Yemen: travails of unity

Fred Halliday
5 April 2011

Yemen is in the news, and for all the wrong reasons. A spate of kidnappings and killings of foreign tourists and aid workers in the first months of 2009 has highlighted the dangers of a country whose people are renowned for their hospitality. The murder of a group of foreigners, including two German nurses and a South Korean teacher, in the northeast of the country in mid-June 2009 is but one example of a chain of events designed to foment discord, hatred and alienation from this beautiful land. But such incidents, heartbreaking as they are for the families and friends of those affected, are also symptoms of a deeper disorder in Yemen's polity and society.

Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. He was formerly professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. He is a widely known and authoritative analyst of middle-eastern affairs who appears regularly on the BBC, ABC, al-Jazeera television, CBC and Irish radio.

Among his many books are

The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology ;

100 Myths about the Middle East

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

"The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

"The mysteries of the US empire" (30 November 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Stolen Wealth Funds: fantasies of control" (4 March 2008)

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

"1968: the global legacy" (11 June 2008)

"The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

"Armenia's mixed messages" (13 October 2008)

"The futures of Iraq" (4 December 2008)

"The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

"Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

"Iraq in the balance" (26 March 2009)

"The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts" (23 April 2009)

"Iran's evolution and Islam's Berlusconi" (9 June 2009)

Yemen is often the source of exotic or disconcerting news, but current trends are especially worrying. The news is bad for the stability and security of the region in which Yemen is located; for the broader regional conflict between radical-terroristic Islamism and its opponents; and, most of all, for the approximately 20 million long-suffering people of the country itself. 

At a time when Yemen's oil revenues, never large (at most 400,000 barrels a day), have started to decline, when tourism has all but come to a halt, and when a zone of insecurity reigns in the waters of Aden and in neighbouring Somalia, mass protests have broken out in the southern part of the country. In the port of Aden demonstrators have been killed, newspaper offices occupied by the army and closed. In the far north of the country, around Sada, a tribal insurrection, led by elements of the al-Huthi family, continues. In a country where political statements are usually chloroformed in formal terminology, a tone of palpable alarm can be heard. 

The crisis 

The presidential adviser and former leader of the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (Flosy), the pro-Egyptian nationalist movement against the British in Aden, Mohammad Basendwah, has declared that the country is now in the most serious crisis he has ever seen. This is a serious warning to the political leaders of Yemen and to their opponents - coming as it does , from a man who has seen a protracted war in the north in the 1960s; years of guerrilla war against the British in the south; and two wars between independent Yemeni states and the inter-Yemeni civil war of 1994.  

Meanwhile Sheikh Hamad al-Ahmar, son of the once powerful tribal leader Abdullah al-Ahmar (who, as I learned when I visited him in 1992, had a house in Sana'a that included a private jail in the basement) has called on behalf of the united opposition forces for a change of policy and recognition of the seriousness of the situation. Among his associates are the Yemeni Socialist Party, former rulers of the pro-Soviet south. Al-Ahmar and others are now calling for the return from exile of YSP leaders who fled the country after the north-south civil war of 1994, in which the north vanquished the south. Chief among these is Ali al-Bid, former secretary-general of the YSP, who has lived, almost incommunicado, in Muscat since that time. 

The roots of this crisis lie in the flawed unification of two separate Yemeni states in May 1990, of what were formerly the Yemeni Arabic Republic in the north, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), in the south. No unification is easy - as the histories of Germany, Italy and the United States remind us - but this one was exceptionally badly planned and executed. 

No one who knew Yemen in the 1970s and 1980s, as I did, could doubt the deep commitment to unity which nearly all Yemenis, ordinary people and intellectuals alike, felt (see Arabia without Sultans [Penguin, 1974]. The sense of historic and cultural unity, fragmented in the early 18th century, was compounded by a belief that, once united, the Yemenis would be able to face up to their greatest enemies, the Saudis, and reclaim their rightful place as, with Egypt, the most ancient of Arab lands. 

