ALI ABDULLAH SALEH
Elected president of what was then the Yemen Arab Republic in 1978, Saleh has ruled the country in one form or another for more than three decades, a task he famously likens to "dancing on the heads of snakes." Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables paint a picture of a wily survivor determined to enrich and empower his own family and friends at the expense of the nation. But declining oil revenues have made it harder for the president to sustain his tribal patronage network, and observers have warned for years that Saleh was losing his edge. (One 2009 cable quoted a member of parliament describing the president as "overwhelmed, exhausted by the war, and more and more intolerant of internal criticism.")
A lifelong military man (and rumored whiskey smuggler), Saleh is not thought to have completed elementary school -- and it shows. "Saleh has provided Yemen with relative stability relying on his maneuvering skills and strategic alliances, but has done little to strengthen government institutions or modernize the country," one 2005 cable reads. The president's eldest son, Ahmad Ali, heads the U.S.-backed special forces, and three of his nephews hold top military positions. The same leaked 2005 cable describes Ahmad Ali as "the most obvious choice" to succeed Saleh, but alludes to "considerable doubts as to his fitness for the job."