Reporting from Cairo and Sana, Yemen — President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who once described ruling Yemen as dancing on the heads of snakes, has stayed in power for three decades through a clever mix of money, tribal ploys and government corruption.
But Saleh's political capital is shrinking and his wiles are straining as Yemen struggles with a civil war in the north, secession troubles in the south and a battle against an Al Qaeda affiliate that has drawn the United States into a new front against the terrorist network.
As with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the U.S. regards Saleh more as a skilled operator than a trusted ally. For years, Washington paid sporadic attention and sent little aid to Yemen, but that changed after Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the failed bombing of a Northwest Airlines jet on Christmas Day.
Top American intelligence officials told Congress this week that Yemen's terrorist network was a major threat to U.S. interests. The Obama administration is now warily increasing money and commitment to an Arab leader criticized for manipulating crises for political gain and tolerating militants as long as they unleashed their jihad in other countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Saleh is always maneuvering," said AbdulSalam Qarari, deputy editor of Afaq Gadidah magazine in Sana, the capital. "He creates crises so he can play with them and use them for his interests."
The 67-year-old Saleh, who wears a meticulous mustache and suits of muted colors, is facing increasing pressure amid tumbling oil revenues, a water shortage and the government's diminishing grip on tribal lands scattered widely across mountains and deserts.
Saleh has long been adept at deciphering his country's moods and passions. In recent years, however, he appears to have spent less time tending to national problems than on fortifying his family's hold on power, most notably by preparing his son Ahmed, chief of the Special Forces and the Yemen Republican Guard, to succeed him.
The president's political style follows that of other Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who create facades of democracy while ruling as strongmen over states that run on patronage. In addition to his son, relatives holding key positions include his half-brother Mohammed, commander of the air force, and his nephews Tarek, head of the Presidential Guard, and Amar, deputy chief of Yemen's National Security Bureau.
"Saleh's a very good politician, but he hasn't understood that there is a big change in our society," said Mohammed AbdulMalik Mutawakel, a leader in a federation of opposition parties. "He used to manage the public in three ways: by satisfying with money, by using force, and by propaganda. All these tactics are ineffective now. He has no money. He is already using all the force he has. And with propaganda? People will believe him once, twice, but no one will believe him now."
What troubles the West is Yemen's strategic location in the crosscurrents where the Al Qaeda-plagued Horn of Africa meets the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. It is only in recent months, with increased U.S. pressure, that Yemen has moved to rout Islamic militants.
Airstrikes against Al Qaeda bases and training camps have reportedly killed more than 60 militants since mid-December. The U.S. is expected to double its military and counter-terrorism aid to about $150 million.
Saleh's critics accuse him of exploiting Al Qaeda and other threats to attract foreign money, including $2 billion from Saudi Arabia. Yet, at the same time, he shows independence from the West for fear of angering a populace disdainful of U.S. regional intervention.
It is a tricky strategy of a man playing both sides. Saleh recently said he would open a dialogue with Al Qaeda militants who renounce violence. The overture was received well at home but it left doubts in the West about the president's zeal to destroy militant networks.
In 2006, Yemen's police and security forces were suspected of helping more than 20 extremists escape from prison. That took pressure off Saleh's government from radical Islamic Salafi voices, but now some of those escapees are fighting alongside a resurgent Al Qaeda group.
The fighting with the terrorist network and Houthi Shiite rebels in the north is the result of years of ineffectual government efforts to stem creeping dangers. The military campaigns have not diverted attention from malnutrition, corruption, failing schools, joblessness and other problems in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world.
Money has a tendency to disappear in Yemen. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted at a conference on Yemen in London last week that only a portion of $5.2 billion in international pledges to the country have been delivered, in part because of fear that the money will be misspent.