Yemen 101: Who's who in the escalating conflict

As Yemen’s crisis escalates, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is battling opponents on multiple fronts who have diverse backgrounds and agendas. Here's a rundown of the players you need to know in order to understand the unrest in Yemen.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family

Hani Mohammed/AP
Smoke rises during clashes between tribesmen loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, the head of the powerful Hashid tribe, and Yemeni security forces in Sanaa, Yemen, on Thursday, June 2.

Saleh became president of the Yemen Arab Republic, what is now northern Yemen, in 1978. In 1990 he incorporated southern Yemen into a unified republic, which he has presided over ever since.

He has maintained his hold on power through an extensive patronage network, which includes members of his family and tribal leaders. He's been a master at playing various factions against each other and preventing the emergence of a strong and unified opposition. Saleh’s family is part of the Sanhan tribe, which belongs to the large and powerful Hashid tribal confederation.

Saleh’s oldest son, Ahmad Ali Saleh, is head of Yemen’s elite Republican Guard and the country’s special forces, which have stood by Saleh as other military units defect. Prior to the current unrest, he was being groomed to succeed Saleh as president.

Saleh also installed several of his nephews in government positions, overseeing the country’s national security, central security, counterterrorism forces, and presidential guard. Saleh’s half-brother, Mohammed Saleh Abdullah al-Ahmar, leads the country’s air force. Dozens more members of the Saleh family have vast land and economic holdings – everything from oil and tobacco companies to Yemenia Airlines – as well as government and security positions.

Even if Saleh did opt to step down, it wouldn’t be the end of the Saleh family’s power.

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