When I first met Ali Salem al-Beidh in June last year, I was struck by the enthusiasm and energy of the 73-year-old. In his office in Beirut, the former President of South Yemen gave orders to subordinates, joked and spoke about the south in a passionate and powerful manner, belying his septuagenarian status.

Yet when I met him again six months later for this Executive interview, I was struck by the thought that I could be among the last journalists to speak with him before his death. As I entered we carried out the traditional Arabic greeting of kissing each other on the cheek three times, yet only my head moved — his appeared too weak to do so. As we sat chatting, he struggled to hold himself up and his face was pale. Yet he denied claims that he is sick, saying “Thanks be to god my health is good — especially considering my age.”

Of late Beidh has become something of a poster boy for the south Yemeni separationist movement. In late November at a protest in the southern city of Aden, where tens of thousands of people were in the streets calling for separation in the largest show of defiance in southern Yemen for a decade, many of the protesters held Beidh’s image aloft, calling for his return.

But in many ways he has had a Greek tragedy of a career. After signing a unification agreement with Ali Abdullah Saleh in 1990 under which he became vice-President, he headed to Sanaa hopeful of a bigger, better Yemen. The move was initially welcomed in most areas of the country and it was hoped the two Alis could oversee a brighter future, a sort of Yemeni version of Nassar’s Egyptian dream.

Yet the early critics of the 1990 deal pointed out it was dangerously short sighted, and so it proved for Beidh. By 1994 the love had soured between the wedded halves of Yemen, and a vicious civil war broke out. The Machiavellian old fox Saleh won, entering the south forcefully backed by tribal support. As Beidh fled to Oman, his adversary seized the South’s land and resources, and forced many of Beidh’s allies into retirement. The pain of the humiliating defeat remains still sore to this day. “We went to Sanaa (in 1990) with big dreams but we found bigger conspiracies; the acts of Sanaa were separatists”, he said.

Beidh has spent the two decades since this defeat trying to reclaim the state he once signed away. And while much of this time he has appeared marginalized, the protests last year could foreshadow a twist in the plot in his latter years on stage.

When discussing the protests in Aden last year, Beidh sat bolt upright, staring me down with excitement glinting in his eyes. “I have seen these masses twice in my life; in 1967 when the British left and in 2012”, he says. “This is the people’s will and their right to determine their destiny…we are working hard to unify southerners as much as possible.”

The ongoing internal conflict in Yemen gets little coverage in international or even regional media, but since 2007 protesters in the south — initially led by former military officers sacked by Saleh in 1994 — have been calling for greater autonomy. As the central government has consistently turned a blind eye to such calls and, in the eyes of many southerners, continued to bleed the oil-rich south of resources to feed corruption in Sanaa, those calls for more autonomy have gradually transformed into demands for separation.

This has given Beidh new relevance. Since his defection in 1994 he is the only southern leader that has consistently called for independence rather than federalism. Most other major southern leaders have announced their intention to join Yemen’s ‘national dialogue’ in 2013. The eternally stubborn Beidh condemns his rivals as “mercenaries”, accusing them of abandoning south Yemen’s dreams of independence.

“It is not hard to bring mercenaries to the dialogue table, but they can’t do anything… we don’t care about this dialogue and it means nothing to us,” he said, predicting it will fail. However, within weeks of these defiant statements to Executive in December, it emerged that Beidh had met with one of those ‘mercenaries’ — another former South Yemen president Ali Nasser Muhammed. When I rung to follow up on the reasons for this meeting, Beidh’s office assured me it was just an informal chat at Muhammed’s behest, with no agreements made.

Murky waters

Like many Yemeni politicians, Beidh in person is charming and cooperative in equal measure, as long as you do not question his authority. Several times during the interview — when asked whether an independent South Yemen could survive economically, or when prompted to discuss Sanaa’s elite — his temper was aroused. So, when I broached the topic of his funding, I expected a vicious reply.

In recent years Yemen’s government and the international community have attempted to smear his name by alleging that he receives funding from Iran. He is certainly well resourced for a man with no fixed income and in Lebanon he appears to have allies in the movements allied with Iran; the three times I have met him, both in his residence and his office, it has been in areas well-known to be under the watchful eye of Hezbollah.

But in response to my prodding regarding accusation of being on Tehran’s payroll, he remained calm and succinct. “There is no relationship with Iran in the direction that is being talked about,” he said, before declining to give specific information on where he receives money from. “We welcome any support from any side in the world; from any side that will stand with our cause and against the injustice we are facing [but] the accusations of getting funds from Iran are political maneuverings.”

Droning on

This denial came as little surprise, but as the conversation drifted onto the topic of United States drones in South Yemen he said something that rather shocked me. The strikes are a huge public controversy: Yemen’s government claims the attacks focus on Al Qaeda members, in areas including Aden in the south, but many in those areas claim civilians are the ones who are dying. In the most notorious example, in December 2009, a US cruise missile targeted the village of Al Majalah, killing 46 civilians, including four pregnant women and a number of children.

I was expecting Beidh to give me a noncommittal answer — neither backing the strikes nor vowing to end them. Yet when I raised the issue he admitted, for the first time to an English-language publication, that he would allow them to continue. “Al-Qaeda is our enemy and we will welcome any cooperation against it,” he said, emphasizing the point by adding: “No doubt — we will allow [the] US to conduct counterterrorism operations in Yemen.” Yet he claims that under his watch the Americans would need to provide evidence of their goals to avoid civilian deaths. “I don’t mind drones when they are targeting specific targets in the south, but not when they hit civilians as happened in Al Majalah,” he said.

The final act

After our meeting I heard that Beidh’s health had deteriorated, leading to a brief period in hospital from which his office reported that he recovered fully. Beidh has much company on the long side of 70 in Yemen’s political scene. As he was talking it crossed my mind that Yemeni politics is dominated by old men, despite the fact that the country has one of the highest youth populations in the Middle East. I asked whether that will remain the case if he gets his own state. “No, we depend on youth… the youths are our treasure,” he said. When I pointed out the lack of youth in his team he pointed to his assistant, in his 40s, and said: “These are the youths; you think he is too old?”

Beidh undoubtedly hides skeletons in the shadows of his past and present, but after almost 20 years out of power his star seems to be rising again in Yemen’s south. Should his health continue to weather the weight of his years, he is likely to wield much influence over political developments and any potential resolutions to the conflict. Time, however, is not on his side; Beidh must know that the longer his biographers are forced to wait to write the tale of his triumphant return to glory, the more likely it will be that his becomes another tragic odyssey of ambitions fallen short.

This article was published on the Executive