SANAA, Yemen — The slim, brown-suited man with the handlebar mustache nodded approvingly.
He stood behind a chair at a ceremony in the summer, watching as his loyalists and rebels signed a power-sharing deal to rule the country. Never mind that peace talks were underway at the time, or that the United Nations had expressed concerns that the deal violated the constitution.
Yemen’s former longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was back.
Ousted during the Arab Spring uprisings, one of the Middle East’s wiliest politicians has risen up again. He is taking advantage of the chaos of conflict and the political inexperience of the rebels to deepen his influence, officials and analysts say.
Saleh was once a vital counterterrorism ally of the United States and Saudi Arabia, but they abandoned him in favor of the youthful revolutionaries who launched the mass protests that toppled him in 2012.
Today, he is one of the biggest obstacles to U.S. efforts to broker peace in Yemen and threatens Washington’s influence in the Middle East. American efforts to contain Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch, viewed by U.S. officials as the terror group’s most menacing affiliate, have dramatically been scaled back.
Saleh also stands in the way of Saudi Arabia, whose military is deeply involved in a campaign against the rebels. A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s war after the rebels ousted the government last year. The rebels are widely thought to be backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival in the region. The war has cost the Saudis billions of dollars at a time of shrinking oil revenue, and has yielded few political results so far.
Saleh is accustomed to confusion, crisis and fear. Some analysts say he thrives under such conditions.
For 33 years, he ruled with an iron fist over a country beset by rampant corruption and security threats, from a northern rebellion to a southern secessionist movement. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Saleh entered into a wary relationship with the United States. In exchange for economic and military aid, he allowed the U.S. military and CIA to strike at al-Qaeda’s branch, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
These days, portraits of Saleh remain visible across a capital battered by war, and he’s referred to as the “Godfather” in some circles. He regularly appears on his party’s TV channel, holding meetings and giving speeches.
“Saleh is trying to see himself as the kingmaker,” said Jamie McGoldrick, the top U.N. humanitarian official in Yemen. “He’s re-emerged as a force, whether you like him or not.”
A State Department official said Saleh “retains considerable influence in the country” and could “play a constructive role in bringing the conflict to an end, if he so chooses.” A military spokesman for the coalition, as well as officials from Yemen’s internationally recognized government, did not respond to requests for comment.
Citing security concerns, Saleh’s office declined requests for an interview, but his advisers say he has no aspirations to rule again. Analysts say he might be trying to put his eldest son, Ahmed Ali, in position to take the country’s helm one day.
At the very least, Saleh’s actions suggest that he wants to remain a central political figure in the region, protecting his family, his legacy and billions of dollars amassed over his rule, according to U.N. investigators.
“He’s a survivor,” said Hisham Sharaf, a former minister in Saleh’s regime.
Of all the autocrats toppled in the Arab revolts, Saleh is the only one whose fate has not yet been resolved. Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is being detained in a military hospital. Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi was brutally killed.
Saleh, 74, has also outlasted the opponents who removed him from office: the protest movement leaders, a powerful army general who turned against him, a rival tribal family and the country’s most powerful Islamist party. All have been diminished.
And in June 2011, Saleh narrowly escaped a bomb attack on his presidential compound, suffering burns and other injuries.
Saleh’s shrewdest move, perhaps, was his ability to stay in the country despite U.S. and international efforts to force him into exile after he handed power to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in February 2012.
With his political party intact, and his loyalists in the new government, Saleh meddled behind the scenes, his critics say.
Hadi gradually chipped away at Saleh’s power, removing his family members from key military and security posts. But as northern rebels gained more territory, Saleh soon saw an opportunity.
When the rebels, known as the Houthis, seized the capital last year, Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden. Since March, 2015 the Saudi-led coalition has tried to bring him back to power.
The United States is aiding the coalition with weapons, intelligence and other support to bolster Saudi Arabia, its valued ally, as well as regain its ability to counter al-Qaeda.
The conflict has worsened a humanitarian crisis and left thousands of civilians dead.
The power vacuum has allowed al-Qaeda and a nascent Islamic State affiliate to expand and stage numerous attacks, while political, regional and tribal divisions widen.
During his rule, Saleh, a secularist, fought six civil wars against the deeply religious-minded northern Houthi rebels, who have long viewed his regime as corrupt and blamed it for most of the country’s problems.
But Saleh made an unlikely alliance with the Houthis to survive.
“It was a marriage of convenience,” said Nabil Al-Soufi, a political analyst who is close to the General People’s Congress, the party Saleh still leads.
Today, well-trained and equipped Yemeni soldiers loyal to Saleh work with Houthi fighters on the front lines. With cash and charisma, he has gotten powerful tribes and political allies to accept the Houthis’ rule.
In their self-proclaimed government, known as the Supreme Political Council, Saleh’s loyalists and the Houthis jointly run ministries and other parts of a bureaucracy.
They control northwest Yemen, while Hadi and forces nominally loyal to him oversee portions of the south and east.
Saleh meets regularly with Houthi leaders, securing the influence of his party through his political skills, and deftly uses social media.
“We benefit a lot from his presence,” said Faiqah al-Sayed, a top official in Saleh’s party. “Perhaps, it is the wisdom of God that he’s still here with us.”
Saleh has declared on television that his alliance has enough weapons to wage war for another decade, if the peace talks don’t go its way. He has remained defiant, even under U.N. sanctions imposed on him, rallying hundreds of thousands of supporters in street protests.
“He’s now in the strongest position since he left office,” said Riyadh al-Ahmedi, a Yemeni political analyst.
But tensions between Saleh and the Houthis appear to be growing. They have clashed over the governing of ministries, while Houthi officials have expressed displeasure at some of Saleh’s public statements, analysts and Western officials say.
“Their goals and ambitions appear to be in conflict with each other,” said the State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as per diplomatic protocol.
Saleh’s aides and Houthi officials deny there is any friction, saying such reports were instigated by the Saudi-led coalition. “It’s natural for us to disagree,” said Abdulmalik Al-Ajri, a senior Houthi political official. “But there’s no conflict between us and the GPC.”
Saleh, whose houses have been struck by coalition airstrikes, never sleeps in the same location for more than a night straight, his aides say. Yemen, they warn, could become even more chaotic without its godfather.
“If you kill Ali Abdullah Saleh,” Sharaf said, “you’ll have a thousand Ali Abdullah Salehs looking at you as an enemy.”