Luxury Condo, for Saleh or Rent

Why is Yemen’s presidential family loaded up with millions of dollars in D.C. real estate?

Shortly after being named one of the three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize this month, Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman said that if embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh is driven from power, investigators should immediately begin searching for assets held abroad by members of his government. The money "plundered" by the regime, she said, should be "brought back to the Yemeni people," according to an account on an opposition website.

If Saleh is forced out -- he has held power for more than three decades -- the asset hunters might want to begin their search in Washington, D.C. Real estate records show that in 2007 a man named Ahmed Ali Saleh bought four condominiums in a luxury building in Friendship Heights, right near one of the capital's swankiest shopping areas. He paid $5.5 million -- in cash -- for the condos. He also owns a property assessed at about $220,000 in Fairfax, Virginia, bought in the 1990s.

Saleh is a common name in Yemen, and the Yemeni embassy in Washington won't comment on the matter, but substantial evidence indicates that the Ahmed Ali Saleh who owns the condos is the eldest son and longtime heir apparent of President Saleh. He also heads the elite Republican Guard, which has allegedly led many of the attacks on the country's largely peaceful protesters at Change Square in Sanaa.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, erupted in revolt against the Saleh family's rule in February, soon after the fall of Tunisia's Ben Ali. Tribal fighters, young pro-democracy activists, and government security forces have been vying for control ever since. In recent days, the capital has been gripped by violence. International human rights groups say the government has killed at least several hundred demonstrators since the uprising began; some estimates are many times that.

The unrest in Yemen was triggered in part by anger over the ruling family's self-enrichment, of which the military has been a prime beneficiary. (In addition to the Republican Guard, President Saleh's close relatives control other key branches of the military and security establishment.) Yemen is rapidly running out of oil, which underpins the economy, and other resources, which makes the situation all the more explosive.

In Washington, at least some members of the president's family live in posh style. Among the four condos owned by Ahmed Ali Saleh, the most expensive unit, which he bought for $1.7 million, is currently up for rent (furnished) for $7,500 per month. That's more or less equivalent to what a typical Yemeni makes in seven years. The rental listing describes the 2,019-square-foot unit as "LUXURIOUS and SPECTACULAR," with two bedrooms, walk-in closets, two-and-a-half baths (one with whirlpool), hardwood floors, and marble and granite trimmings. The listing also boasts of the building's 24-hour front desk and fitness center, as well as its location "steps from ... [the] best shopping in DC."

Indeed, Saleh's condos are just around the corner from Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus, and a multitude of high-end retailers at Mazza Gallerie shopping mall on Wisconsin Avenue. "So perfect, you'll want to move in immediately!" says the listing.

Frank Goldstein, who headed the building's condo owners' association until earlier this year, said that young Yemenis "in their 20s" lived in the condo units and that he was told by the Yemeni embassy that they were cousins and nephews of the president who were attending universities in Washington. Legal records show that Khaled Saleh, which is the name of another son of President Saleh, was living in one of the condos in 2009. A public record database search found that one of President Saleh's grandsons has lived at Ahmed Ali Saleh's Fairfax property. Khaled Saleh and at least two other relatives of the president are currently on the embassy's payroll, according to a document filed by the Yemeni government with the U.S. State Department. (Ahmed Ali Saleh himself lived in Washington in the mid-1990s and graduated from American University, one U.S. source told me. The university confirmed that an Ahmed A. Saleh graduated in the 1990s, but would provide no other information.)

Several people connected with the building, including Goldstein, told me that they never met the condo's owner -- but that the Yemeni embassy in Washington was the contact point when issues arose. When I called the concierge service at the building and said I wanted to get in touch with Ahmed Ali Saleh, the person I spoke with said, "He doesn't live here. If I need anything I call the embassy [of Yemen], and they get someone for me. If you want anything to do with those units, you have to go through the embassy."

Daphne Coates, who manages the units for Legum & Norman Realty, told me: "I've never met him [the owner] or talked to him. I don't know where he lives, here or in Yemen. When I need something I call the embassy, and they find someone for me to talk to."

