For those who knew him, it is hard to believe that Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s longtime ruler and one of the most cunning autocrats of our time, is finally gone.
Time and time again, Mr. Saleh seemed to outmaneuver death. He dodged a blizzard of bullets over the years, along with a bombing that left his skin mottled, his right hand stiffened like a claw. He’d held power for so long — even after his nominal ouster from the presidency in 2011, he remained a dominant force in Yemen — that he seemed almost welded to the landscape.
Mr. Saleh was in many ways the quintessential Arab dictator. He was not as brutal as Saddam Hussein of Iraq or the Assads of Syria, not as flashy as Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi. But he may have been the greatest master at the cynical politics they all deployed: the art of making oneself indispensable by destroying or corrupting everyone and everything else. This wily survivor’s game staved off revolt for decades in the Arab world. It also helped to doom the 2011 uprisings, leaving us with the sad landscape of civil war, jihadism and economic collapse today in the Middle East.
The last time I saw him, in January 2014, Mr. Saleh had the look of an embittered patriarch. He was sitting at a round table in the vast courtyard of his palatial house in Sana, Yemen’s capital. He wore a suit and tie, as always, and issued commands to underlings in a guttural, contemptuous voice. He looked unusually thin, and the skin on his neck and wrist was blotched from skin grafts. It was amazing he was alive at all: The bombing of the mosque at the presidential palace in June 2011 had burnt him badly and killed several of his guards.
After I walked out of his compound that day, I wrote an article lamenting the poisonous influence he still wielded on his divided, beautiful, desperately poor country. I expected him to hate it. I was wrong. He loved the article, so much that he had it reprinted on the cover of his own political party’s newspaper, with a photograph of the two of us talking. It didn’t take long to see why: Mr. Saleh didn’t mind being called evil as long as you called him powerful. He wasn’t in it for the money, though he did pocket billions of his country’s (relatively meager) oil profits. He didn’t binge on women or drugs. He didn’t even seem to care that much about posterity. He wanted power, at any cost.
Mr. Saleh was not without patriotism: He unified North and south Yemen in 1990, an achievement that won him gratitude from many of his countrymen. His long reign, coming after the coups and counter-coups of the 1970s, brought his country a measure of stability, that familiar lipstick of tyrants.
But he lasted only because he learned how to trade on Yemen’s misfortunes and amplify them. Even Al Qaeda became a cash cow for Mr. Saleh, drawing American military help and training. He thrived on Yemen’s tribal conflicts, setting enemies against each other and expertly stirring the pot. He called this technique “tawazun,” the Arabic word for “balancing,” and he was proud of it.
“Ruling Yemen is hard,” Mr. Saleh told me when we first met, in 2008. “I always say it’s like dancing on the heads of snakes.” Perhaps he thought those words would convey a kingly gravitas. They didn’t. He sounded brittle and impatient, like an addict.
His grip was finally broken in 2011, when the vast demonstrations of that year — spreading across the Arab world from Tunis and Cairo — forced him to step down. He could have gone anywhere, bought anything. Instead, he stayed in Yemen, nursing dreams of revenge.
Mr. Saleh’s last act was ingeniously cynical, and as dark as the final scenes of “Macbeth.” In 2013, he reached out to the Houthis, a rebel group he had brutally suppressed during his years in power. The Houthis had every reason to hate Mr. Saleh. But they needed his political skill, and they shared a common enemy: the government installed in Mr. Saleh’s place. Together, they reconquered the country in 2014, forcing its nominal leader — the man who had succeeded Mr. Saleh as president — to flee to Saudi Arabia early the following year.
This ploy had predictable and tragic consequences. The triumph of the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, was bound to provoke an intervention by Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighbor to the north. The result is that Yemen, a country where sectarian conflict was almost unknown until recent years, is now a battleground in the same toxic Sunni-Shiite struggle that has overtaken so much of the Middle East. The Saudi-led bombing campaign has killed thousands of civilians. Famine has ravaged the country, and so has the largest and fastest-spreading cholera outbreak in modern history.
In the end, it seems, Mr. Saleh was done in by his own opportunism. After losing a gun battle for control of the huge mosque in Sana that bears his name over the weekend, he signaled his willingness to change sides, yet again, if the Saudis would stop blockading and bombing Yemen. It was too late. The Houthis smelled betrayal and attacked Mr. Saleh’s compound. The finale was an ignominious photograph of an old man, skull split open, in the back of a pickup truck.
Yemen’s people will gain nothing from his death. His followers will seek revenge, sowing more chaos. The main factions in Yemen’s war — echoing the sectarian grudge match across the Middle East — show no interest in compromise. The human cost, in hunger and disease, is likely to worsen; a settlement will grow more elusive. The dance is over, and the snakes have won.
Robert F. Worth, a former New York Times correspondent, is the author of A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS.