DUBAI (Reuters) – A day before the former Yemeni president was killed, gunmen from the Houthi militia group aligned with Iran invaded one of Ali Abdullah Saleh's fortified complexes in Sanaa.
They sacked the villa, took photos of vials of liquor and bottles of vodka and posted them online.
"This is how the traitor (Saleh) and his family lived during times of war, sieges and anger," said Hamid Rizq, Houthi's high official, on his official Twitter account.
The Houthi armed men acted quickly and relentlessly to punish Saleh, 75, for having switched sides in Yemen's three-year civil war, a battle for the influence of regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Allied with the Houthis for three years, Saleh had called on Saturday a "new page" in relations with Saudi Arabia.
The assassination is a setback for Riyadh, who hoped that Saleh's support – and his loyalist army units in northern Yemen – would help close a war that has killed 10,000 people and caused one of the humanitarian crises sharpest in the world.
Saudi Arabia fears that the Houthis will become such a powerful force in the Middle East as Hezbollah backed by Iran in Lebanon.
Houthis stand firm despite air strikes by Saudi Arabia and its allied forces and a naval blockade that has prevented food, medicine and fuel from reaching the northern areas controlled by Houthi, pushing the region to the brink of hungry.
Last month, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh.
Now, the Saudis are turning their hopes to Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali, and his good ties with the Saudi ally of the United Arab Emirates, to do the job that his father could not.
Pictures of Ahmed Ali, a military leader admired by thousands of soldiers in Houthi lands, appeared on the front page of UAE newspapers on Wednesday, meeting the de facto leader of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed.
Saleh's death closes a 40-year political career that traces the tragic modern history of Yemen. A country with few natural resources, flooded with weapons and fractured along tribal and religious lines, Yemen has been flogged for a long time by its powerful neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Saleh was the first leader of a unified Yemen in 1990. But he changed allegiances several times, fighting against the Houthis in the 2000s, for example, when the influence plates moved into the Middle East.
In this last geopolitical drama, the UAE emerged as mediators in the Yemen crisis. The UAE has been funding and training armed groups that have been advancing towards the port of Hodeida in the Red Sea, a Huti stronghold and entry point to reach millions of civilians in northern Yemen.
The Saleh family has enjoyed good relations with the wealthy Gulf state, which for decades had financed infrastructure projects in Yemen before becoming a key member of the Saudi-led coalition.
Hamza al-Houthi, a senior Houthi leader, said that the Houthis had suspected the Saleh family's loyalty to the Saudi coalition for a time and that tensions had been brewing since August. Al-Houthi said his troops had intercepted shipments of weapons from the UAE to the Saleh family last month. As punishment, the Houthis killed their nephew Tareq on Monday.
Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group said that the latest developments mean that the war in Yemen is likely to intensify.
"The Houthis, while an important military force, are not particularly adept at politics or government, their reach … in the population is limited, and over time that will play into the hands of their opponents."
] "But that will not happen soon, so it seems that the conflict will get worse."
Saleh's relationship with Saudi Arabia and its allies has been marked by politics and prayer.
For decades, Riyadh has tried, in succession, to stifle an anti-monarchist revolution, Marxism and Al Qaeda militancy in Yemen, Riyadh backed Saleh, a strong Arab nationalist, between 1978 and 2012 to help him overturn those ideologies before pud to filter next to Saudi Arabia.
But as the protests of the Arab Spring rocked Yemen swept the Middle East, Riyadh realized that Saleh was no longer strong enough for the job and supported the transition to his second, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi .
When the Houthis attacked Sanaa in 2014 and dragged Hadi into Saudi exile, Riyadh began the bombing campaign that continues today.
At that time, Saleh took one of the riskiest risks of his turbulent career, allying himself with the Houthis, heirs of a theocratic sect that ruled Yemen for a thousand years.
The Yemeni army of Saleh, which had planes, tank brigades and long-range missiles, had fought the Houthis in six wars for ten years at the time when Saleh had allied himself with the Saudi and Western powers.
With the experience of Saleh managing the country and cultivating a strong army, the Houthis achieved great military advances throughout the country and together their forces resisted thousands of airstrikes led by Saudi Arabia.
But the Houthi-Saleh entente broke down in August when a Houthi leader stepped over a Saleh confidant for a key military post, according to people in the General People's Congress Party, the technocrats' group and great tribals that made Saleh's offer throughout his government.
Saleh's loyalists craved revenge, they said. Fearing disloyalty, the Houthis restricted Saleh to his fiefdom in the political district of Sanaa. Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador in Yemen to the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the Houthis undertook their war largely without him.
"Saleh was very much an exhausted force when he died in a weekend match," Feierstein wrote in a policy brief.
On November 29, tensions exploded. In the city of Sanaa there were rumors that the Houthis planned to paint the domes of a giant mosque and a palace that Saleh had built and named after him in green.
When the Houthi militia approached the palace, Saleh's guards fired. The Houthis, experts in the war of mountain guerrillas, invaded the palace with grenades and seized it.
The Houthis wanted Saleh to "hand over his weapons and disarm his fighters," a senior Saleh official told Reuters. "He refused".
Another party official said that, contrary to reports that Saleh was in his car trying to flee when he was killed on December 4, the former president had been shot in the head after making a final stop in his house.
Now, Saleh's associate says that he and his colleagues fear that the Houthis will turn against them.
"The Houthis want to kill us all."
For a graphic on Yemen's stagnant war, click on tmsnrt.rs/2zqGyq9
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Yara Bayoumy and Warren Strobel; Michael Georgy edition