Goldstein said he was told by his contact at the embassy that one of the president's brothers owned the units. Yet Mohammed al-Basha, a public affairs officer at Yemen's Washington embassy, said the president has no brother named Ahmed Ali Saleh or any relative of that name other than his eldest son. "I don't have answers to your questions," he said when I later asked him directly if the condo owner was the president's son. He suggested I contact the press secretary for Ahmed Ali Saleh in Yemen, who failed to reply to an email seeking comment.

I called the Yemeni embassy on Monday, Oct. 17, and told the receptionist I wanted to speak to the person at the embassy who handled Ahmed Ali Saleh's condos. She put me through to a woman who became indignant when I told her I was seeking confirmation that the president's son owned the units. "So you're asking questions that don't pertain to you," she said. "What business is it of yours who owns the property?" When pressed, the woman, who wouldn't give her name but said she worked with the ambassador, said she would get back to me on the question of ownership. So far she hasn't. When I asked her how else I might confirm ownership, she replied, "Try contacting the government of Yemen and see how far that gets you."

I spoke on backgroundwith four U.S. experts on Yemen who have many decades of combined government and private experience in the country and intricate knowledge of the ruling family. They all said that given the evidence -- including the obvious wealth of the properties' owner -- the president's son almost had to be the proprietor. One termed it "virtually impossible" that he was not, adding, "It is inconceivable that there is another Ahmed Ali Saleh in Yemen who has $5 million to buy condos in Washington." Another said that during his conversations with Yemeni diplomats, several had mentioned that the president's son owned property in Washington.

A New York Times story last year said there was a sense in Yemen that the country was run as "a family corporation." A 2005 State Department cable, written by an officer at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and released this year by WikiLeaks, made the case that "Rampant official corruption impedes foreign investment, economic growth, and comprehensive development." The State Department's most recent annual human rights report on Yemen says that "officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity" and that international observers "presumed that government officials and parliamentarians benefited from insider arrangements and embezzlement."

"It's a poor country, so there isn't a lot of money to steal, but because it's poor it needs every dollar it can get," David Newton, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen between 1994 and 1997, told me. "Corruption really hurts." 

President Barack Obama's administration -- which has been targeting suspected al Qaeda militants operating in Yemen with drone strikes, including U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in late September -- has worked closely with Saleh's government on counterterrorism matters but has spoken out against the regime. During his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21, Obama said Yemenis calling for Saleh's ouster were seeking to "prevail over a corrupt system" and that "America supports those aspirations."

The State Department has asked for $35 million in foreign military financing for the next fiscal year for Yemen. Total military, security, and economic aid to the country has surpassed $100 million during the past two years, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

Stephanie Brancaforte, the Berlin-based campaign director for Avaaz, a global human rights group that has worked extensively on Yemen and that alerted me to the D.C. properties, criticized U.S. policy. "Saleh's forces have not only killed protesters -- they have inflicted a humanitarian crackdown by intentionally cutting off water and electricity to millions of people," she said. "The U.S. invested more than $100 million to fight terrorism in Yemen, but that money has primarily gone to prop up a corrupt family.... Meanwhile, the average Yemeni is less likely to be a victim of terrorism than malnutrition."

Ahmed Ali Saleh is one of the most powerful men in Yemen, and his father has long groomed him to be his replacement (though the president recently promised that his son would not succeed him). When President Saleh was evacuated to Saudi Arabia in June after he was seriously burned in an attack on the mosque he was attending, the younger Saleh moved into the presidential palace and took charge. His troops have been directly implicated in some of the worst abuses against protesters.

A September 2005 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, released by WikiLeaks, said the president was using the years leading up to a scheduled 2013 election to "groom his son (a la Mubarak), make him increasingly visible, and place him in positions of higher responsibility so that he will be seen as an acceptable candidate." But the cable said that "there are considerable doubts as to his [Ahmed Ali Saleh's] fitness for the job" and that he did "not currently command the same respect as his father."

The cable also called Ahmed Ali Saleh a force of "the status quo, [which] is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, given a declining economy, rising frustration over official corruption, and increasing U.S. and international pressures on the regime to change the way it does business."