The tunnel 

There were two decades of rivalry between the two Yemeni regimes, with their respective capitals in Sana'a and Aden. These included two wars in which one state tried by force to impose their own conception of "unity" on the other - the north invading the south in 1972, with support from Libya and Saudi Arabia; the south invading the north in 1979. Then, in the late 1980s, a gradual rapprochement took place. A number of factors - the lessening of Soviet support to the south under Mikhail Gorbachev, the exhaustion of the PDRY's experiment in Soviet-style socialism, and the prospect of oil revenues that would boost the economy of both - led the two presidents (Ali Abdullah al-Saleh and Ali al-Bid) to commit to unity in May 1990. 

The unification process was flawed from the start. The decision to go for unity, and within a matter of months, was taken spontaneously by the two leaders (it is said) while they were being driven through a tunnel in Aden - the whole thing without the consent of many of their advisers or any serious thought to implementation. External factors may also have played a part. The respective sides received a green light from Riyadh and Washington (for Sana'a) and Moscow (for Aden), and the two leaders were also greatly encouraged by Iraq; Saddam Husssein, at that time recovering from the war with Iran which ended in August 1988, and looking to build a broad anti-Saudi and anti-Egyptian alliance provided political and (perhaps) some financial support to the two leaderships.

The full import of the Iraqi support for a united - and, implicitly, anti-Saudi Yemen - only became clear some months later, with the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. This provoked a major crisis for Yemen: hundreds of thousands of Yemenis were summarily expelled by Saudi Arabia, which (like Washington) cut off all aid to Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen was also, to its misfortune, in the international limelight since at the time it held a seat on the United Nations Security Council: in the figure of its long-standing representative, Abdullah al-Ashtal, it abstained in the crucial vote on armed action against Iraq, and in so doing incurred the wrath of the United States (see Paul Dresch, A History of Modern Yemen [Cambridge University Press, 2001]). 

The spiral 

The years that followed only served further to sour the initial and genuine popular enthusiasm of May 1990. The northern elite around Ali Abdullah Saleh saw unification as an opportunity to take hold of the resources of the south - oil revenues, British colonial villas in Aden, local trade. The negotiated merger of 1990 soon gave way to conflict, and in May 1994 the president launched a war to destroy the military and political presence of the YSP in the south. The "seventy-day war" ended with the occupation and pillage of Aden in July 1994, as the northern army used its superior weapons and numbers, the benefit of surprise and (not least) the support of Islamist militia forces linked to al-Qaida to win a decisive victory.  

The story since then has been one of increased tension and mutual resentment between the two former states. Some measures have been taken to disguise this process: a few members of the southern political and military leadership were incorporate into the northern state; periodic, but in effect meaningless, elections were held for parliament and the presidency; gestures of reconciliation and political reform were made to assuage credulous western governments and NGOs. In the south, however, these meant little: southerners came increasingly to resent northern intrusion, referring to northerners as atrak (Turks), a reference to the Ottoman occupation of the 19th century, and as dahbashah (the name of a criminal family in a TV series). 

Yemeni regime spokesmen are these days blaming foreigners and enemies of Yemen for the crisis. But the main responsibility for this conflict - and for the squandering of what was, in its inception, an important and positive unificatory initative - must lie with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, his close associates and his relatives. "Abu Ahmad", the architect of Yemeni unity, has also been the person who has done more than anyone else to destroy it. 

In an article for openDemocracy published to mark the inauguration of Barack Obama, I sketched six countries in the middle east where he might face difficulties in the months ahead (see ""The greater middle east: Obama's six problems", 21 January 2009). The article concluded: 

"The sixth state is one often pushed nervously to the periphery of vision, namely Yemen. The economic and political situation of a people that composes half of the whole population of the Arabian peninsula - and who are proud to call themselves al ‘arab al asliin (the ‘original‘ or ‘true‘ Arabs) - is deterioriating. The grip of their president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is weakening as oil revenues diminish and violence and discontent spread across the land

Barack Obama - and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton - may at present think that they have no reason to think about Yemen. But it has held surprises before: for its Arab neighbours, for America, and for the world. It may well do again." 

Indeed, it has. Yemen is in trouble, and needs the world's constructive and engaged attention as never before.

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