Yemen’s Great Enabler Departs

The former president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi was a ‘painful friend’ to have – and a worse president

Yemen’s Great Enabler Departs
Yemen President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi prepares to speak to world leaders at a UN General Assembly on September 21, 2017 in New York City / Spencer Platt / Getty Images

One might be taken in by former Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, until meeting him in person. A very “adi” — mediocre — guy, not somebody whose words convey new knowledge or provoke deeper thought in the listener. That is how I felt walking out of his house in Sanaa in January 2014.

At 23 years old, all I gained from the encounter was the courage to smoke in front of my father that afternoon, after he had seen me on the news sitting down with our president. Nothing in Hadi’s speeches or public remarks in the years since has changed my impression, which I came to learn was shared by many others who met him.

Now that Hadi has departed, replaced by a presidential council, it’s time to consider his legacy. And what a pointless lack of legacy it is. For a man who led a country and its people for a decade, there are precious few achievements to point to. Hadi resembles no world leaders so much as former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika — an ill and often absent president, removed by his own government — and Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani, a corrupt figurehead, who fled the country.

Like Hadi, my generation got some sort of agency out of the Yemeni revolution of 2011. After more than 33 years of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hadi embodied our newly gained ability to imagine more than one president in our lifetime. We were so taken by the possibility of change that 6.6 million Yemenis — 65% of eligible voters — turned out to vote for Hadi in a one-candidate election in 2012. Some friends chuckled at me for taking part in such a “fake election.” But we were desperate to find a way forward and for a leader who would bear out our aspirations for our country and navigate it through what was to be a brief transitional phase so that Yemen could be spared the bloody path we saw Syria careening down every day. Little did we know, or could we even imagine, that Hadi would take us on a catastrophic combination of Syrian, Libyan, Somali and Iraqi routes.

That’s why many Yemenis feel Hadi has stabbed them in the back twice over, once through incompetence and a tolerance for corruption, and then again by allowing the country to be dragged into civil and proxy wars. He spent eight of his 10 years as Yemen’s “transitional” president living outside the country, abusing his power by indulging corrupt relatives and allies, granting his sons the decidedly unconstitutional authority to manage and meddle in state matters and showing little interest in appeals from Yemenis to ease their burdens. Throughout these years, Hadi, from outside Yemen, encouraged people to fight and die to preserve his status as Yemen’s “legitimate” president.

His circle of advisers didn’t hesitate to uphold and repeat that dubious claim of legitimacy — and kept repeating it for years beyond his mandate, right up until the moment Hadi was finally forced out of office on April 7. At that point, those same advisers scrambled to secure their own interests.

For all of these reasons, Hadi’s departure was not celebrated most by his Houthi opponents in Sanaa. Rather, it was by those who fought the Houthis under the banner of Hadi’s “legitimate” government. The mood lightened considerably in many gatherings in Marib and Shabwa governorates, this year’s key battleground, where sheikhs and residents discussed the changes during nightly Ramadan get-togethers, where qat, a plant chewed as a stimulant, is shared.

But speaking to people across the country, there is a sense that at least with Hadi’s departure, things may actually move again. Governing Yemen requires someone who is actually in Yemen and interested in governing.

Beyond all of that, and to our Yemen Arab Spring generation specifically, Hadi will always be viewed as the man who transformed opportunities into problems and dreams into nightmares. That is his legacy to the generation behind the 2011 revolution. We dreamed of Yemenis truly practicing democracy and taking our country forward; for many, having demanded these dreams become reality is their biggest regret in life.

It was a dream to have a truly national dialogue, but Hadi and his aides abused the process of the 2013-14 National Dialogue Conference so horribly — by manipulating representation and outcomes, violating conference bylaws, buying loyalties — that it ended with a civil war.

It was a dream to have the support of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries with sufficient resources and authority to make the transitional period succeed. Yet Hadi abused that relationship for personal interests to the extent his indulgent hosts, who justified their destructive role in Yemen’s war on Hadi’s request for intervention, eventually lost patience, kicking him out of office and effectively changing the locks by installing a command council to replace the presidency. It was a humiliating, though sadly unsurprising, end. The Saudis, it seems, learned what Yemeni business owner Khaled Abdulwahid knows all too well. Asked recently in Aden what it meant to have a lifelong friend like Hadi, he grimaced: “It is very painful.” 

