After rising through the military ranks and following a series of military coups, 'Ali' Abdallah Salih (born 1942) was elected president of the Yemeni Arab Republic (North Yemen) in 1978. After several years in which the legitimacy of his government grew along with his reputation as a consensus-builder, Salih became the first president of the United Republic of Yemen in 1990.
Brigadier General 'Ali' Abdallah Salih became the first president—officially, chairman of the Presidential Council—of the Arab world's newest state, the Republic of Yemen, in May 1990. With 13 million people, the fledgling republic was the Arabian peninsula's most populous country. It united the former Marxist, Russian-aligned People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (SouthYemen) with the more moderate tribal-and military-oriented Yemeni Arab Republic (North Yemen), over which 'Ali' Abdallah Salih had presided since July 1978.
Salih's rise to the presidency of a country which combined southwestern Arabia into one political entity was the culmination of a remarkable career. He was born in modest circumstances in 1942 in the small agricultural town of Bayt al-Ahmar. He was a member of the Sanhan tribe, a numerically and politically insignificant segment of the powerful Zaydi Muslim Hashid tribal confederation that had long dominated extensive districts southwest of the Yemeni capital of Sana'a. Salih's formal education was limited to a Koranic primary school in Bayt al-Ahmar.
He began his military career as a teen-aged private soldier in the Hashid tribal levies attached to the army of the Zaydi imams who had ruled Yemen for a thousand years. However, when the Hashid shaykh supported the military coup that toppled the royalist government in September 1962, Salih's allegiance was transferred to the new republican regime. But Imam Badr did not accept his deposition and ignited a six-year civil war in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to restore royal rule. Nevertheless, Salih's career profited from the conflict because influential Hashid patrons secured him a commission as a second lieutenant in the republican army in 1963. The most important of these patrons was Colonel Ahmad Husayn al-Ghashmi, who was destined to become the army's chief-of-staff and, briefly in 1977-1978, the Yemeni Arab Republic's president.
As an al-Ghashmi protege, 'Ali' Abdallah Salih's star rose steadily. Active in the civil war, he matured into a tough, effective soldier willing to take personal risks. He attended various service schools and successively advanced from junior officer to armored company commander, armored battalion commander, staff officer in the Armored Division, and chief of armaments in the Armored Corps. As his career progressed, Salih was increasingly drawn into Yemen's political affairs, especially after the 1974 coup when Ibrahim al-Hamdi took over as president. Salih's mentor, Colonel al-Ghashmi, one of the coup organizers, became Hamdi's army commander and arranged for his client's appointment to the twin-posts of brigade commander and military governor of the strategically important Ta'iz province with the rank of major. In 1977 Salih played a major role in the events which led to al-Hamdi's assassination and al-Ghashmi's subsequent assumption of the presidency. But after an eight-month rule, in June 1978 al-Ghashmi himself was killed by a bomb smuggled into his office. The Yemeni Arab Republic's fifth president—its third in less than a year—was about to take office.
Given the chaotic situation, the power to select the new president was essentially in the hands of the military. Salih, although seemingly little qualified for the presidency either by seniority, political experience, or education, had been promoted to lieutenant colonel and army deputy commander in the wake of al-Ghashmi's assassination. He was well-placed to bid for the post as the military's candidate. Thus, on July 17, 1978, after aggressive political maneuvering, 'Ali' Abdallah Salih was elected North Yemen's president and army commander-in-chief.
Salih's initial year in office was not promising. Dismissed by many as an opportunistic, rude-speaking, tribal fighting-man who could not master the rough-and-tumble of North Yemen's traditional politics, he barely survived assassination plots, coup attempts, and military disaster in border fighting with South Yemen. To stay in control, he relied heavily upon members of his tribe, close relatives, and especially his seven brothers, whom he placed in sensitive posts in the national security apparatus, the army, and the air force.
Nevertheless, eventually he converted North Yemen's chaotic political environment into a comparatively stable one. Like many in the military, Salih was an authoritarian nationalist and statist by nature. But he also championed the cause of national reconciliation. Thus, his leadership style tended to be center-oriented and friendly to compromise and consensus building. In time, this linked the aspirations of the military to those of left leaning statists, middle-of-the-road technocratic, professional, and business interests as well as conservative tribal and religious leaders. Moreover, because he allowed educated technocrats to operate the bureaucracy, the administrative effectiveness of the government rose significantly. Meanwhile, although Salih believed in a "no-party" government, he also encouraged carefully controlled popular political participation through the thousand-member General People's Congress that met regularly after 1982. The enhanced legitimacy of Salih's regime plus his record as a consensus-building nationalist were among the chief reasons that South Yemen, after a decade of inconclusive talks, was willing in 1989 to address its increasingly discouraging internal political problems by uniting with North Yemen. Another stimulus for unification was the promise of economic benefits that would accrue to both parts of Yemen if they joined to cooperatively exploit the large oil deposits that were discovered in the mid-1980s along their common border. The South Yemenis were not disappointed in Salih, for after unification he moved leftward to accommodate them.
Initially, President Salih was unsure of himself when dealing with foreign leaders, but this changed as he gained experience. His extensive travels included visits to both the Soviet Union and, in January 1990, the United States. Family ties strongly influenced the course of President Salih's career, and his own marriage produced five children. In historical terms, however, 'Ali' Abdallah Salih's chief accomplishment was to surmount Yemen's traditional family-oriented factional politics to promote the political stability that allowed realization of his countrymen's long-held dream to unify all of southwestern Arabia into a single state.
In 1994, war broke out again. In June of that year, under his leadership, the war with South Yemen came to end after only two months and the two sides agreed to an eventual reunion. As late as 1997, Salih still held the position as President.
Further Reading on 'Ali' Abdallah Salih
Outside of brief official sketches there is no biography of President Salih. Information is found in various newspapers such as the (London) Times;the New York Times, specialized magazines such as The Middle East Journal, and scattered in a few books such as Robert D. Burrowes, The Yemen Arab Republic, The Politics of Development (1987); J. E. Peterson, Yemen, The Search for a Modern State (1982); Brian Pridham (editor), Contemporary Yemen; Politics and Historical Background (1984); and Richard Nyrop (editor), The Yemens, Country Studies (1986). Updated information gathered from the LA Times North Reverses Self, Supports Truce in Yemen, Friday, June 3, 1994; U.N. Demands Yemen Halt Attack on Rebel City Aden, Thursday, June 30, 1994.