Girl holding banner showing members of the Saleh family who hold positions in the military (photo credit: Reuters)

On Thursday, November 1, 2012, the Organizing Committee of the Youth Revolution in Sanaa announced that the youths would not participate in the upcoming National Dialogue if relatives of former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, were not removed from positions within the Yemeni military. The protests in Sanaa today (November 2, 2012) take place, as such, under the slogan: “No Dialog, before dismissal.”

The military has not only been a tool of regime repression, but also an economic player, generating enormous economic profits for the Saleh family and members of Sanhan. When looking at the basis of the Saleh regime, it becomes clear that the potential for political change is minimal so long as Saleh’s relatives retain power over the military.

During Saleh’s 34 year rule, the country’s entire military was controlled either by members of his family or his tribe, the Sanhan.[1] To fully understand the relationship between the Saleh regime and the military, it is worth remembering the history of the Sanhan and North Yemen before Saleh became president.

Sanhan is a small tribe of the Hashid confederation. From a historical perceptive, the tribe was largely insignificant, and had typically provided soldiers for the Imam, which had ruled Yemen prior to the republican revolution of 1962.[2]

At the same time, at the start of North Yemen’s experiment with republican government (1962-1990), the military was a relatively weak institution, as the state had previously relied on tribal levies.

The emergence of the Sanhani-military elite was first made possible by political reforms – the so-called revolutionary correction movement – undertaken by President Ibrahim Al-Hamdi (1974-1977). Al-Hamdi intended to reduce the influence of the state’s more powerful tribes. His efforts focused mostly on the Hashid and Bakil tribal confederations, which had grown powerful in the years since the republican revolution of 1962.

In 1975, President Al-Hamdi pushed important tribal sheikhs out of government by dismissing the Shura Council.[3] Simultaneously, Al-Hamdi began to modernize the military, as he believed a strong military would be the only institution able to weaken the northern tribes.[4] Ahmed Al-Ghashmi, a member of the Sanhan tribe, was made military chief of staff and began recruiting and promoting predominantly Hashid tribesmen within the military.[5]

This circumstance facilitated Saleh’s rise to power. Most notably, in 1975, Saleh, who was a protégé of Al-Ghashmi, was made commander of the military forces in Taiz, a post formerly held by the influential, Abu Sinan Abu Luhum. Other members of Sanhan were also given important military posts.

Al-Hamdi’s efforts to expel powerful sheikhs from state positions, and the Sanhan’s military rise created an opportunity for Saleh and his tribe to play a more significant political role.

Expelling tribal figures from the government eventually led to Al-Hamdi’s downfall. From a tribal perspective “those northern Sheikhs believed al-Hamdi was stripping them of their influence and concentrating all power in his own hands, not just in order to promote technocrats but to elevate lesser sheikhs in their place, a mark of unforgivable disrespect, utterly ayb, shamefully dishonouring.”[6] In 1977, Al-Hamdi was assassinated. While the details of the assassination remain unclear, it undoubtedly occurred with the support of expelled tribal figures.

Ahmed Al-Ghashmi succeeded Al-Hamdi as president of the republic. Having recruited many Hashid tribesmen to the military, and brought the previously excluded tribal figures back into government, Al-Ghashmi enjoyed overwhelming tribal support.

When Saleh became president in 1978, he was the second highest-ranking officer in the country.[7] With other members of Sanhan holding influential military posts, Saleh was able to secure the presidency, and forge a power-sharing arrangement within his tribe.

According to the agreement, which was referred to as “the covenant” (al-‘ahd), the Sanhani elite would stand together behind Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Ali Mohsin, a high ranking officer and member of Sanhan who would be next in line for succession.[8]

To secure his grip on power, Saleh soon began to place members of his tribe and family in key positions within the military.

Given this history, it is clear that reforming the Yemeni military is key to fully removing Saleh’s grip on the country. During the Arab Spring protests, Ali Mohsin defected from the regime, creating a split within both the Sanhani-military elite and the military at large. Because of the Mohsin defection, the Saleh family lost control over parts of the military. Still, much of the military apparatus has remained under the command of Saleh’s relatives, and the family continues to be politically influential.

While current Yemeni president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, has already removed a number of Saleh-family members from military positions, the restructuring of the military has yet to be completed. According to proposed reform strategies, the military would be unified under the command of the Ministry of Defense, and powerful individuals within the military would be replaced. Only through implementation of these reforms will the influence of Saleh’s family in the military and Yemen as a whole be reduced.


[1] see Phillips, S. (2011). Yemen and the politics of permanent crisis. Routledge: Adelphi Series. p. 87-104.

[2] see Dresch, P. (2000). A history of modern Yemen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 148.

[3] see Fattah, K. (2010). A political history of civil-military relations in Yemen. Alternative Politics, Special Issue I, November, pp. 25-47, p. 128.

[4] see Fattah, 2010, p. 32

[5] see Fattah, 2010, p. 43

[6] Clark, V. (2010). Yemen: Dancing on the heads of snakes. London: Yale University Press.  p. 107.

[7] Philipps, 2011, p. 87-104

[8] see Longley, A. (2008). Shifting light in the Qamariyya. The reinvention of patronage networks in contemporary Yemen. (Doctorial Dissertation). Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, p. 87, n. 129.

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