The director of the museum stops by one of the numerous portraits of the ex-president.Yemen’s deposed President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is at it again. The former leader is known to be self-serving, but his latest endeavour skirts the border of vanity.Saleh has built a museum dedicated to none other than himself. Located on the second floor of the Saleh mosque – which was completed in 2008 and is itself a nearly £40 million testament to the former leader, despite Yemen being one of the Arab world’s poorest nations – the museum is home to a dazzlingly eclectic collection of memorabilia.
Walking through the doors to the Saleh Museum, you pass an etched metal portrait of the ex-President that makes the intended centre of attention immediately clear. The relatively inauspicious entrance soon gives way to the first of two showrooms and, within them, a garish explosion of gold, glitz and pomp.
The charred clothes Saleh was wearing when a bomb, intended for him, exploded in the Grand Saleh mosque in 2011. Behind is the rug on which he was praying when the bomb went off.The gallery consists of some 2,000 pieces from 81 countries mostly given to Saleh as diplomatic gifts during his 33-year rule. Moving past a desert landscape made of gold – complete with model camels and palm trees – from the Qataris and vases from Iran, you arrive at the centrepiece of the museum: a display case full of items from a June 2011 bombing that left Saleh severely burned and forced him to flee to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.
Shrapnel found in Saleh's body after the bombing.On parade are the charred remnants of the trousers he was wearing, his shattered glasses and bits of shrapnel that were lodged inside his body. The strangely mesmerising assortment is difficult to tear yourself away from. But it’s worth moving on because the spectacle doesn’t end there.Explore further, and aside from photos of Saleh with the likes of Queen Elizabeth, the Pope and Saddam Hussein, you’ll find accolades from at least three US cities (San Francisco, Dearborn and Dallas), a platter from the US House of Representatives and, ironically, a gold medallion from Al-Jazeera, the news channel Saleh accused of helping fuel the 2011 uprising against him.
The skin of an Arabian leopard, one of the rarest animals on Earth.Other head turners (or scratchers) include a 1,300-year-old dagger, ivory tusks, rocks from the Hiroshima bombing and a skinned Arabian leopard, the world’s most endangered big cat (there are only around 200 left in the world). The list of gaudy portraits, extravagant gifts and odd sundries goes on.More incredible is the fact that the current exhibit is actually a scaled back version of original plans, which called for the construction of a whole separate building to house Saleh's various mementos. However, the museum staff didn't rule out the possibility of an expansion at some point in the future.
The Grand Saleh Mosque, where the museum is located. Completed in November 2008, it can hold up to 40,000 worshippers and cost nearly $60 million to build, despite Yemen being the Arab world's poorest nation.Saleh became President in 1979 and founded the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) in 1982. Ever the impressive survivalist, Saleh defied expectations and remained President for more than three decades. Even after popular unrest in 2011 forced him to sign an internationally brokered deal to transfer power to his deputy (current President Abd Raoubo Mansour Hadi), Saleh has hardly stepped out of the limelight.In contrast to leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, who are exiled, imprisoned and dead respectively, Saleh remains a relevant – though controversial, to say the least – force in post-Arab Spring Yemen. For example, he continues to head the GPC.
“Saleh still has a lot of money and an army because of his son Ahmed [who heads the Republican Guard division of the military]," said Aref al-Surmi, a Yemeni political analyst. “That’s why [both the international and domestic community] thought he was going to be a real problem.”
A mosaic bust of Saleh on the back wall of the museum.Estimated to be worth almost £23 billion, Saleh has indeed proven himself to be a pain. Despite his claims that he's just an “ordinary citizen” working quietly to complete his memoirs, Saleh’s alleged dealings behind the scenes have earned him the ire of the UN. On February 15th, the Security Council issued a statement expressing “concern over reports of interference in the transition by individuals”, including Ali Abdullah Saleh.However, Nabil al-Basha, a GPC Member of Parliament, sees Saleh’s political engagement as constructive and is a bit confused by the UNSC statement. “Perhaps [it] was incentive and encouragement for his role to be more positive,” he suggested.Regardless, the warning did little to silence Saleh. Twelve days after the statement was released, Saleh made a speech to over 10,000 supporters at a GPC rally, his most prominent public appearance since relinquishing the Presidency. This was part of what has been a much larger media push by Saleh, the GPC and its supporters.
A portrait of the ex-president that stands in the entranceway of the museum.
“Saleh is now playing the media because he believes the future of his son or of his loyalists will be [secured] by a strong media,” said Fakhri al-Areshi, the owner and Editor-in-Chief of National Yemen, a weekly English-language newspaper in Yemen. In 2011, Saleh started his own TV channel, newspaper and radio station, and according to Areshi, they are among the most well-funded outlets in Yemen.Lately, Saleh’s activities have intensified and, at times, turned bizarre. In the last month alone, Saleh sat for an interview with Russia Today, flew to Saudi Arabia for further treatment and started a new Facebook page. After only a few weeks, the page already has 65,000 “Likes".
One of the museum halls.One reason for the page’s popularity, apart from accusations of fake followers, could be the pictures. Images have been uploaded of the ex-President playing pool and “working out” in the gym. Unfortunately for those unsatisfied by Facebook photos and in need of more tangible Saleh memorabilia, the museum will not open to the public until later this spring. The director says that a few final items still have to be moved in and that security must be improved. When it does open, Surmi isn't expecting the clientele to come from diverse political backgrounds.“No one cares outside of the GPC followers,” he said. Even so, you never know who might show up just to gawk at the absurdity of it all.
Follow Tik on Twitter: @TikRootFind more of Juan's photographs at his website.More stuff from Yemen:Yemeni Tribal Kidnapping Negotiations Are Surprisingly CivilCrossing Pirate Alley on a Yemeni Cookie BoatHell On Earth