The Birth of Modern Yemen - Chapter 1

An e-book by Brian Whitaker exploring the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and its aftermath

1. One nation, two Yemens

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YEMEN is a land with a long history and a state with a short one. Pre-Islamic texts speak of “al-Yamanah”, a kingdom which undoubtedly lay within modern Yemen but probably comprised only a small part of it. By early Islamic times, the area known as Yemen had assumed a more recognisable form: a region of mountainous but comparatively fertile land on the south-western tip of the Arabian peninsula, through which trade routes passed. “Traditional Yemen” thus formed an approximate L-shape with its outer edges bounded in the west by the Red Sea and in the south by the Gulf of Aden. Along its inner edges, the sands of the Empty Quarter created a natural barrier and a limit to Yemeni settlement (though not, until 2000, a recognised frontier) [1]. It is only at the northern and eastern tips of the “L” that differences emerge between the modern political entity and Yemen as traditionally perceived [2].

Within these physical confines, Yemen – almost throughout its history – lacked the kind of single, centralised control that would qualify it to be described as a unified state. Regardless of who ruled the principal cities, the mountainous terrain and the remoteness of many villages allowed numerous fiefdoms of varying size and importance to flourish elsewhere. Besides that, there were (and still are) many divisions and sub-divisions along tribal and religious lines.

In Yemen’s recent history, however, by far the most important division – and the one that aspirations to national unity primarily sought to remove – was that caused by Turkish and British imperialism. The British took Aden as a colony in 1839 and then extended their authority in the southern and eastern hinterland. A decade later, Ottoman forces began their conquest of the north which led, in 1871, to the installation of an Ottoman governor in Sana’a. The north’s long struggle against Turkish rule began in 1891 and finally succeeded in 1918 when the Ottoman Empire collapsed; thereafter north Yemen was ruled by imams – religious leaders with monarchical power – until the republican revolution of 1962. British rule in the south continued until 1967 and was quickly followed by the establishment of the Arab world’s first (and last) communist regime.

Despite these divisions, but also because of them, the quest for national unity has been a recurrent and highly potent theme in Yemeni political life. As an ideal, it has been espoused by almost all political currents, of whatever complexion: it was adopted equally by southern Marxists, northern republicans and, before them, the imams who used it to pursue their own dynastic goals. As an aspiration, it has served a variety of purposes – often more functional than idealistic.

In considering the aspiration towards national unity, it is vital to distinguish between Yemen as a geographical entity (which has undoubtedly existed in something approximating its present form for well over 1,000 years) and Yemen as a political entity (which, for most of its history, has scarcely existed at all). But within the political sphere a distinction must also be made between Yemen as a nation and Yemen as a state.

The Yemeni nation

A NATION, according to Diderot’s classic definition, is: 

“A considerable number of people who inhabit a certain stretch of country, enclosed within certain limits, and obedient to the same government.” [3]

That 18th-century interpretation could not apply to pre-1990 Yemen because it requires a single government, and Yemen had two. However, modern theorists tend to regard Diderot’s view as over-simplistic and have some difficulty explaining what a nation is. Seton-Watson, for example, observes: “I am driven to the conclusion that no ‘scientific definition’ of the nation can be devised; yet the phenomenon has existed and exists.” [4] Anderson makes a similar point: “Nation, nationality and nationalism – all have proved notoriously difficult to define, let alone to analyse. In contrast to the immense influence that nationalism has exerted on the modern world, plausible theory about it is conspicuously meagre.” [5] Anderson’s approach, in contrast to that of Diderot, is to regard nations as cultural artefacts: “imagined communities”. He uses the word “imagined” not in a pejorative sense to suggest that their existence is illusory, but to emphasise that national consciousness has cultural rather than political roots. Following this theme, Keane attempts a more concrete definition: 

National identity is a particular form of collective identity in which, despite their routine lack of physical contact, people consider themselves bound together because they speak a language or a dialect of a common language; inhabit or are closely familiar with a defined territory, and experience its ecosystem with some affection; and because they share a variety of customs, including a measure of memories of the historical past, which is consequently experienced in the present tense as pride in the nation’s achievements and, where necessary, an obligation to feel ashamed of the nation’s failings. [6] 

While that has the advantage of identifying the factors that bind a nation together, it does not take into account the elements that make one nation distinct from another. It might, therefore, be expanded to include, in Walker Connor’s words: “a psychological bond that joins a people and differentiates it, in the subconscious conviction of its members, from all other people in a most vital way” [7].

