Yemen's battle of the sons
Armed Yemeni dissident tribesmen patrol a damaged neighbourhood in Sanaa on June 9, 2011.
June 16th, 2011
05:27 PM ET

Yemen's battle of the sons

Editor's Note: Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the New America Foundation.

By Barak Barfi – Special to CNN

With the departure of Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh, the local political scene has become a battle of the sons.

Saleh’s firstborn son Ahmad is now locked in a contest with the progeny of the country’s late paramount tribal chief, Abdallah al-Ahmar, who passed away in 2007.

Their emergence as the key players in Yemen does not portend a peaceful resolution to the country’s impasse. The sons lack their fathers’ keen political talent, which provided a country historically wracked by violence and insecurity a modicum of stability for the past 33 years.

From Libya to Syria, the sons of long-time leaders have taken the lead in shaping the future of their countries. But they have proved far less skilled at reading the region’s prevailing winds than their fathers.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sold his country to the Iranians and their Lebanese Shi’i client Hezbollah, sacrificing the influence his father Hafiz had so carefully cultivated over three decades.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s son Jamal hastened his father’s downfall by allowing his corrupt business friends to turn the country’s state coffers into their own personal bank accounts.

But it is in Yemen that the failures of the second generation are most pronounced and perilous.

In a nation where the threat of violence is a component of conflict resolution, political miscalculations can have vast repercussions. And with Saleh’s son and al-Ahmar’s children lacking their fathers’ tact, they risk exacerbating a conflict that has all but crippled the country.

Since February when protesters began demanding that President Saleh resign, al-Ahmar’s sons and successor as head of the Hashid tribal confederation have exhibited an audacious streak that contrasted with his father’s subdued and temperate policies. A French journalist who interviewed the elder al-Ahmar described him as "an ambiguous person who prefers to exercise power rather than exhibit it."

Abdallah never allowed ideology to dictate his policies. Though a tribal chief, he supported a 1962 republican revolution that deposed a monarchy that privileged the country’s clans.

Though head of the opposition, he established a condominium arrangement with the president dividing the country’s portfolios between them. Al-Ahmar acted as a quasi-Foreign Minister by handling relations with Yemen’ s Persian Gulf neighbors and managed the country’s tribal affairs. Together, the elder Saleh and al-Ahmar successfully navigated the tempestuous waters that sunk a number of Yemen’s former leaders.

Today, al-Ahmar’s sons risk torpedoing their father’s accomplishments. Lacking their elder’s political astuteness, they have been far too overt with their ambitions for power.

Worse, their public criticisms of the president have exceeded the limits established by their judicious father. In a 2009 interview with the pan-Arab news channel al-Jazeera, Abdallah’s son Hamid unleashed a scathing attack against the president, calling for "changing the government in Yemen by substituting a government more beneficial to Yemenis, a government that can protect its citizens. This government neglected their stability."

The conduct of Sadiq, al-Ahmar’s son who succeeded him as head of the Hashid tribal confederation, has been just as brazen during the three months of protests that have rocked Yemen.

He has spared no effort in trying to bring down Saleh, including providing for the protesters’ material needs in the makeshift camps all over Yemen. He has accused the government of waging an assassination campaign against its opponents.

By effectively declaring war on the president, the al-Ahmars unraveled the fragile tribal-republican modus vivendi their father carefully cultivated with Saleh. Convinced they were spearheading the campaign to remove him, Saleh finally responded last week by shelling their family compound.

Much like the al-Ahmars, the president son’s Ahmad has also failed to grasp the intricacies of Yemen’s delicate power balance. Raised as a privileged son of the country’s small elite, he did not experience the same “trial by fire” that gave his father the shrewd political skills to shepherd the country through successive crises.

But even in this world, Ahmad has faltered. He failed out of the prestigious British military academy Sandhurst, where Persian Gulf leaders send their children. Elected to parliament in 1997, he showed no interest in legislative affairs and is said to have never attended its sessions. Instead, he pursued various business interests and attended Formula One races.

