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Obituary: Abdullah Sallal

Robin Bidwell
Friday 18 March 1994 00:02 GMT

Abdullah Sallal, soldier, politician: born 1916; Governor of Hodeidah 1959- 62; President of the Revolutionary Council, Commander-in-Chief of the Republican Forces, and Prime Minister of Yemen 1962-67, Minister of Foreign Affairs 1963-64; died Sanaa, Yemen 12 March 1994.

IN SEPTEMBER 1962 a group of young officers with Egyptian support overthrew the thousand-year- old Imamate of Yemen and, modelling themselves on Egypt, sought a senior army officer to serve as a figurehead, as General Mohammad Neguib had done for Colonel Nasser. Abdullah Sallal was reputedly their second choice but none the less became the first President of the Yemen Arab Republic and Prime Minister, promoted himself Field Marshal and determined to rule, getting rid of potential rivals, some of whom fled into exile. He showed no signs of having any political ideology, contenting himself with vague statements about getting rid of social and political injustice and playing a full part in Arab affairs in alliance with Egypt. He spent long periods in Egypt and was finally ousted in a bloodless coup after Nasser withdrew his support in November 1967.

Abdullah Sallal was born in 1916, a member of the blacksmith class and thus, although a Zaidi, was not of tribal origin. When in the mid-1930s the Imam Yahya of Yemen had to replace the ageing Turks who had hitherto officered his army he wanted men without their own tribal or religious affiliation and Sallal was one of those selected for training at the Military Academy in Baghdad. He returned in 1939, like some of his comrades critical of the lack of progress in his homeland and, before starting his military career, was briefly imprisoned as a warning against indulgence in politics. In 1948 he was implicated in the murder of Yahya and spent the next seven years in prison, part of the time in chains in an underground cell.

In 1955, at the request of the liberal-minded young Crown Prince Muhammad al-Badr, Sallal was released and put in charge of the port of Hodeidah. It is believed that he made contact with Egyptian intelligence at this time while Nasser was seeking a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula. In 1961 an assassination attempt on the Imam Ahmad in Hodeidah almost succeeded and Sallal was dismissed. Ahmad, however, allowed his son Badr to make Sallal chief of his bodyguard and when in September 1962 Badr succeeded to the throne, he appointed Sallal a colonel and Chief of Staff. A week later the military coup took place and Sallal took up office.

Sallal became extremely unpopular. He was regarded as a bully and an intriguer, motivated purely by self-interest, disliked by the Zaidis for his low birth and by the Shafais for refusing them any concessions: there were several attempts on his life. Royalist resistance increased and Sallal became entirely dependent upon the Egyptians to the extent that he was regarded as their puppet. They even censored his speeches. The Royalists were backed by the Saudis, against whom Sallal called for all-out war, proclaiming a Republic of the Arabian Peninsula, and by the British in Aden, but he succeeded in persuading the Kennedy administration that he was a liberal and progressive ruler and secured its recognition. He never publicly deplored the Egyptian use of napalm and poison gas against his fellow countrymen.

Sallal was unable to secure constitutional legitimacy or efficient administration and Nasser, visiting Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, in April 1964, was so horrified by the chaos that he appointed a prime minister and took Sallal back to Cairo with him for some months. Sallal also visited Moscow, where he signed a Friendship Treaty, and Peking. When in the winter of 1964- 65 he returned home he found that moderate Royalists and moderate Republicans were near a settlement which would have involved the retirement of both himself and Imam Badr. He managed to frustrate this but Nasser, now anxious to disentangle himself from the Yemen, summoned him to Cairo where he spent much of a year under a measure of restraint.

In August 1966 when Nasser, knowing that the British had decided to leave Aden, changed his mind and determined to stay in Yemen so as to be in a position to take advantage of their withdrawal, he sent back Sallal. The prime minister, General Amri, occupied the airfield to prevent the President from landing but was compelled by superior Egyptian forces to retire. Sallal appointed himself Prime Minister in defiance of his own Constitution and conducted a ferocious purge: amongst those shot in public were a Vice-President and a Deputy Chief of Staff. There were widespread reports of torture. Sallal in January 1967 attempted to form a political party but few were reported to have joined it voluntarily.

After his defeat in the June War of 1967, Nasser withdrew his troops from the Yemen. Sallal now had no support either at home or abroad and at the beginning of November left Sanaa in the hope of help from Moscow. On 5 November he was ousted in a coup, bloodless because no one lifted a finger to defend him. Nasser refused him refuge in Cairo and for a while he settled on Baghdad on a pension from the Iraqi government. He was allowed to return home in October 1981 and played no part in political life although his mordant comments on men and events were eagerly passed round the capital.

Sallal was a swarthy, black-jowled man, usually looking lugubrious, crumpled and untidy. In many ways a traditional Zaidi, he kept his family affairs completely private.

(Photograph omitted)

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