The legacy of Abdullah al-Ahmar continues in Yemen

The legacy of Abdullah al-Ahmar continues in Yemen
Sheikh Ahmar cemented power in Yemen through an alliance with President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Seven years after his death, his influence continues through his family.
4 min read
30 December, 2014
Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar was one of Yemen's most influential tribal leaders [AFP-Getty]

Sunday marked the seventh anniversary of Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar's death, a giant political figure in Yemen who was widely considered to be the country's second most important man.

Born in 1933, Ahmar served as speaker of the Yemeni parliament, leader of the Hashid tribe, and former president of the Islamist Al-Islah Party. He died of cancer in a Riyadh hospital in 2007, after which three days of mourning were declared in Yemen.

Veteran statesman

Sunday passed quietly - unlike in previous years, when the anniversary was commemorated with supporters marching on the streets of the capital, carrying his portrait, while speeches were made in his name.

Commemorations were low-key this year largely because of the Houthis' control of the capital, Sanaa, and other parts of the north of Yemen. During their offensives, the Houthis destroyed many of the homes belonging to Ahmar's clan.

For more than four decades, Ahmar was socially and politically one of the country's most powerful figures. The regime of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was sometimes described as the fruit of the union between Saleh and Ahmar. Its demise was largely connected to the deterioration of the relationship between the two men.

He was the scion of a family of tribal chieftains in northern Yemen. He lived through the last days of the imamate and into the republic, playing key roles in both eras.

Sheikh Ahmar became the leader of his tribe following the death of his father and his brother in 1961 at the hands of Imam Ahmad Yahya Hamid al-Din. A year later, a military coup dethroned the new imam and plunged Yemen into a bloody eight-year civil war.

Sheikh Ahmar and his Hashid tribal federation fought on the Republican side, against attempts to re-establish the imamate. In 1970, Ahmar and his tribe helped then President Abdul Rahman al-Iryani reconcile with the monarchists, whereby the latter recognised the republic in return for the reinstatement of imamate officials - with the exception of the formerly ruling Hamid al-Din family.

Asserting power

Now in an even stronger position, Ahmar served as chairman of the first Shura Council in 1971.  Following a coup d’état that removed Iryani from power, Ahmar submitted the resignation of the Shura Council to President Ibrahim al-Hamdi, who was himself assassinated in 1977.

Many accused Ahmar of being behind the assassination plot, a charge that repeatedly denied. Instead, he blamed Ahmed al-Ghashmi, Hamdi's deputy.

Following Ghashmi's death the following year, Ahmad was at first a leading opponent to Ali Abdullah Saleh assuming power. However, as Ahmar had strong ties with Saudi Arabia, and Saleh had the approval of Riyadh, the two soon forged an alliance.

During the 2006 presidential run off between the president and Faisal Bin Shaman, Ahmar chose to support Saleh, against the wishes of his Islah Party, which preferred Bin Shaman. Ahmar had served as president of the party's supreme board ever since its inception in September 1990, which made the decision even more surprising.

Yemen without Ahmar

When Ahmar died, his eldest son, Sadiq, succeeded him as leader of the tribe. Two of his other sons assumed important positions of power - Humair al-Ahmar became parliament's deputy speaker, while Hamid al-Ahmar became one of Yemen's most influential, and controversial, businessmen - his family is said to be worth $10 billion.

Ahmar's sons, led by Hamid, initially voiced their support for the revolution of February 2011, which forced Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.

     Many in Yemen expected that Ahmar's sons would be given major roles in the post-Saleh government.

However, what happened next was largely unexpected. The Houthis, expanded into the Ahmar clan's traditional strongholds, demolishing homes belonging to the clan, and even raiding Sadiq al-Ahmar's house a month ago.

Observers saw the raid as a turning point, earning Ahmar's sons broader support and even the solidarity of some of their opponents. The Houthi leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, was even forced to send a delegate to Sadiq on Saturday, to apologise and offer arbitration for what members of his group had done.

Ahmar's legacy continues

Today, Ahmar's sons are reported to feel greatly betrayed by the current president of Yemen, and accuse him of conspiring against them.

Eventually, they might have to break their silence, and there were signs of this a few weeks ago when Hamid al-Ahmar posted a sharply worded rebuke against the president, though he stopped short of naming the leader.

"You have been entrusted with a responsibility but you betrayed it; you have spoken but you lied; and you declared yourself a foe and was excessive in doing so," read Hamid's statement.

"As a result, you have lost Yemen and you have bitten the hands of the Yemeni people who entrusted you with something you were not qualified to handle."

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.