President Salehís son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh was commander of the Republican Guards, the President's own elite military unit. He was born in 1970 and studied at Britainís elite military academy at Sandhurst. Ahmed Ali, President Saleh's oldest son, was also Commander of the Yemen Special Forces. Both were considered the most effective military units in the country. It was generally believed that Saleh was grooming him to be the next president.
President Salehís three nephews also held senior positions in the military and intelligence services. His nephew Colonel Amar Saleh was deputy chief of the National Security Bureau (NSB), an intelligence agency formed in 2002 designed to work in closer cooperation with foreign governments. Another nephew, Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, was chief of staff of the Central Security Organization (CSO), a division of the Ministry of the Interior which maintains an elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU). Tariq Saleh is head of the Presidential Guard, the Yemeni equivalent of the US Secret Service. Finally, the presidentís half-brother, Ali Saleh al Ahmar, was commander of the Air Force. The Republican Guard was estimated in 2005 at 10,000 or division size. By 2008 the organization was well-trained and well-prepared to move against terrorists, but needed help to build battalions and develop greater aviation capacity.
The government marked the 19th anniversary of Yemen's unity with a massive military parade on 21 May 2009 in Sana'a. The parade, which commenced following a parachute drop, was the largest in Yemen's history and the first military parade on Unity Day in 15 years. Yemen's Republican Guard, headed by presidential son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, was well represented by 12,000 marching soldiers as well as armored vehicles, T-72 and T-55 tanks, artillery pieces and self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. Among the armored vehicles was the first public exhibition of Iraqi Light Armored Vehicles (ILAVs) provided by the United States.
During a speech commemorating his 27 years in power, President Saleh stunned an audience of 1200 ministers, officials, tribal leaders and foreign diplomats on 17 July 2005 by announcing that he would not be a candidate for reelection in 2006. "It is time for the youth to step forward, proclaimed Saleh. "I will support any person from any party who believes he is able to rule the country but I will not nominate myself." There was widespread skepticism about Saleh's intentions not to run, especially as there were few if any viable candidates.
Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali, was the most obvious choice, but there were considerable doubts as to his fitness for the job. Saleh's reference in his speech to handing over the reigns to Yemen's youth led some to claim his motivation is to lay the groundwork for his son, Commander of the Republican Guard Ahmed Ali Saleh, to assume the Presidency. Ahmed Ali figured strongly into any succession scenario, but this theory did little to explain Saleh's recent move.
Ahmed Ali would be 36 in September 2006, but the Yemeni Constitution stipulated a President must be 40 years of age or above. In a non-emergency situation, the Yemeni opposition and public would probably oppose strongly a constitutional amendment simply to allow for a Ahmed Ali candidacy in 2006. If Saleh was indeed intent on installing his son in power, he was not likely to set him up with such a divisive and inauspicious beginning.
The majority of Yemenis, tribal and non-tribal alike, had a strong aversion to hereditary succession. Until the 20th Century, hereditary succession was forbidden by the Imamate. The Imam was required to be a Zaydi and a direct descendent of the Prophet, but the most qualified candidate was chosen by tribal consensus. These norms remain fresh for many Yemenis, and Ahmed would have to overcome the view that his accession to the presidency would be a betrayal of the republican character of the state.
The Zaidi clan of the Jahm tribe hail from the oil rich Marib province to the east of Sanaa. The Zaidi tribal group should not be confused with the Zaidi Shi'a sect of northern Yemen. The Zaidi clan belongs to a much larger tribal grouping known as the Khawlan al-Teyyal, who comprise around 140,000 members living in the Sirwah region straddling Sanaa and Marib provinces, a region where government control is weak. In 2001, fighting broke out between security forces and tribesmen, after the Yemeni Republican Guard attempted to arrest suspected Al-Qaeda member Abu Ali al-Harethi who had been granted safehaven by some tribal members.
Fighting between the al-Houthi rebels and ROYG forces intensified in 2008. Each time the government proclaimed its success, however, other news sources reported renewed al-Houthi resistance, suggesting these victories were not so decisive. Long after Bani Hushaysh was declared won in July 2008, the Republican Guard, led by the President's son, Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Saleh, continued to bomb and "root out" al-Houthis there.
Many believed President Saleh assigned his son and Republican Guard Commander Ahmed Ali Saleh to the fighting in Bani Hushaysh to burnish the son's military credentials, which would serve him well should he 'inherit' the presidency. Victory, however, had been difficult to claim, and the Republican Guard found fighting the al-Houthis in Bani Hushaysh hard slogging. Ahmed Ali's Republican Guard was tasked with defending the regime, which made its deployment in Bani Hushaysh near the capital reasonable. Military sources noted, however, that if the Republican Guard was deployed on a large scale to Saada, and if Ahmed Ali were to go with them, they would fall under the command of Northwestern Regional Commander and First Armored Brigade Commander Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.
Heavy fighting with the Houthis continued and, according to observers, the conflict had become a prolonged war of attrition. President Saleh announced a "new" strategy on 26 August 2009. A second Republican Guard unit - typically kept in reserve to protect the regime in Sana'a - was deployed to Sa'ada between August 30 and September 1. One change in strategy - wider use of the Yemeni Special Operations Forces (YSOF) and Republican Guard than in the past - may make a difference because these forces are better trained and more professional than Northwest Regional Commander Major General Ali Muhsen al-Ahmar's First Armored Brigade, which had previously led the charge in Sa'ada.