This cultural and psychological approach to national consciousness fits pre-unification Yemen very closely. There is no doubt that a widespread popular perception of shared ethnicity, language and history existed long before unification, and that its character was sufficiently different from that of the surrounding population to be considered specifically Yemeni. In terms of political theory, it may variously be described as a “national consciousness”, a “national identity”, or simply “nationalism”. 

In the form usually expressed during the late 1980s, the Yemeni aspiration to national unity embraces three distinct concepts of shared experience, ethnicity and history: (a) the return to a lost “golden age”; (b) the removal of the effects of monarchy and imperialism; and (c) the desire for pan-Arab unity, with Yemeni unity as a preliminary step. All three can be found in the speech delivered by President Ali Abdullah Salih to mark the unification of north and south on 22 May, 1990:

Brother citizens here and abroad, O grandsons of Saba’ and Himyar, I greet you in my own name and on behalf of my brothers, members of the Presidential Council and the entire Yemeni leadership on this great historic day. I also extend my heartfelt congratulations to the masses of our Yemeni people in the homeland and diaspora and to the sons of our Arab and Islamic nations on the achievement of Yemeni unity and the establishment of the Republic of Yemen, which will end the separation and fragmentation that our people inherited from the era of the imam and imperialism and through which our people are the owners of the victory of the glorious 26th September and 14th October revolutions … 

Brother citizens, because Yemeni unity is intended to reinforce the capability of our people, unify their energies and potential and preserve their power and dignity, it will be a factor for consolidating security and stability in the Arabian Peninsula and the Arabian Gulf and will be a source of strong support for our brothers in the greater Arab homeland. It will also support the Arab League and joint Arab action as a practical and advanced step towards comprehensive Arab unity … [8] [Italics added]

(a) The lost “golden age”: 
In addressing citizens as “Grandsons of Saba’ and Himyar” the president is referring to the common ancestry and essential brotherhood of Yemenis as expressed in ancient genealogies. Early Islamic historians identify Qahtan as “the father of Yemen”. His descendants included Saba’ (associated with Sheba in the Old Testament), who in turn had two sons named Himyar and Kahlan [9]. Saba’ and Himyar are linked to ancient civilisations which flourished around Ma’rib in eastern Yemen some 3,000 years ago. The remains of massive stone structures which can still be seen in the area today allude to the former wealth and importance of these kingdoms. Although some of the ruins have been identified as temples, the most famous achievement of Saba’ was a far more practical one: the construction of the Ma’rib dam. In contrast to Egypt, where the religious purpose of the pre-Islamic temples and pyramids arouses ambivalent feelings in some Muslims, the value of the dam is readily appreciated in a land where water conservation has been one of life’s main priorities for centuries. The dam itself, undoubtedly one of the great engineering feats of the ancient world, was only the central part of a huge and complex system to control the flow of rainwater from the mountains: miles of carefully dug channels, regulated by sluices, watered a vast agricultural area.

This, for many Yemenis, even today, remains the high point of their nation’s achievement. But what has imprinted it so deeply on the national consciousness is not, perhaps, the greatness of the achievement but the magnitude of the disaster that brought it to an end. The bursting of the dam, in the sixth century AD, was accompanied by a tremendous social upheaval, scattering the kingdom’s tribes throughout the Arabian peninsula. The story is recorded in the Qur’an:

For Sheba there was a sign in
their dwelling-place – two gardens,
one on the right and one on the left:
“Eat of your Lord’s provision, and give thanks
to Him; a good land, and a Lord All-forgiving.”
But they turned away; so We loosed on
them the Flood of Arim, and We gave them,
in exchange for their two gardens,
two gardens bearing bitter produce
and tamarisk-bushes, and here and there a few lote-trees.
Thus We recompensed them for their unbelief …[10]