Ahmed Ali Saleh is certainly not the only controversial foreign official to have bought real estate in the United States, but the transactions could attract scrutiny if, for example, the funds used for the purchases could be shown to have originated in corruption. Ahmed Ali Saleh clearly fits in the category of "senior foreign political figures" as defined by the USA PATRIOT Act, who are supposed to be subject to especially careful due diligence by American financial institutions before accepting their money.

Jack Blum, an attorney and former Senate counsel who played a key role in investigations into the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and the Lockheed Corp.'s overseas bribery scandal, summarized the key questions surrounding Ahmed Ali Saleh's condo-buying: "Was an American bank involved at any point in the transactions, and if so, did it file a suspicious activities report? If so, was anything done with it, or did it just make for interesting wastepaper? Where did he get the money? Could he have afforded to buy the properties on his official salary?"

Al-Basha, at Yemen's Washington embassy, would not provide information on the salary of President Saleh, his son, or other top government officials.

Meanwhile, back in Yemen the uprising continues. President Saleh has repeatedly said he's going to leave office -- only to back away at the last minute.

The rental listing suggests that neither the president nor his eldest son plan on retiring to Washington anytime soon, however. The property owner "will consider long term lease," the listing says, so it looks as though Ahmed Ali Saleh isn't ready to move in to his luxury condo just yet.



Pakistan's Alternate Universe

What possible motive does Islamabad have for supporting Afghanistan's bloody insurgency?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is headed to Islamabad this week for what U.S. officials are billing as a last-ditch effort to patch up ties with Pakistan and urge the country's ruling generals to crack down on the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group based in Pakistan's tribal areas that Washington is increasingly putting on par with al Qaeda and the Taliban as a threat to the United States.

The recent drumbeat of stories about the Haqqanis began when Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Haqqanis "a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency." Although less frequently mentioned, the Pakistanis are also providing sanctuary to the other main Afghan Taliban group, Taliban leader Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura, based in Baluchistan province to the south. But very little has been written about why the Pakistanis support these groups. What possible motive, after all, could they have for supporting forces that are engaged in a nasty guerrilla war against their ostensible American allies in Afghanistan? The reason is simple: The Pakistanis fear that if these Taliban forces are defeated, the United States will abandon the country, leaving behind what they believe will be a hostile Afghan government allied to their mortal enemy, India. And if Clinton fails to understand this dynamic, the latest bid to salvage what's left of U.S.-Pakistani ties will end in failure.

Although the United States has tried hard to promote friendly relations between Kabul and Islamabad, it has had little success. The two neighbors are natural adversaries whose long history of mutual hostility predates the Taliban era. There is also bad blood between the Pakistanis and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai blames Islamabad for the death of his father, who was assassinated in Pakistan several years before the 9/11 attacks.

India, for its part, has moved into Afghanistan in a big way since 9/11, opening an embassy and four consulates, sending in thousands of aid workers, and providing almost $2 billion in aid. Just last Tuesday, Oct. 4, Kabul and New Delhi signed a strategic partnership agreement in which India agreed to help train and equip Afghan security forces. The Indians, long angered by Pakistani support for jihadi groups in Kashmir, sense a golden opportunity to threaten Pakistan on its western border and are determined to make the most of it.

Observing these developments, the Pakistanis have become increasingly alarmed at the prospect that they may be encircled by their historic foes. Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban needs to be understood in this light. It is not that the Pakistanis like the Taliban, whose support for al Qaeda prior to 9/11 ended up causing them so much grief, or even that they trust them, since they almost certainly do not. But faced with the alternative of a hostile Afghan government allied to India, supporting the Afghan Taliban is a relatively easy choice for Islamabad.

