On February 15th the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued a statement of support for Yemen's political transition and warned potential spoilers against interfering with the UN's diplomacy. Taken at face value, the UNSC's statement appears to spotlight former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and threaten him with financial sanctions. However Saleh's inclusion was primarily based on the art of concealment, as the UNSC couldn't aim at its real targets without first naming Yemen's duplicitous strongman. The other "spoilers" come next: former Vice-President Ali Salim Al-Beidh and the Iranian government.
Accordingly, Saleh has now attempted to blend in by pasting the UNSC's statement into his own rhetorical bag of tricks. Speaking to supporters at a rally organized to mark his transfer of power to Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, his vice president of nearly 18 years, Saleh demonstrated the notorious oratory and scheming mind that maintained his power for over three decades. Ignoring the hundreds of civilians killed by government forces during the first year of Yemen's revolution and his own refusal to resign, the former president claims that he "handed over power peacefully and willingly" to Hadi, and never turned to violence. He also called for "reconciliation, shaking hands and forgiveness of the past to build a new Yemen."
“Forget about the past and look at the future."
Saleh can afford to forget about the past because his crimes against the Yemeni people are insulated by the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) power-sharing initiative, a U.S.-Saudi proposal that kept Saleh's ruling party in power and granted his family personal immunity. This agreement not only encourages Saleh to continue resisting the formation of a legitimate government, but to play along with the GCC and UNSC's diplomacy so as not to permanently sever the hands that protect him. The U.S. State Department refused to take a definitive stand when quizzed on the content of Saleh's speech, saying only that all parties should "play a positive role in Yemen's political transition."
According to U.S. and UN terms, Saleh is playing a positive role by supporting his former VP, rhetorically targeting Iran and opposing secession in the south - all actions undertaken by the UNSC. Washington and Riyadh both oppose the loss of influence that would result from the autonomous agendas of the northern Houthi sect and Southern Movement, and relevant international blocs have followed suit. All, of course, oppose Tehran's sphere of hegemony in Yemen.
"No to secession... Our people in the south are with unity," Saleh told supporters who had gathered in Sanaa's Sabiin Square. "A small minority which supports secession is funded from abroad... Those who receive money from Iran know that their days are numbered."
The Southern cause is rooted in Saleh's own misrule and operates independently of Tehran. Southerners regularly stage mass protests in favor of self-determination.
Whether viewing him as too much trouble or too useful to drop, international powers have yet to make any serious move against Saleh and are unlikely to do so unless he takes extreme measures that cannot be ignored. Only Washington and Riyadh wield the political power capable of uprooting him from Yemen's tense environment, but he is instead treated as an emergency asset and a loose end that must be guarded. Saleh is privy to U.S. and Saudi intelligence, along with the human rights abuses that he committed (against the Houthis, Southern Movement and independent revolutionaries) with their military assistance.
The resulting policy allows him to roam relatively free within Yemen's politics, contrary to warnings from Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni activists and even the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).
Saleh, in turn, has little reason to act out of line so long as he enjoys international protection. Although he has seen a number of relatives dropped from their political and military positions, Saleh has weathered the brunt of Yemen's political transition and remains a source of power. His mere presence creates a negative inference on foreign politics in the country, while his equally arrogant son Ahmed, former commander of the U.S.-trained Republican Guard, is set to be reassigned rather than stripped of his authority. Saleh's party, the General People's Congress (GPC), also received the most seats of any bloc for Yemen's upcoming National Dialogue, sponsored by the UNSC and GCC.
A gradual reacquisition of power forms the backbone of Saleh's long-term strategy and Wednesday's speech confirmed the planning of a worst-case scenario: the GPC intends to contest next year's parliamentary and presidential elections, and Ahmed has long been feared as an eventual contender.
Everything Saleh says and does obstructs Yemen's revolution, so anything less than international accountability equates to complicity.