Modern historians suggest that this dramatic final collapse was the culmination of a lengthy process, since the dam had also been breached about a century earlier but repaired. The elaborate irrigation system needed constant maintenance which began to lapse with the onset of economic decline, brought about in part by the entry of Roman shipping into the Red Sea. [11] Arab tradition, however, has turned history into parable; chronicles record that the end came when a rat dislodged a single stone which 50 men could not have moved, thus bringing about the collapse of the dam and, indirectly, an empire. As Hitti points out, the story shows “a subtle appreciation of the intangible quality of the true causes leading up to this tragedy” [12] and illustrates how great disasters can have small beginnings.

The story of the rise and fall of Saba’, and the hints of divine retribution, has parallels with stories of a lost golden age or fall from grace found in many cultures – the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, for example. Its enduring power in Yemen is no doubt partly due to the way social divisions and relative poverty have tended to persist ever since. Echoes of this ancient past can be found in the names of many businesses around Sana’a (“Sheba”, “Sham”, “Bilqis”, etc ) – and not just in those appealing to the tourist trade. President Ali Abdullah Salih has also associated himself with this former greatness by constructing a new dam at Ma’rib (financed by the ruler of Abu Dhabi, who is said to be of Yemeni descent). [13] The awareness of history among ordinary Yemenis is a striking feature of the country, often noted by foreign residents. In terms of pre-Islamic history, the awareness and interest is unparalleled in the Arab world, with the exception of Egypt. One American researcher living in Sana’a observed: “Consciousness of the past is all-present in Yemen – unlike Syria, for example, where people are often unaware of pre-Islamic period and may mistakenly attribute Roman ruins to ‘Pharaohs’.” But he noted that this consciousness was also accompanied by an idealised view of the past: “Yemenis imagine unity in the past. In antiquity Yemen was actually several mutually incompatible kingdoms, all trying to conquer the trade routes. It was never unified in antiquity. It has been unified about three times in history, all of them militarily.” [14] 

One long-standing division is between the tribal areas, especially those in the north, and the urban populations of Ta’izz, Ibb and Aden, together with parts of the south which are traditionally non-tribal. The northern tribes themselves are divided into two main groups: the Hashid (from which most of the ruling elite are drawn) and the Bakil. The religious divide is between Zaydi Muslims in the north – the most moderate branch of Shi’ism – and Sunni Muslims of the Shafi’i school in the south and the coastal plain of the north. There are also a few Isma’ilis in the north around Manakha. It should be stressed, however, that these differences were not untypical of the diverse allegiances which exist within most nations; they did not present a barrier to identifying, at a broader level, with the Yemeni nation.

(b) The imam and imperialism: 
Against this broad background, the aspiration to unity also had a more specific meaning: unification of the northern and southern parts of Yemen. The line separating areas of Ottoman and British influence, formally agreed in 1914, had become the frontier between the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south when the imperial powers left. Of all the multifarious divisions in Yemen, this had the greatest impact but the least logic. It was of recent origin and external creation, and the line itself paid little regard to the society and culture that it transected. Thus “unity” was not so much a generalised attempt to reconcile Yemen’s many internal differences as to remove those which were attributed to external forces (British and Turkish imperialism) and the northern monarchy before that. In this sense there was no need to argue the case for unity because it was simply an extension of the northern and southern revolutions, inextricably linked with republicanism and the struggle for independence. This is not to say that potential future benefits – such as enlarged markets and joint exploitation of mineral resources – were ignored, but they tended to be assumed rather than discussed. 

