Hamid al-Ahmar, Yemen's Next President?

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Armed tribesmen last week stared into a destroyed house of the Ahmar family, which opposes President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s teetering regime in Sana. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP-Getty Images

The smoke had barely cleared from the mosque where Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh lay bleeding and burned when his government set out for payback. He had been wounded in an attack during Friday prayers two weeks ago, and in retaliation his security forces started shelling Hadda, an upscale neighborhood south of the capital city of Sana. At first, the barrage of rocket fire seemed to be just another frightening round of escalating violence in a country that has, for decades, been at war with itself.

But the Hadda attack marked a very specific turn in what many say is transforming into a new civil war. Saleh’s forces had a specific target: Hamid al-Ahmar, a 44-year-old billionaire businessman from one of the most powerful families in Yemen. Shells hammered Ahmar’s house and the surrounding neighborhood, leaving 10 people dead and 35 more injured.

In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Ahmar, who’s fond of wearing traditional robes with a large jambiya dagger strapped to his belt, denied any involvement in the attack on the president. But he was openly critical of the president in his comments. “If President Saleh leaves the political scene, Yemen will be safe,” he said. “Saleh was behind all the killings of innocent protesters nationwide.”

Yemeni government spokesmen have downplayed Saleh’s injuries, but U.S. officials have been telling news agencies that the president is burned on more than 40 percent of his body. Other rumors are swirling—some suspect he suffered a pierced lung. Others say he is dealing with a head injury. Saleh has been flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. The date of his return remains an open question. Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed, who heads the elite Republican Guard, has planted himself in the presidential palace, and for the moment at least, the leaders of the youth protest movement seem ill equipped to take on the remnants of the regime.

When the news of Saleh’s departure first spread, celebrations broke out across the country. But since then, the question of Saleh’s successor has become critical. After all, this is a country seemingly always on the brink. And Yemen holds significant strategic interest for the United States, which fears the Qaeda-infested country could be taken over by radical Islamists.

Whatever its role, the Ahmar family is sure to be an important player.

“[The Ahmar family] have been very powerful as kingmakers behind the scenes,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University. “They’re very politically powerful and, given their business interests, they’re quite a force on the economic scene as well.”

Together, the Ahmar family can draw on billions of dollars in cash as well as tens of thousands of armed tribesmen for support, which makes the brothers the biggest threat to the remnants of Saleh’s regime, and ensures that the family will play a decisive role in post-Saleh Yemen.

Hamid al-Ahmar has nine brothers, among them Sadeq, 55, the head of the Hashed, the country’s largest and most influential tribal confederation. The other brothers also have influential business and tribal ties. It’s a surprising turn of history, as not so long ago some members of the Ahmar family were actually among the president’s most ardent supporters. Sheik Abdullah, the Ahmar patriarch who was long considered the second-most-powerful man in Yemen, helped Saleh gain the presidency in 1978 and stuck by him for nearly 30 years. But after Abdullah’s death in 2007, long-hidden family rivalries spilled into the open.

With a brash style, Hamid took the lead in blasting Saleh’s regime. He had set himself apart from his brothers early on: during his teenage years he visited the U.S., where he learned to speak fluent English, and went on to earn a degree in economics from Sana University. He not only survived in the cutthroat world of Yemeni business, which is notorious for its rampant corruption, he thrived at it. (A recent Gallup survey reports that seven out of 10 Yemenis said corruption is widespread in their government.) Hamid is now the owner of the country’s largest cell-phone provider, a satellite-TV network, a bank, and franchises for both KFC and Spinneys supermarkets.

The U.S. has long realized Hamid is a key player in Yemen’s future. According to a diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, in August 2009 a senior U.S. Embassy official in Sana met with Hamid and listened to the billionaire’s plan to organize mass protests to oust President Saleh. “Hamid al-Ahmar has ambition, wealth and tribal power in abundance, a fiery combination anywhere but especially in Yemen,” U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche wrote at the time.

Hamid has made no secret of his political ambitions. He’s served in the Parliament since 1993 and doesn’t mince words about his future plans: “I am Yemeni, and it is my right like any other Yemeni to seek a political role, and the people have the right to reject me or to choose me,” he says. “I also have the right to seek the presidency if I feel the people want me to lead them.”

The only thing that had been keeping the Saleh and Ahmar families from tearing into each other was their heavy-handed northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia. For years the Saudis have paid off various tribal factions in Yemen to keep the peace. The Ahmar family reportedly received several million dollars a month from the Saudis. Hamid drew himself even closer through his business ties. “The Saudis have been financial backers of the [Ahmar] family and still are,” says April Longley Alley, a Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group. “The ties are deep.”

But after Saleh’s security forces opened fire on protesters in March, even the Saudis couldn’t keep the two sides apart. The eldest brother, Sadeq, went public with his defiance of the Saleh government. Soon after, gunmen loyal to the Ahmar family were fighting raging street battles with government forces that left more than 100 dead. In May, Saleh called for the arrest of all 10 brothers.

Sadeq denies starting the street battles. “We did not attack anyone. The attacks came to our houses, and we were hit with many missiles,” he said in an interview. “We could defend ourselves against the oppression or die watching.”

Exactly how much support the Ahmar family has in the Yemeni street remains unclear. Some protesters are highly critical as they see the ongoing feud between the Salehs and the Ahmars as a fight between the country’s elites, a struggle that is far removed from the popular calls for sweeping reform. “The Ahmar family destroyed the revolution,” says Ali al Dolah, a 26-year-old youth activist in Sana decked out in a traditional robe and headscarf. “This was a youth revolution until the Ahmar family made it personal against the president.”

Hamid has tried to win their support. He has reportedly sent food, cash, and clothes out to the protesters in Sana in recent weeks, as well as bags of qat, the narcotic leaf loved by millions of Yemeni men. He insists his family is working to help the discontented Yemenis in the street. “We are working to create a government of the people,” he says. If the clashes between the two families flare up again, many Yemenis may think the Ahmars are trying for a power grab instead.

With Hakim Almasmari in Sana