Though he ended his political career after one parliamentary term, he still aspired to succeed his father as Yemen’s president. These ambitions put him on a collision course with the country’s main power broker, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (who is of no relation to Sadiq and Hamid).

As Saleh paved the way for his son to take over by making him head of the Presidential Guard, he simultaneously marginalized the general by removing his supporters from key military posts.

But Ahmad went even further. Lacking his father’s calculated and calibrated tactics, he clashed with al-Ahmar’s units and prevented his takeover of key government institutions. Al-Ahmar saw his influence in the country diminishing at the expense of Ahmad’s ambitious exploits. So when the president’s grip on power loosened, the general decided to settle accounts with the Saleh family by throwing his lot in with the protesters. In doing so, he signaled the death knell of the Saleh era.

Today, it is these sons who rule the country with General al-Ahmar lurking in the background. Having fueled the current conflict by fraying the tribal and military alliances that propped up the fragile country, Ahmad and the al-Ahmar brothers are in no position to rescue the nation from its current malaise. For without their fathers’ political acumen and vision, it is unlikely that they can put aside their overblown ambitions to reach an accord that will end the violence destabilizing Yemen.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Barak Barfi.

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Topics: Yemen

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    This hereditary presidency is a way to secure the continuity of a regime, which very often doesn't separate family from state affaris. The regime change takes place seemlessly, without general elections being held and the populace given the chance to choose another candidate.
    Assad's exemple shows it is not always easy to follow in one's father's footsteps. Being constantly compared to his father, he sees the challenges he has to face, It seems that an education in the west hadn't really brought much to Bashar al Assad and Salheh's son, Ahmad. The Yemenis have reason to worry.about the future of their country.

    June 16, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Reply
    • The Right Left

      These rulers are the leftovers from the Medieval times and remnants of the European colonial past. Their time is coming to an end. They just don’t want the party to end for them. Some will continue to eat cake behind their palace walls until they lose their heads

      June 18, 2011 at 11:41 am | Reply
      • Qutubuddin

        NOTE:The pseudo democratic movements in Middle East inspired by USA, by bribing few ignorant Arabs to revolt against their government, is just another example of neo imperialism and neo colonization by WEST. DIVIDE AND RULE POLICY.TERRORISTS LIKE OSAMA ARE CREATED by USA to DEFAME ISLAM and these Terrorists act as aVISA for USA to enter any MUSLIM nation, on a pretext of WAR on TERROR or WEAPONS of WMD ( saddam).MILLIONS OF MUSLIMS are killed by ETHNIC CLEANZING by USA.

        June 20, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • Bianca

      We need to seriously consider questioning our own knowledge before pronouncing our views. The main reason for instability in Yemen is the centralization project. There are societies that, due to the economic and historic reasons, function far better in a decentralized manner. Typically, these are agricultural societies, where the production of food does not exceed much the subsistence level. And while they may actually live good, have a good nutrition, work hard, and have tight social bonds, they are DEFINITELY not suitable to be turned into sociteties that furnish labor for export-driven economy. Cash is the king in the export driven economy, while subsistence economy does not need cash at all. Yemen is a perfect example of how a mindless centralization has resulted in the UNNATURAL state of affairs, with a strongman in charge, flanked by his private army of well-armed, western-trained "anti-terrorism" militias. Saleh's regime was brilliant at using his special forces to create "Al-Qaeda". He has fed the information to US private intelligence gathering, that in turn, supports the militarization of the country. In this magic circle, Saleh can use money from his small oil revenue to pay for his private security forces. He manufactures Al-Qaeda, and gets to buy more weapons, get US to strike the families of opposing regions, especially independence-minded South. US companies selling the military ware, training, equip and run drones - are thrilled with Saleh. But Yemen also has the tradition of farmers that call to arms when things are not doing well. And after four months of Saleh's tanks killing unarmed protestors all over the country, they stepped in. Within one week, Saleh was out, and armed tribes are protecting protestors. Yet, US is sticking with Saleh's Government! In Taez, just yesterday, tanks opened fire on the square where protestors camped for months. NOBODY CAN SAY THAT THESE ACTIONS ARE JUSTIFIED IN THE N AME OF FIGHTING AL-QAEDA. It is beyond what is decent and sane in our country, to support such actions. It is equally insane for out press to keep on droning on about Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Supporting the totally failed central government project is NOT STABILITY. It is a true failure of journalism to describe Saleh's era as keeping stability. The stability existed during hundreds of years priior to the revolution that brought in military dictatorship, albeit with limited powers. Time has come to let the rotten central government fall and to return the governance to people. The "security" apparatus created over thirdy years is a cancer eating at the very core of the Yemeni society. Protecting the indigenous argiculture, and social order, is the best UN and other advanced societies can do. And not try to SHOVE empty modernity down their throats.

