Gulf Pulse

Inheritance battle brewing for Yemeni political control

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Article Summary
The late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left behind wealth estimated at $32 billion to $60 billion, but an even bigger fortune is up for grabs politically.

Despite failing peace agreements and continued fighting in Yemen, participants and observers are looking ahead and wondering who will ultimately control Yemen's most powerful political party, the General People's Congress (GPC).

Elite GPC members have long called for the United Nations to lift international travel sanctions levied in 2015 on Ahmed Saleh, the eldest son of the party's founder, the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The latter was ousted in 2012 and killed by Houthi rebels in December 2017.

The son, who lives in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), had been sanctioned for allegedly obstructing peace efforts in Yemen. The UN last month lifted some of the restraints and unfroze the Saleh family's massive assets. In 2014, UN experts estimated the family fortune at $32 billion to $60 billion.

Another of the late president's sons, Khalid Saleh, will continue to manage their father's unseized wealth abroad. Meanwhile, the Houthis have their hands on the majority of the Saleh family assets in Yemen.

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But the question remains: Who holds the lion’s share of loyalty among members of the GPC, which Ali Abdullah Saleh established in 1982. He carefully worked on improving it until 2011. That's when the ruling GPC began crumbling little by little with the first calls to topple the regime as the Arab Spring spread across the region. He was ousted in 2012 and replaced as president by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Some party members gradually defected and joined the youth revolution.

However, the party’s true foundation fell apart with Saleh’s killing in December 2017. In January 2018, Sadeq Amin Abu Rass was elected chairman of the party in Sanaa. But the results were contested, and a rival camp recognizes Hadi as the party's leader.

There is also an unofficial third branch within the GPC that Ahmed Saleh leads from the UAE.

Amid all of this, Yemen witnessed the largest political feast in its history among the various parties and religious groups. It could be said the Houthis hold the lion’s share of the GPC, as they dominate the party in Sanaa, led by Abu Rass. But that doesn't mean that all GPC members in Sanaa are loyal to the Houthis.

Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, the former GPC secretary-general, told Al-Monitor, “The party’s heirs are its popular bases, supporters and the Yemeni people. [Among Yemen's political parties] the GPC has the largest popular base of almost 4 million [people].”

He said, “Despite the pressure exerted by Ansar Allah, known as the Houthis, and their refusal to allow the GPC to have political freedom, this popular party remains cohesive and steadfast.”

Qirbi noted, “GPC leaders are distributed in a number of Arab countries. They don't operate as wings but rather as integral parts of the party."

But they are forced to follow the choice of the countries where they live, he said, with those in the UAE supporting Ahmed Saleh, while those in Saudi Arabia support Hadi. Qirbi said that some countries, which he refused to name, "are trying to lure GPC leaders, to settle scores on the regional and political levels, but only a minimal number of leaders are falling for this pressure.”

Yet Qirbi asserted that the GPC will make a powerful comeback, especially since opposition parties weren't successful when they were in power.

Meanwhile, Hanan Hussein, head of the GPC women's rehabilitation and skills development department, told Al-Monitor, “There's no such thing as inheriting the party. Abu Rass’ election after Saleh’s death was based on purely institutional working mechanisms.”

Hussein explained, “The GPC’s third branch remained loyal to Saleh until his death. After that, this branch settled outside Yemen as it rejected a partnership with the Houthis as well as with Hadi. Yet it couldn't hold up against the financial temptations offered by President Hadi and Saudi Arabia.”

She added, “The Saleh family — represented by Ahmed and Tariq, [the late] Saleh’s nephew — have a wide popular base within the GPC."

Hussein said there are forces, which she did not name, "that seek to get rid of the Salehs because of this popularity.”

The Sanaa branch, represented by Abu Rass, is under Houthi authority. It has indirect regional affiliations, mainly to Oman. Hadi’s branch is supported and controlled by Saudi Arabia. Another branch, which has no official leadership, is scattered between Cairo and the UAE; the majority of this branch's supporters are loyal to Ahmed Saleh.

In October, the Sanaa branch appointed Ahmed Saleh to a seat on the GPC’s permanent main committee. He has yet to announce a clear position on his appointment, according to a political source. But the source, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, claims there was “a political deal between the Houthis and Ahmed for the release of his brothers Madin and Salah, in exchange for his recognition of the Sanaa branch.” His brothers were indeed released in October.

Mohammad Anaam, a member of the GPC’s permanent main committee, told Al-Monitor, “The party [leadership] can't be inherited or distributed, even after it was subject to the terrorist conspiracy the Houthis plotted in December 2017 when they killed Saleh and the party’s secretary-general, Aref al-Zuka, and arrested thousands of leaders and members.”

According to Anaam, “The GPC is united and doesn't have branches. It's a Yemeni organization that will not follow political organizations that have foreign affiliations.”

Salah al-Sayadi, minister of state in the legitimate government and secretary-general of the Democratic People's Party (Hashd), told Al-Monitor, “The GPC is not anyone’s property. The wings that were formed after Saleh’s death only serve those who supported their formation, not the party itself.”

He added, “President Hadi’s name is on the table to lead the party in all its wings." He stressed “the importance of the GPC’s survival.”

Maged al-Madhaji, executive director of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “One can't talk about a specific heir to the GPC. Even if Tariq, [Ali Abdullah] Saleh's nephew, who leads the Republican Guard in Hodeidah, was able to overstep Ahmed Saleh, Tariq doesn't have political weight — which is why he has yet to occupy a symbolic position in the party.”

Madhaji added, “The GPC has three wings: the legitimate, pro-Saudi Arabia one; Ahmed’s pro-UAE wing; and the Sanaa wing, which also has regional affiliation with mainly Oman and Qatar.”

He noted, “Saleh’s death significantly affected the party. It was indeed a hard blow to the GPC, but not a knockout. If the party doesn't have one head and one leadership, it's bound to fall to pieces within a few years,” falling into the hands of other Yemini political forces.

In this context, it's no surprise that British researcher and expert on Yemen Brian Whitaker wrote in a 1992 article published in The Guardian, “The GPC is not quite a political party in the normal sense; before unification it was an umbrella organization designed to incorporate all the various political forces in the north.”

That sentence summarizes the nature of the GPC, which is a combination of all the political forces that fought each other in the 1970s only to join forces in the framework of national reconciliation at the National Charter Conference in 1980. The GPC was expected to dissolve into different political components shortly after the declaration of Yemen’s unity in 1990. However, this never happened because the GPC’s political structure was essentially utilitarian, based on the interests of social elites.

The former president was the key to GPC cohesion. When Hadi took over, the GPC lost an important pillar that represented the first crack in the party’s structure. With Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death, the GPC lost its unified axis. The party now has different heads, with zero cohesion.

It’s safe to say Saleh’s death gave life to a hybrid sub-party with various affiliations.

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Ammar al-Ashwal is a Yemeni journalist who writes for several Yemeni and Arab newspapers, including the Yemen Today newspaper, An-Nahar and Al Akhbar. He is a master's student of information and communication sciences at the Lebanese University of Beirut.

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