Even those who did not like how Hadi’s departure was orchestrated understood why — and how — the Saudis did it. “They came to us for something that we have been asking for, for too long,” Abdullah Al-Namani, head of the Tadhamon political party and an MP, told me a few days after signing Hadi’s concession document. “How can you say ‘no’ to something you know is what you both want and need?”

It was painful, but the only right thing. Hadi left no one any choice.

For 18 years, Hadi held the most boring job in a presidential system: vice president. He accepted the title from Saleh in 1994, even though it came with little to no respect, and he made a career out of chairing inconsequential committees, cutting ceremonial ribbons and passing greetings to people from a boss who barely took notice of him.

Even as president, that was the most consistent role he played; an enabler, of anyone or anything. In the south, he was an enabler for the British army (he and his family served as guards for the British Colony during their occupation of Yemen) and later for the Soviet-sponsored Marxist state. And when Saleh took the decision to invade the south in 1994, it was Hadi, a southerner, who led his troops against the south and on the side of Saleh.

After the war, Hadi agreed to be the most senior southerner in Saleh’s government — enabling Saleh’s horrible political formula that allowed Saleh to dominate the country while claiming to act in the name of all Yemenis. He later colluded with whoever was in charge of Yemen, be it the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah party, or the Houthis or those waging the Saudi war for eight long years.

In his early days as president, it took people a while to fully absorb the fact he was president. Hadi didn’t enjoy mixing with people much or being in front of TV cameras. For months, his house in Sanaa continued to be referred to as “the VP’s house.” A running joke in Sanaa at the time was that on the day of his inauguration as a president, Hadi told his wife “Congratulations. Tomorrow, you will be the First Lady.” The second day, the joke went, his wife packed her stuff and moved to Saleh’s house — because not even Hadi’s own wife could imagine him as president.

Hadi was “the coincidence president.” A powerful Arab Spring uprising had just shaken Saleh’s republican throne, an uprising so powerful even he, the wiliest of politicians, could not survive it. But Saleh hoped to place an “enabler” on the throne, so that he could maintain his power. Two names were floated at the time. Saleh’s prime minister by then, Ali Mujawaer, politely declined. And Rashad Alimi — now the head of the presidential council — was unpopular in those circles loyal to Saleh. Hence, the safest pick was Hadi. The Americans also liked the idea of a vice president taking over from a struggling president (an idea they also supported in Syria, Iraq before 2003 and elsewhere). Thus, all the stars in Yemen aligned for a Hadi presidency.

During this time, in the early years of his presidency, even Hadi’s aides struggled to meet with him, and he was said to be obsessed with foreign support and more accessible to foreign dignitaries. With President Vladimir Putin, he would speak in Russian, which he learned during his time studying in Russia. Hadi was meeting with Western diplomats almost daily in his first year; multiple aides said he firmly believed that only the United States mattered. While Hadi was still in Sanaa early in his presidency, senior Yemeni officials, including some ministers, told me that they had to go through the British or U.S. ambassadors to get a meeting with him. He met with his own party leadership little more than a handful of times in the three years he worked from inside Yemen.

Hadi earned a reputation during his years as Saleh’s deputy and as president for being willing to do or accept anything that would ensure he maintained his position. Between 2012 and 2014, he essentially surrendered to the Islamist Islah party, liberally appointing its members to run state institutions so they would protect his seat in power. And when the time came, Hadi handed Sanaa to the Houthis in the September 2014 Peace and National Partnership Agreement, surmising that even if a militia controlled the capital, he could still negotiate himself a place within it.

The Houthis, however, had no interest in sharing Sanaa, or power overall, and Hadi fled the capital in early 2015, first to Aden and then via Oman to Riyadh. He quickly adapted to his new lifestyle in his Riyadh safe haven, where aides and close friends described him during those years as satisfied to merely sleep in and enjoy lunch and semi-fresh qat, as well as the songs of Muhammed Murshed Nagi and Faisal Alawi, two of his favorite singers.