      June 19, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Reply
      • Introspection

        Your first sentence is accurate.
        Please follow your own advice.

        June 20, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • TurdGradeKid

      What an Ugly looking building.

      June 19, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Reply
    • f.u. guys

      They are getting screwed more because the U.S.S. Cole got hit there.

      June 20, 2011 at 1:17 am | Reply
    • Qutubuddin

      The pseudo democratic movements in Middle East inspired by USA, by bribing few ignorant Arabs to revolt against their government, is just another example of neo imperialism and neo colonization by WEST. DIVIDE AND RULE POLICY.TERRORISTS LIKE OSAMA ARE CREATED by USA to DEFAME ISLAM and these Terrorists act as aVISA for USA to enter any MUSLIM nation, on a pretext of WAR on TERROR or WEAPONS of WMD ( saddam)

      June 20, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Reply
  2. Onesmallvoice

    I wonder which one of the sons of this cursed Ali Abdullah Seleh will prevail after his departure if and when it ever happens. I guess that the C.I.A. has already determined that after learning which one will be the better stooge for the West. Then things there will go on very much as before, unfortunately.

    June 16, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  3. American

    I pray for the world and all its people stuck in the violence trying to fight there way to freedom. Their moment of victory will come. My spirit stands with you all.

    June 17, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  4. jiimy jebahi

    yeah what about the gulf states rulers and their kids, or they don't count ehhhhhhhhhh

    June 17, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  5. Jon Pierson - Founder of Uncommon Love

    This isn’t the only important news today….

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    June 18, 2011 at 9:07 am | Reply
  6. The Right Left

    Not only are seeing the end of these despots on the horizon, we are seeing the end of our own American Empire. The world is in transition. Better change peacefully in the latter half of the 21-Century than go out in a bloody confrontation. Change is coming and for the better for mankind. A couple of hundred years from now we will read about GWB, Cheney, Saddam Hussein, Assad, Netanyahu and others as we read about Cesar, Attila the Hun and Tamerlane.

    June 18, 2011 at 11:46 am | Reply
  7. Mark

    I think that some overvalue stability. Skillful politicking can give peaceful reconciliation time to root and grow, but it can also lead to a stalemate with only the appearance of peace. It seems to me that, sadly, sometimes the best hope for real peace and stability is for the partisans to struggle to a decision.

