Yemen’s most prominent tribal leader has now become the most dangerous opponent to beleaguered Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with the wealth, power and weapons to do what protesters and international mediators could not: put Saleh in a corner.
Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar has taken on the mantle of leader of the movement to oust Saleh, his onetime ally, after 32 years in power. Al-Ahmar’s abandoning of Saleh two months ago was a heavy blow, but he’s become even more of a threat now, with his tribal fighters battling Saleh’s security forces in the streets of the capital.
“Al-Ahmar turned into a leader whom everyone else is rallying around,” Yemeni political analyst Faris Sadqaf said.
More than 120 tribal fighters and troops have been killed in this week’s violence, raising fears the country could be thrown into civil war. The fighting spread beyond the capital on Friday as tribesmen allied to al-Ahmar seized a Yemeni Republican Guard military camp in the Fardha Nehem region about 80km to the northeast.
It’s a lesson in the clan intrigue that underpins Yemen’s politics, commerce and society.
Few adversaries in Yemen have more resources than the 55-year-old al-Ahmar: a mix of warlord, tycoon and kingmaker.
He commands thousands of fighters from the Hashid tribal confederation with arsenals that include rocket-propelled grenades and mortars — and can likely summon more.
Many of his nine brothers have played prominent roles in Yemeni politics and commerce. One owns a telephone company, a bank, a TV network and franchises for the fast-food chain KFC and the Western-style Spinneys supermarkets.
The family investments stretch into the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which pays the Hashid monthly for their loyalty in defending the Saudi-Yemeni border.
However, the essence of al-Ahmar’s power is as a political godfather. At one time, it helped prop up Saleh’s nearly 33-year rule.
Al-Ahmar took over as the head of the Hashid after his father, Abdullah, died in 2007. In effect, it’s like running a state within a state.
The Hashid confederation has hundreds of thousands of people under its umbrella of nine tribes — including Saleh’s own, the Sanhan. Many of the Sanhan’s members have turned against the president since the uprising began in February.
Sadeq al-Ahmar also inherited an alliance with Saleh. His father was parliament speaker for 10 years and led the Islah Islamic party, an opposition bloc dominated by tribal sheiks and Islamists that did not directly threaten Saleh’s regime.
Saudi Arabia appeared to be the glue that kept the Hashid with Saleh.
According to Abdullah al-Ahmar’s autobiography, the Hashid refused to back Saleh after he rose to power following the assassination of former Yemeni president Ahmed al-Ghamshi in 1978. The Hashid ruler opposed Saleh’s deep military background, which began with his joining the army as a teenager.
However, Saleh appealed directly to neighboring Saudi Arabia, which traditionally has signed off on Yemen’s leadership. It worked, and Saudi officials persuaded the Hashid to back Saleh.