The United States is well aware of Pakistani concerns about the Indian presence in Afghanistan but has done little to address them. The Indians do not like outsiders meddling in their affairs, and Washington has been unwilling to risk alienating a country it seeks as a partner in countering Chinese influence in Asia. Instead of pressuring India, Washington has tried to buy off the Pakistanis with financial and military assistance and even offered them a strategic partnership of their own. Its message to Islamabad has been that it intends to remain engaged in the region and that, despite the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan, there is really nothing to worry about. This has proved to be a hard sell for Pakistanis, who remember all too well that the United States abandoned the region after working together with Islamabad to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan and then imposed sanctions on them only 18 months later in retaliation for their nuclear program.

With little else to offer and facing a self-imposed deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Washington has begun ratcheting up the pressure. Over the past year, it has dramatically stepped up drone attacks against the Haqqani network and sharply increased clandestine CIA operations in Pakistan, one of which went seriously wrong when a CIA contractor shot and killed two Pakistani informants who were tailing him. The raid on Osama bin Laden in May made clear that the United States no longer trusts Islamabad to cooperate in apprehending senior al Qaeda operatives. Hardly a day goes by when some U.S. official or other does not demand that the Pakistanis get with the program and go after the Haqqani network, often accompanied by a thinly veiled threat to send ground troops into the tribal areas. These actions have outraged Pakistani public opinion and angered the Pakistani authorities, who say they will resist any efforts by Washington to send combat forces onto their territory.

If U.S. and Pakistani troops ever did come to blows, the consequences could be disastrous for both sides. Like it or not, the Pakistan Army is the only force in Pakistani society capable of preventing a jihadi takeover of the state. For the past six years it has been fighting against a determined insurgency led by the Pakistani version of the Taliban, which it turned into an enemy when it sent forces into the tribal areas looking for al Qaeda in response to U.S. pressure. The Pakistani Taliban have been joined by many of the jihadi groups that the Pakistanis once used against the Indians in Kashmir, but that turned against the Pakistanis when Islamabad decided to support the U.S. war on terror. The Pakistani Army has already moved 150,000 troops into the region to hold back this Pakistani Taliban tide.

But even if the Pakistanis were not supporting the Afghan Taliban, it is doubtful they would drop everything just to help the United States in Afghanistan. Given their belief that an Indian alliance with Kabul would constitute an existential threat, there is every reason to believe they will refuse to go after the Afghan Taliban no matter how much pressure Washington brings to bear.

This does not mean the Pakistanis want to see the Afghan Taliban running the show in Kabul. They do not trust them and have no interest in seeing a return to the status quo that existed before 9/11. As a former senior Army officer told me recently, "A mullah is still a mullah." What the Pakistanis want more than anything else is to keep Taliban forces in the field as a check against Indian ambitions in Afghanistan. Judged from this perspective, the current stalemate in the country suits them just fine. They could probably also live with, and may even prefer, a negotiated settlement that would lock the Afghan Taliban in a coalition government in Kabul. Although the Pakistanis may harbor doubts about their ability to restrain Taliban ambitions over time, such an outcome would offer greater stability and could facilitate the construction of a gas pipeline into Central Asia, a long-standing Pakistani goal. But, ironically, they need American help: Success in sustaining a coalition government in Kabul will probably depend on U.S. success in training an Afghan army capable of keeping Taliban forces in check.

This is an opportunity for Washington. Unless it is prepared to risk the disastrous consequences that could flow from armed confrontation with Pakistan, a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan may be the best outcome it can reasonably hope to achieve. To accomplish this, it will almost certainly need to collaborate with the Pakistanis, who are the only party with any real influence over the Afghan Taliban. But recent U.S. efforts to demonize the Haqqani network work directly against this objective because the Haqqanis are the Afghan Taliban group most favored by Islamabad and over whom it has the most control.

It would be a bitter pill to swallow if the United States were forced to abandon Afghanistan without destroying the group that gave bin Laden sanctuary in the years before 9/11, but there are worse outcomes. Bin Laden is now dead, and even Washington admits that the primary al Qaeda threat to U.S. interests has moved elsewhere. The United States should begin shifting its priorities in the region to promoting a sustainable peace between Pakistan and India. Their decades-old dispute over Kashmir is the reason that the Pakistanis began supporting jihadi groups in the first place, and they are unlikely to sever their final links with them until it is resolved.