Hadi showed the same traits while president-in-exile as he had in Sanaa. Early on in Riyadh, he dismissed, or at best sidelined, advisers and ministers who disagreed with him, and he left daily decision-making to a close inner circle that included his adult sons. In February 2022, Hadi’s aide Abdulaziz Al-Maflahi told me he had last met personally with Hadi four years earlier, on being sworn in as an adviser to the president. Hadi also turned the Balhaf refinery in Shabwa governorate over to the United Arab Emirates in 2015, while he was on good terms with the Emiratis, to use as a military base. And he accepted, at times even encouraged, Saudi disregard for protocol as long he was allowed to stay comfortably in place.

He signed off on many documents and orders that violated Yemen’s sovereignty, such as ceding control of the country’s air space to Saudi Arabia. Multiple military commanders told me they had received a written document that instructed them to take orders directly from Fahd bin Turki, the Saudi commander of coalition forces in Yemen until 2020, as if they had come from Hadi himself. As the former governor of Hadramawt, Ahmed bin Breik, once told me: “Hadi just wants to sit on that chair. If you in some way can give him that, even for an extra day, he will do whatever you want.”

For weeks, months and years, the Saudis waited for their “guest” to leave. According to more than one Yemeni and Saudi source, more than once between 2018 and 2022, the Saudis politely offered to build him a palace anywhere in Yemen, including near the border or even on the Saudi side of it. But the man was happiest in Riyadh, far from Yemen and Yemenis.

Hadi never made the slightest effort on issues he arguably could have handled easier from Riyadh, such as stopping the expulsion from Saudi Arabia of Yemeni workers, whose earnings are a lifeline for so many Yemeni families and communities. Tens of thousands of Yemeni workers — some in businesses mere minutes from Hadi’s palace in Riyadh — lost their jobs or were forced to leave the country because of Saudization, the policy of replacing foreign workers with Saudi citizens. Their remittances were the last main source of hard currency in Yemen. The mass expulsion of so many workers arguably did more harm to the country than the war itself.

Instead, Hadi’s rare conversations with his host King Salman involved self-interested appeals to his host’s commitment to traditional Arab hospitality. During a 2017 meeting in Mecca, Hadi requested qat be allowed into his palace daily and, in a telephone call a few years later, he asked King Salman to allow him more time in his luxury accommodations in Riyadh, according to more than one source familiar with the call’s content.

It took years until the Saudis realized there was a problem with the announced goal of their operation in Yemen to restore the legitimate Hadi government to its place in the capital Sanaa: Hadi himself had no intention of returning to anywhere in Yemen.

Hadi was, in many ways, the worst ally to have. And the perfect enemy. He was happy with any compromise, any loss, as long as he stayed in power. Even if he was in exile, his seat of power was located in a Riyadh palace, as insulated from the realities of war back home — one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, let’s not forget — as it was from Riyadh’s scorching desert heat. He would do anything to maintain it.

On April 7, the scene for Hadi in Riyadh, and for millions of Yemenis, was very different from, and much more difficult than, a decade ago. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have died in this war to restore legitimacy to a government led by a man who was not interested in serving them and their needs. Yemen is plagued by militias and in the grip of war economies. An entire generation transformed from being proud to, at best, gripped by guilt for daring to demand democracy and true reform. 

Yemen has endured so much. And yes, Hadi is far from being responsible for it alone. In a war as long and brutal as Yemen’s, there is plenty of blame to go around, from the reckless sectarianism of the Houthis to the meddling of countries in the region. And, most certainly, there were our own mistakes as youths demanding change that played a part in this fate. Our immaturity and political naivete don’t give us a pass. We could have done much better and acted more responsibly, in so many ways. Still, Hadi was the center of it all, powerfully placed during the peak of the hopes and through the seemingly bottomless lows. Everyone was willing to move the ship of state forward, except its assigned captain.

Fast forward 10 years from beautiful Sanaa to Riyadh, where Hadi was summoned the night of April 6 to see the Saudi deputy defense minister, Khaled bin Salman. Hours later, in a brief, prerecorded statement, he ceded power to a presidential council. Hadi’s handover took 10 years, not two as initially planned, and he didn’t hand over to a president elected by the Yemeni people as promised in February 2013. Rather, power transferred to eight men agreeable to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including political and tribal foes Hadi had fired in the past, enemies who had tried to kill him more than once, and some allies who had advised him and negotiated on his behalf throughout the war. It took many Yemenis by surprise, all except the handful involved in preparing the text, but for many, Hadi had abandoned them long ago. And, despite any pain, friends as well as foes were ready for Hadi’s chapter to end.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy