The Last Invincible Autocrat


For individuals who knew him, it is hard to think that Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s longtime ruler and just about the most cunning autocrats of our time, is finally gone.

Again and again, Mr. Saleh seemed to outmaneuver death. He dodged a blizzard of bullets through the years, along with a bombing that still left his epidermis mottled, his right side stiffened just like a claw. He’d kept power for so long – actually after his nominal ouster from the presidency in 2011, he remained a dominant force in Yemen – that he appeared nearly welded to the landscape.

Mr. Saleh was in lots of ways the quintessential Arab dictator. He had not been as brutal as Saddam Hussein of Iraq or the Assads of Syria, much less flashy as Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi. But he might have been the best grasp at the cynical politics each of them deployed: the fine art of earning oneself indispensable by destroying or corrupting everyone and the rest. This wily survivor’s game staved off revolt for decades in the Arab community. In addition, it helped to doom the 2011 uprisings, leaving us with the sad landscape of civil war, jihadism and financial collapse today in the Middle East.

The last time I saw him, in January 2014, Mr. Saleh had the appearance of an embittered patriarch. He was seated at a circular table in the vast courtyard of his palatial home in Sana, Yemen’s capital. He wore a match and tie, as often, and issued orders to underlings in a guttural, contemptuous voice. He appeared unusually thin, and your skin on his throat and wrist was blotched from epidermis grafts. It had been amazing he was alive at all: The bombing of the mosque at the presidential palace in June 2011 had burnt him badly and killed many of his guards.

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After I walked out of his compound that day, I wrote an article lamenting the poisonous influence he even now wielded on his divided, beautiful, desperately poor country. I anticipated him to hate it. I was incorrect. He loved the article, so substantially that he previously it reprinted on the go over of his individual political party’s newspaper, with an image of the two of us discussing. It didn’t consider long to see why: Mr. Saleh didn’t head being called evil as long as you referred to as him strong. He wasn’t in it your money can buy, though he have pocket vast amounts of his country’s (relatively meager) oil earnings. He didn’t binge on women or medications. He didn’t even appear to care that very much about posterity. He wanted electric power, at any cost.

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