda Monitoring Team for the UN, described Mujahid's story of his background in Afghanistan, his return to Yemen and his involvement with AQAP as "credible". The attack on the U.S. Embassy in 2008 was funded by Saleh's nephew and Al Qaeda leaders had close relationships with him. The informant also gave critical intelligence on terrorist movement, attacks and leaders but no action was taken.

Ousted from the presidency


In early 2011, following the Tunisian revolution which resulted in the overthrow of the long-time Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, opposition parties attempted to do the same in Yemen. Opposition elements started leading protests and demanding that Saleh end his three-decade-long rule because of the perceived lack of democratic reform, widespread corruption and human rights abuses carried out by him and his allies. His net worth was estimated to be between 32 and 64 billion dollars with his money spread across multiple accounts in Europe and abroad.

On 2 February 2011, facing a major national uprising, Saleh announced that he would not seek re-election in 2013, but would serve out the remainder of his term. In response to government violence against protesters, eleven MPs of Saleh's party resigned on 23 February. By 5 March, this number had increased to 13, as well as the addition of two deputy ministers.

On 10 March 2011, Saleh announced a referendum on a new constitution, separating the executive and legislative powers. On 18 March, at least 52 people were killed and over 200 injured by government forces when unarmed demonstrators were fired upon in the university square in Sana'a. The president claimed that his security forces were not at the location, and blamed local residents for the massacre.

On 7 April 2011, a U.S. state department cable obtained by WikiLeaks reported the plans of Hamid al-Ahmar, the Islah Party leader, prominent businessman, and de facto leader of Yemen's largest tribal confederation, claiming that he would organize popular demonstrations throughout Yemen aimed at removing President Saleh from power.

On 23 April 2011, facing massive nationwide protests, Saleh agreed to step down under a 30-day transition plan in which he would receive immunity from criminal prosecution. He stated that he planned to hand power over to his vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as part of the deal.

On 18 May 2011, he agreed to sign a deal with opposition groups, stipulating that he would resign within a month; On 23 May, Saleh refused to sign the agreement, leading to renewed protests and the withdrawal of the Gulf Cooperation Council from mediation efforts in Yemen.

Assassination attempt and resignation

On 3 June 2011, Saleh was injured in a bomb attack on his presidential compound. Multiple C-4 (explosive) charges were planted inside the mosque and one exploded when the president and major members of his government were praying. The explosion killed four bodyguards and injured the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, head of the Parliament, governor of Sanaa and many more. The man responsible for speaking at Saleh's public events was reported killed. Saleh suffered burns and shrapnel injuries, but survived, a result that was confirmed by an audio message he sent to state media in which he condemned the attack, but his voice clearly revealed that he was having difficulty in speaking. Government officials tried to downplay the attack by saying he was lightly wounded. The next day he was taken to a military hospital in Saudi Arabia for treatment. According to U.S. government officials, Saleh suffered a collapsed lung and burns on about 40 percent of his body. A Saudi official said that Saleh had undergone two operations: one to remove the shrapnel and a neurosurgery on his neck.

On 4 June 2011, Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was appointed as acting president, while Saleh remained the President of Yemen.

Ali Abdullah Saleh and his brother in 2011

On 7 July 2011, Saleh appeared for his first live television appearance since his injury. He appeared badly burned and his arms were both bandaged. In his speech, he welcomed power-sharing but stressed it should be "within the framework of the constitution and in the framework of the law". On 19 September 2011, he was pictured without bandages, meeting King Abdullah.

On 23 September 2011, Yemeni state television announced that Saleh had returned to the country after three months amid increasing turmoil in a week that saw increased gun battles on the streets of Sana'a and more than 100 deaths.

Saleh said on 8 October 2011, in comments broadcast on Yemeni state television, that he would step down "in the coming days". The opposition expressed skepticism, however, and a government minister said Saleh meant that he would leave power under the framework of a Gulf Cooperation Council initiative to transition toward democracy.

On 23 November 2011, Saleh flew to Riyadh in neighbouring Saudi Arabia to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council plan for political transition, which he had previously spurned. Upon signing the document, he agreed to legally transfer the office and powers of the presidency to his deputy, Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The agreement also led to the formation of a government divided by Saleh's political party (GPC) and the JMP.

It was reported that Saleh had left Yemen on 22 January 2012 for medical treatment in New York City. He arrived in the United States six days later. On 27 February 2012, Saleh formally ceded power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and stepped down as the President of Yemen, pledging to support efforts to "rebuild" the country still reeling from months of violence.