(c) Arab unity:
In appealing for unity Yemenis draw attention to their common language, religion and culture. But these are characteristics they share, not only with other Yemenis, but to a varying degree with the Arab world as a whole. The influence here is that of Nasserism and Ba’athism, and Yemeni unity is seen as a desirable first step towards union of all the Arabs. In the the wider Arab-Islamic context, unity also has a religious dimension: some verses from the Qur’an are often quoted – in Yemen and elsewhere – as evidence that unity is God’s will:

And hold you fast to God’s bond, together,
and do not scatter; remember God’s blessing
upon you when you were enemies, and He brought
your hearts together, so that by His blessing you became brothers …

Let there be one nation of you, calling to good,
and bidding to honour, and forbidding dishonour; those are the prosperers.
Be not as those who scattered and fell into variance …[15]

The quest for unity has been a persistent theme in Arab politics since the end of colonialism and has been characterised by two different approaches: attempts to unify individual states (usually in groups of two or three), and the establishment of pan-Arab or regional institutions seeking convergence through closer co-operation. The first and most famous attempt at inter-state union was between Syria and Egypt in 1958-61. Other failures followed: Syria, Iraq and Egypt in 1963; the proposed federations between Libya, Sudan and Egypt in 1969, and between Libya and Syria in 1979; and the first unsuccessful unity agreement between north and south Yemen in 1972. 

One universal feature of these was that the practical difficulties of unification were invariably underestimated; the nationalism of individual countries or their desire for sovereignty ultimately proved stronger than pan-Arab nationalism. In some cases additional difficulties arose out of the presence of large non-Arab minorites – for example the Kurds in Iraq and the Christian south in Sudan. [16] In the light of these failures, the pan-Arab institutional approach might appear more promising. Mansfield comments: “The great majority of politically conscious Arabs are aware that the political unity of the Arab nation, if it is ever to take place, must be achieved through a gradual evolutionary process. They look more to the EEC as an example than the Kingdom of Italy or the German Empire of the 19th century.” [17] The League of Arab States, founded in 1945, has failed to become a force for political unity, despite some lesser achievements in the cultural sphere. The main reason is the unwillingness of its members to sacrifice a measure of sovereignty – an attitude which the league’s charter actually encourages. Also, for most of its history, the league has tended to be dominated by Egypt (apart from a period when Egypt was excluded for making peace with Israel). Regional organisations have fared no better. Geographical factors mean that the Gulf Co-operation Council is essentially a club for the oil-rich Arab states and, again, it tends to be dominated by one country – in this case, Saudi Arabia. There is also a poor man’s version of the GCC in the Maghreb, while the Arab Co-operation Council (Yemen, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq) was wrecked by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. This catalogue of failures not only highlights the difficulties of achieving unity but shows that the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, for all its subsequent problems, was a significant achievement. The two parts of Yemen, in common with other Arab states, had to grapple with the issue of rival sovereignties, though they did have the advantage of shared nationality.

It will be apparent from the above that calls for Yemeni unity were justified primarily by reference to the past or to fraternal duty. One reason is that during the latter part of the 20th century the Yemeni identity was increasingly defined by comparison with its neighbours: what they were and what Yemen was not. Poor, populous and republican, Yemen was (and still is) the outsider of the Arabian peninsula. In terms of economic importance, or almost any other yardstick, comparison between Yemen and its neighbours is bound to be unfavourable. It is natural, therefore, that Yemenis should clutch at those few elements in which they can take particular pride, or even feel superior. That is probably why Yemen’s past figures large in the national consciousness. One of the country’s few natural benefits is its relatively high rainfall compared with the rest of the peninsula (a product of its altitude and its location on the northern fringes of the monsoon) which made agriculture possible and meant that the Yemenis became a settled society thousands of years before the wandering bedouin of the desert. In ancient times they achieved stupendous feats of engineering, built the tallest houses in the world, and laid terraces on the mountain slopes to trap every last drop of rain for their crops. In short, Yemen was a civilisation when the House of Saud was just a tent. Suddenly, in the 20th century, everything changed. Through chance rather than toil, Yemen’s neighbours became richer than anyone could imagine, giving rise to a feeling that history and fate had dealt Yemen a grave injustice – what a European diplomat described as “the natural attitude of an impoverished aristocracy towards the nouveau riche” [18]. 

