Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh waves to supporters during a rally in Sanaa April 8, 2011. Saleh said on Friday mediation efforts were welcome but he would not accept orders or intervention. (AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

A billionaire Yemeni sheik met with a high-ranking officer from the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa less than two years ago and revealed a secret plan to overthrow President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s longtime autocratic ruler.

Hamid al-Ahmar, an opposition party leader and a prominent businessman, vowed to trigger the revolt if Saleh did not guarantee the fairness of parliamentary elections scheduled for 2011, according to a classified U.S. diplomatic cable summarizing the meeting. The sheik said he would organize massive demonstrations modeled on protests that toppled Indonesia’s President Suharto a decade earlier.

“We cannot copy the Indonesians exactly, but the idea is controlled chaos,” Ahmar told the unnamed embassy official. The embassy, however, was dismissive of the sheik, concluding that his challenge posed nothing more than “a mild irritation” for Saleh.

Today, Saleh is barely clinging to power amid a popular uprising in Yemen that is unfolding more or less along the lines that Ahmar predicted. Several previously undisclosed U.S. diplomatic cables, provided by the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, show that influential Yemenis and U.S. allies repeatedly warned U.S. diplomats of Saleh’s growing weakness in 2009 and 2010. But despite those warnings, the Obama administration continued to embrace Saleh and became increasingly dependent on him to combat an al-Qaeda affiliate that was plotting attacks against the United States from the Arabian peninsula.

The de facto chief of Yemen’s largest tribal confederation, Ahmar told the U.S. official in August 2009 that his scheme would hinge on persuading a powerful Yemeni general, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no direct relation) to abandon the president and join the opposition. Last month, the general did just that, with Hamid al-Ahmar, now considered a potential presidential candidate, playing a key behind-the-scenes role.

Since January, spontaneous public revolts have seized the Arab world, sweeping aside autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt while threatening others in Libya, Bahrain and Syria. The classified cables from the embassy in Sanaa, however, make clear that Yemen’s revolution was different: It was plotted and predicted long in advance.

Those same cables reveal that U.S. officials were keenly aware of Yemen’s fragile political and economic straits but largely discounted the prospect that Saleh could be forced out, despite dire assessments of his standing from Arab and European counterparts, from members of Yemen’s political opposition, and even from Saleh’s inner circle.

The U.S. government has not explicitly called for Saleh’s ouster, even though his security forces have been blamed for the shooting deaths of dozens of protesters. U.S. officials and Arab diplomats have been mediating talks, however, between the Yemeni government and demonstrators that could lead to Saleh’s exit.

The State Department declined to comment on the authenticity of the cables or their contents.

“The United States strongly condemns any illegal disclosure of classified information,” said Mike Hammer, the department’s acting chief spokesman. “In addition to damaging our diplomatic efforts, it puts individuals’ security at risk, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with countries to solve shared problems.”

According to the cables, some of the loudest alarms about Saleh were sounded by Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighbor and largest aid donor.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the kingdom’s foreign minister, told the U.S. ambassador in Riyadh on Oct. 17, 2009, that Saleh’s government was “weak” and vulnerable to collapse, which would be a “nightmare” for the Saudis. A week later, another Saudi diplomat warned that Yemen could become “another Afghanistan.”

In the sultanate of Oman, government ministers spoke “apocalyptically” about Yemen in meetings with the outgoing U.S. ambassador in May 2009. They reported that a senior Omani military official had recently visited Saleh, who complained that ruling Yemen was akin to “standing on the edge of a pit full of snakes.” The official replied: “Then, kill the snakes.”

In a separate meeting with the U.S. ambassador, the same Omani military official warned that Yemen was “on the brink” of civil war. “It would be another Somalia and a disaster for the region,” the official reported.

In Kuwait, officials also fretted about a possible breakup of the Yemeni state and said it could become a primary refuge for al-Qaeda. In Qatar, the prime minister told the U.S. ambassador that deteriorating conditions in Yemen left him “frightened.”

While Arab countries urged the Obama administration to shore up Saleh, saying no one else in Yemen was capable of running the country, European allies advised Washington to keep a safe distance. A Dutch diplomat told U.S. officials in the Netherlands that Saleh was “getting weaker and weaker” but said it would be misguided to “cheer” him or offer a “blank check.”

At a Sept. 16, 2009, lunch in Sanaa with a visiting State Department official, European ambassadors said Washington had to push Saleh harder to reform his increasingly corrupt and isolated government. “The brusker, the blunter, the better,” the British ambassador to Yemen said. “Saleh doesn’t understand anything if it’s framed diplomatically.”

A troubled nation

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, but that’s only one of its problems. It suffers from a weak central government, a recurring war with Shiite tribes in the north and threats of secession from the south. On top of that, it has become an increasingly attractive refuge for al-Qaeda.

Upon taking office, the Obama administration reviewed U.S. policy toward Yemen and pledged to give more money for counterterrorism programs and economic development. It later authorized U.S. military and intelligence teams to take part in secret, joint operations with Yemeni forces that targeted the al-Qaeda affiliate in the region.

But some independent analysts said the United States still didn’t pay enough attention to the dismal state of affairs in Yemen and was unprepared for the revolt against Saleh. They said the Obama administration could have pressured Saleh harder to make democratic concessions and could have hedged their bets on his presidency by reaching out more to rivals.

“Other allies have been talking about this with a lot more urgency and for a lot longer than the Americans have,” said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Until a few weeks ago, most of the talk from the Obama administration was that there isn’t an alternative to Saleh, that ‘we don’t know what else to do.’ ”

A senior Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, defended the U.S. approach. “Yemen is one of those places where we don’t have a lot of good policy options,” the official said. “We’ve had this emphasis on trying to bring about reform.”

In addition to a stream of invective voiced against Saleh by his political rivals and opponents, the State Department cables show that even members of the president’s inner circle were complaining to the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.

An ‘exhausted’ president

In December 2009, a member of parliament with close personal ties to Saleh told an embassy official that the president was “overwhelmed, exhausted by the war, and more and more intolerant of internal criticism.” According to a cable summarizing the meeting, the legislator characterized “the multitude of threats facing Saleh as qualitatively different and more threatening to the regime’s stability than those during any other time in Yemen’s history.”

Four months earlier, a member of Saleh’s party who is a relative of the president suggested that it was time for Yemen’s ruler to quit. “He doesn’t listen to anyone,” the relative told an embassy officer, adding that he was collaborating with the billionaire sheik, Hamid al-Ahmar, to organize public protests. The relative “hinted that if peaceful demonstrations were unsuccessful in achieving dramatic change, ‘we will use other means,’ ” the cable reported.

The embassy took careful note of the swell of anti-Saleh anger in cables transmitted back to Washington, but also dismissed many of the complaints as sour grapes. “It is unsurprising in a state dominated by a strong leader that those unhappy with their situation blame that individual,” read a May 30, 2009, cable signed by Stephen A. Seche, the U.S. ambassador at the time. Seche declined to comment for this story.

In a separate cable two months earlier, the ambassador played down a prediction from yet another Yemeni political insider that Saleh’s demise was imminent. “For thirty years, Saleh has ruled Yemen,” Seche wrote. “Observers have been predicting disaster here for almost as long.”