    June 18, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • Bianca

      I fully subscribe to this view of history. Stability is important, but I believe that when one conflates social harmony with stability -- much grief can come out of it. Social harmony is worth preserving, as it encourages behaviours and norms that smooth over many difficulties and normal societal growing pains. But political stability has been often ascribed to clever politicians that know how to play various constituents one against the other. The result? A society that functions during such regime of false harmony, while underneath problems fester and are even manufactured in order to "balance out" various competing interests. In fact, the competing interests - instead of being accountable for the conflict they create - behave like children, expecting the leader to take their side or protect them. Historic examples are many. Germany after Bismarck, Yugoslavia after Tito, Middle Eastern royals and presidents for life, to name a few. But the worst kind of "stability" is the one imposed upon societies that are decentralized, and are forci bly pushed under a rule of a strongman in a bid to make it "stable", meaning centralized. Yemen is such an example. It was stable before military coup in the sixties. The traditional rule of Imam in Sana'a was to provide a forum for regional rule of tribes. Most problems - some big and some small - were solved in that manner. Tribes provided for their own social services, and in Yemen, agriculture is the key to the survaval. The country is blessed with a good climate, rainy season - as the mountains there catch the far end of monsoon season in Indian Ocean, as well as the reliable supply of underground water. Along the cost, fishing is abundant. Wheat, corn, potatoes, vegetables, fruits and fruits and staples there. By turning it into a state run by a military strongmen, and manipulating tribes against each other, only grief can come. And to make matters even worse, central government opened up immigration to fill newly minted jobs in the capital, population largely divorced from the countryside - creating a class entirely dependent on the central government. The funding came from two sources: a small oil export, and the milking of Uncle Sam. Oil revenue, while not large, served to buy arms for strongman's private army. But more profitable then oil, "al-qaeda" was "discovered" in Yemen, Information was fed through exciteable private intelligence gathering into the all-to-obliging military hardware and services contractors in US. What a happy circle of interests. Yemen's oil buys arms and contractors, and ultimately, the power of air strikes by US. All of them are brought to bear to keep strongman's opponents under control, stigmatized by alqaeda label. Strongman fights "terrorism", which COINCIDENTALLY happen to gather in the area of oil wells. And if the south - that was once free - thinks of separation, the more reason to "find" some alqaeda there. Turning Yemen back to the tribal rule with weak central authority would be to restore health to the society, and remove the burden of strongman-based society, with all the costs associated with unneeded militarism.

      June 20, 2011 at 12:21 am | Reply
      • david

        I am impressed with your detailed understanding of the situtation in Yemen. Personally, I am sad that Yemen has not progressed in the 3 decades since I worked there as a UN Volunteer At that time the rural economy was still viable, there was a balance of power between the tribes and the central government, and worker remittances provided revenue and investment capital for the lowest levels of the economy. Since the advent of "development" (post civil war), the central government has become stronger – doing more than just facilitating (as you put it) the workings of the tribes. Oil revenue and aid have served the centralized government and elite which uses them to enrich and perpetutate themselves, and naive US policymakers have played directlyinto this. From what I understand, there has been little benefit to the people. I don't know what happens next, but I am not very optimistic.

        aid and other

        June 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  8. Ramiro

    is better die than to be some one slave , go my brothers Allah Akbar

    June 19, 2011 at 1:14 am | Reply
  9. studdmuffins

    Most political leaders find a way to deflect which keeps the populace at large consoled to a great degree. They need a leader who can blame some mythical 'enemy of the people' to divert their attention away from their plight of poverty. This allows a few wealthy individuals to maintain reign over a fairly large population. C'mon, get with the political marketing program already. There's always the old stand-by; Blame the US for anything and everything.

    June 19, 2011 at 6:27 am | Reply
  10. felton

    Any way you look at Yemen, it ain't pretty and the reality is, the future doesn't look any better. Saudi Arabia has their hands full, but, I fear that it's inevitable that Saudi Arabia will be affected

    June 19, 2011 at 8:30 am | Reply
  11. Tara

    With the Internet and Social Media at hand, keeping the people down by playing the blame game doesn't work as well as it used to. However, the Muslim people follow the Old Testament, if they want Arab Spring they need to look beyond the religious and tribal aspects and move into the political arena of the 21st century by embrace the ideologies and political views that will help them accomplish their goals.

    June 19, 2011 at 9:21 am | Reply
  12. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    Doesn't this picture be the cat's meow for a deodorant ad?

    June 20, 2011 at 11:59 am | Reply
  13. Qutubuddin

    The pseudo democratic movements in Middle East inspired by USA, by bribing few ignorant Arabs to revolt against their government, is just another example of neo imperialism and neo colonization by WEST. DIVIDE AND RULE POLICY.TERRORISTS LIKE OSAMA ARE CREATED by USA to DEFAME ISLAM and these Terrorists act as aVISA for USA to enter any MUSLIM nation, on a pretext of WAR on TERROR or WEAPONS of WMD ( saddam).MILLIONS OF MUSLIMS are killed by ETHNIC CLEANZING by USA.

    June 20, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Reply

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