One consequence of supporting the unity argument by reference to the past is that it leads to claims that unity is Yemen’s “natural” state. In some cases this amounts to little more than generalised expressions of “the unity of land and people”, though there have also been attempts to prove it historically. One writer has even argued that for periods totalling more than half its known history Yemen had centralised government.[19] Various official statements can also be found which, instead of talking merely about the unification of Yemen, refer to its “re-unification”, “restoring” the homeland’s unity, etc. [20] More subtly, in pre-unification times there was a reluctance to acknowledge partition in terms that implied legitimacy or permanence: in politically correct discourse, north and south were not referred to as the two Yemeni states but as “the two parts of Yemen”. The Arabic word for “part” used here is shatr rather than juzz’. While juzz’ means a part which can exist in its own right – “part one” of a book, for example – shatr has connotations of fragmentation and parts which should not have been separated. For those who espoused these “natural state” arguments, the advantages or disadvantages of unification were not an issue; its desirability was assumed and the only questions were how it might be achieved, and on what terms.

The Yemeni state

IN THE POLITICAL sphere, national aspirations tend to be expressed in terms of states – for example by seeking independence from foreign rule. That was the case in south Yemen during the struggle against the British, but continuing partition after independence led Yemeni nationalism to focus its aspirations on national unity. In organisational terms that required the creation of a single state. There was, however, more to the goal of a unified state than mere nationalist sentiment: so long as partition remained, neither part of Yemen was able to achieve full sovereignty over its own territory because of interference from the other. The most cynical view of this is that competing claims to be the true representatives of Yemeni national aspirations provided a justification for north-south rivalry while simultaneously limiting the extent of ensuing conflicts. Nationalism, therefore, could be used as a means to pursue power, extend it or legitimise it. On the other hand, it could also be harnessed constructively, to bolster the state against the centrifugal tendencies of tribal power – and this, as will be seen shortly, was particularly necessary in Yemen.

A state, in its most basic form, is “an organised political community under one government”. [21] The binding factor here is political organisation, and the existence of a state does not necessarily require the social affinity and shared sense of identity that is found in a nation. Although nations are often associated with states, their boundaries do not always coincide; a nation may exist without a state (the Palestinians, for example), a nation may stretch across more than one state (the Kurds) and a state may include more than one nation (the United Kingdom). Expanding on the dictionary definition, and adopting Weber’s approach, a state might be defined as:

an organisation, composed of numerous agencies led and co-ordinated by the state’s leadership (executive authority) that has the ability or the authority to make and implement the binding rules for all the people as well as the parameters of rule-making for other social organisations in a given territory, using force if necessary to have its way. [22]

Although that has probably always been an idealised view, with the proliferation of new states in the 20th century it has become clearer than ever that such definitions must be loosened, because in practice states take various forms. If one followed the classical definitions, it would be necessary to question whether north Yemen before 1990, or even unified Yemen afterwards, could properly be described as a state at all, in view of the limited authority exercised by central government and its frequent inability to enforce the law when confronted, for example, by well-armed tribesmen. Migdal, who was among the first to recognise this problem – and especially its effect on developing countries – observes:

The danger in taking the state for granted is that we begin to assume states in all times and places have had a similar potential or ability to achieve their leaders’ intentions; the varying roles states have played in societies may be lost … Although the goal of creating a state organisation that makes all the rules or at least authorises others to make some of them has been universal among state leaders, the ability to achieve such a goal has been another matter entirely. Political leaders have faced tremendous obstacles in their drive, and by no means have all overcome the formidable barriers. [23]

One of the curious facets of Yemen is that although the sense of national identity among individuals is generally strong, often this does not necessarily translate into an identification with the state or a sense of allegiance to it. One Yemeni writer observes:

Tribesmen, and Yemeni people in general, rarely question their national identity. Being a Yemeni is strongly entrenched in their perception of themselves. It is, perhaps, a result of the long history of the country where its people were invariably identified as 'Yemenis', and the constant attempts of foreign powers to invade Yemen which further solidified the belief of 'us' against 'them'. [24]

But the Yemen they have in mind, is the land and its people, not the state:

Yemenis find it difficult, especially in tribal and remote areas, to accept the concept of a sovereign state. For them, there is no connection between their national identity and a state that claims to represent that identity. These are two separate issues. As far as they are concerned, the state is a mere synonym of the political elite who holds the power in Yemen to the detriment of the country. [25]

This points to one of the fundamental problems of modern Yemen: an inability to integrate the tribes (and others) into the political system and win their acceptance of a sovereign state through trust rather than force. The need, therefore, is for state-building, in the sense of creating strong institutions rather than authoritarian rule – and that, apart from the immediate problem of the north-south divide, was one of the issues that unification and democratisation sought to address in 1990.

Factors leading to unification

THE FACTORS that eventually brought about Yemeni unification were both general and specific. The general ones lay in the deep-rooted popular enthusiasm for unity outlined above, which provided a more or less permanent backdrop. The specific factors were not connected with nationalism but arose from the needs of the northern and southern regimes at the end of the 1980s.

Although unification had theoretically been possible ever since the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967, for most of the time during the 20 years that followed, the interests of both regimes lay in pursuing unity rather than in achieving it. The complex history of relations between the two Yemens has been documented elsewhere [26] and falls outside the scope of this study, except to note that it was marked by several failed attempts at unification, interspersed with periods of confrontation. The oscillations of both sides towards unity and away from it were such that until 1990 the interests of the northern and southern regimes never coincided for long enough to allow unification to take place.

The root of the problem was that ultimately Yemeni nationalism could not be reconciled with the existence of two separate regimes. This presented the governments of north and south with a serious logical and practical difficulty. They were obliged to espouse unification as a long-term goal, since to do otherwise would appear unpatriotic and damage their claim to legitimacy. On the other hand, they wanted to ensure their own survival and were aware that actual unification could easily prove suicidal for either or both of them. To mitigate the illogicality of their position, both sides claimed to be the true representative of Yemeni nationalism; the south, for instance, changed its name from People’s Republic of South Yemen to People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen – omitting the word “south” – in what has been described as “an open claim to the whole of Yemen under the banner of socialism” [27]. Such claims merely introduced a further illogicality by obliging each regime to challenge the sovereignty of the other and meant that the normal principle of non-interference in another state’s internal affairs did not apply. While discussing co-operation, both regimes were supporting each other’s internal opponents, either to put pressure on the other regime or in the hope of overthrowing it. The reasoning behind this was that unification would be easier if a more sympathetic government came to power on the other side. In addition, uncertainty as to the means for achieving unification meant that both sides pursued it in different and often incompatible ways. At a government-to-government level, negotiation alternated with confrontation, sometimes at astonishing speed. Hence, the two wars of 1972 and 1979 were followed immediately by unity agreements which later fell by the wayside. After one conflict, for example, the south withdrew its forces from al-wasat (the northern territory around Ta’izz) as agreed, but handed control to its northern ally, the National Democratic Front, which established a radio station there in opposition to the northern regime. Similarly, after the 1986 coup in the south, the remains of Ali Nasser’s army fled to the north where their wages were paid by the Saudis; President Salih maintained control over them by collecting the money from the Saudis in dollars and then paying the men in Yemeni riyals.

Amid the tension of the Cold War, these private Yemeni rivalries also acquired an international dimension which helped to perpetuate them. The end of imperialism did not bring unification because Yemen – like the other divided states of Germany, Korea and Vietnam – became a focus for east-west rivalry. Additionally in Yemen, there was inter-Arab rivalry between the Saudis and more radical Arab states. The divisions hardened as each regime attempted to portray itself as the true defender of Yemeni interests and the other as being dominated by an external power (the south by the Soviet Union and the north by the United States or Saudi Arabia). 
There is no doubt, however, that the mere pursuit of unity brought political benefits to both sides [28]. For example:

a) It gave the regimes legitimacy in the eyes of their own people, as representatives of the Yemeni national identity, protecting it against hostile forces outside and against the rival claims of its northern or southern counterpart.

b) It facilitated social integration. Since the 1960s, both regimes had been attempting to develop modern state organisations and national economies in the face of regional, tribal and religious differences. Asserting a Yemen identity helped the regimes to bind these structures together.

c) It helped to contain conflict between the two regimes. Halliday says: “In private discussions, officials on both sides stated that the most important point in the Yemeni unity policy of the two states was that it enabled them to avoid war, and this argument was given additional force by the implication that the two wars between the Yemeni states had been the result of external influence.” [29]

d) It brought co-operation between the two states in education, economics and the movement of people, though only to a limited extent. 