In February 2013, Saleh opened a museum documenting his 33 years in power, located in a wing of the Al Saleh Mosque in Sanaa. One of the museum's central display cases exhibits a pair of burnt trousers that Saleh was wearing at the time of his assassination attempt in June 2011. Other displays include fragments of shrapnel that were taken out of his body during his hospital treatment in Saudi Arabia, as well as various gifts given to Saleh by kings, presidents and world leaders over the course of his rule.

Later that year, in October, the United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar said that Saleh and his son have the right to run in the next Yemeni presidential election, as the 2011 deal does not cover political incapacitation.

Saleh was a behind-the-scenes leader of the Houthi takeover in Yemen led by Zaydi Houthi forces. Tribesmen and government forces loyal to Saleh joined the Houthis in their march to power. The United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Saleh in 2014, accusing him of threatening peace and obstructing Yemen's political process, subjecting him to a global travel ban and an asset freeze. On 28 July 2016, Saleh and the Houthi rebels announced a formal alliance to fight the Saudi-led military coalition, run by a Supreme Political Council of 10 members – made up of five members from Saleh's General People's Congress, and five from the Houthis. The members were sworn in on 14 August 2016.


Houthi spokesperson Mohamed Abdel Salam stated that his group had spotted messages between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saleh three months before his death. He told Al-Jazeera that there was communication between Saleh, the UAE and a number of other countries such as Russia and Jordan through encrypted messages. The alliance between Saleh and the Houthi broke down in late 2017, with armed clashes occurring in Sana'a from 28 November. Saleh declared the split from the Houthi movement in a televised statement on 2 December, calling on his supporters to take back the country and expressed openness to a dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition.

On 4 December 2017, Saleh's house in Sana'a was assaulted by fighters of the Houthi movement, according to residents. Saleh was killed on his way to Marib while trying to flee into Saudi-controlled territories after a rocket-propelled grenade struck and disabled his vehicle in an ambush and he was subsequently shot in the head by a Houthi sniper, something his party denied. The Houthis published a video allegedly depicting Saleh's body with a gunshot wound to the head. His death was confirmed by a senior aide to Saleh, and also by Saleh's nephew. His death has been described by The Economist as an embarrassment in a string of Saudi foreign policy failures under Mohammad bin Salman. The attack also resulted in the death of General People's Congress' assistant secretary Yasser al-Awadi.

Saleh's home was captured by Houthis before he fled. Officials of his party General People's Congress, while confirming his death, stated that a convoy he and other party officials were travelling in was attacked by Houthis as they fled towards his hometown Sanhan. Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi meanwhile celebrated his death and called it "the day of the fall of the treasonous conspiracy". He also stated that his group had "no problem" with the GPC or its members. Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi offered condolences for his death and called for an uprising against the Houthis. The Houthis accused the UAE of dragging Saleh to "this humiliating fate."

On 9 December 2017 he was buried in Sana'a, according to an official. A Houthi commander reported that the burial was held in strict conditions with no more than 20 people attending.


National honours

  •  Yemen: Grand Master with Collar of the Order of Unification

Foreign honours

  •  Cuba: Medal of the Order of José Martí
  •  Libya: First Class of the Order of the Grand Conqueror
  •  Tunisia: Grand Cordon of the Order of the Seventh of November
  •  United Arab Emirates: Collar of the Order of Zayed
  •  Two Sicilies Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (defunct honour)
    • Kingdom of the Two Sicilies Two Sicilian Royal Family: Recipient of the Two Sicilian Royal Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George Benemerenti Medal, 1st Class
    • Kingdom of the Two Sicilies Two Sicilian Royal Family: Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Francis I


The UN Sanctions Panel said that by 2012 Saleh had amassed a fortune worth $32–60 billion hidden in at least twenty countries, making him one of the richest people in the world. Saleh was gaining $2 billion a year from 1978 to 2012, mainly through illegal methods, such as embezzlement, extortion and theft of funds from Yemen's fuel subsidy program.

Personal life

He was married to Asma Saleh in 1964, at the age of seventeen. The couple have seven sons, including the eldest Ahmed (born 1972), former commander of the Republican Guard, considered a potential successor to his father, and Khaled.

His half-brother, General Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar was commander of the Yemeni Air Force.

See also

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