This led some writers to suggest (before 1990) that the pursuit of unity might be a goal in itself. Certainly there were periods during the 1970s and 1980s when the prospect of unity must have seemed remote, but to deny it as the ultimate – if distant – goal is to ignore central parts of the Yemeni national consciousness. Approaching the question from a different perspective, it is difficult to envisage a situation in which the pursuit of unity could ever have been fully abandoned. It is thus more reasonable to argue that even if unification took a long time to achieve it was likely to come eventually, either when one regime gained clear superiority over the other or when circumstances forced both regimes simultaneously to make the necessary concessions.

By the late 1980s, the factors that until then had prevented unification began to be outweighed by new pressures which drove north and south to seek support from each other. Meanwhile one of the most important obstacles to unification was removed by the end of the Cold War. Inter-Arab rivalries remained as a complicating factor in north-south relations, though on the whole they were a less significant barrier.

Pressures in the north

IN THE NORTH, towards the end of 1989, President Salih badly needed a political success. His major foreign policy initiative at the time, the Arab Co-operation Council, in which the YAR, together with Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, was a founder member, appeared to be losing momentum. The aim had been to create an Arab Common Market, with free movement of labour and capital within the bloc. A summit meeting in Alexandria during the summer had produced a number of framework agreements but few tangible benefits apart from an easing of visa restrictions among the four member countries [30]. In the light of that disappointment, Salih turned instead to the question of Yemeni unity. Although previous experience suggested that efforts in this direction were unlikely to bear fruit, colleagues say that his confidence was heightened by the obvious weakness of the southern regime at the time. In any case, unity was a long-espoused goal and he knew that success would enhance his popularity enormously as well as earning him a special place in Yemen’s history.

The northern president also needed an economic success. Over-optimistic predictions of an oil bonanza from the Ma’rib fields had not been fulfilled and people were beginning to ask what had happened to the benefits oil was supposed to bring. One obvious way to increase the benefits was to join forces with the PDRY in exploiting the largely untapped reserves that straddled the north-south border area. Also (and rather strangely, in the light of reality), there were widespread expectations that the south could become an economic powerhouse for the whole of Yemen – a dream later reflected, but scarcely fulfilled, in the mid-1990s when Aden was officially designated as the “economic and commercial capital”. Finally, it might be argued that president Salih had little to lose from a renewed unification venture. Even if it failed to deliver the material benefits that some hoped for, the general upheaval of unification would at least divert attention from the Sana’a government’s economic failings and postpone the day of reckoning.

By coincidence, these pressures on foreign and economic policy arose at a time when Salih was better placed than in the past to push unification through. Northern tribal leaders, who had earlier been the main source of opposition to unity (on the grounds of the south’s “atheism”, “communism”, etc) were now much more amenable to the idea. This was because, in the years since the 1962 revolution, the Sana’a government had gradually extended its influence over tribal leaders and had skilfully co-opted many of them into the northern establishment, either through membership of parliament or allowing them to pursue business interests with a minimum of government interference. The most important shaykh, Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, paramount chief of the Hashid tribal confederation, had been partly responsible for frustrating unification in the early 1970s but in 1989-90, whatever his private misgivings, he did not publicly oppose it [31[. Having established a degree of control over the northern tribes, Salih wished to consolidate it further and believed that unification would help to achieve this. The PDRY had made strenuous (but not totally successful) efforts to de-tribalise the south, and the addition of 3,000,000 southerners – divided almost equally between the tribal and the non-tribal – to the northern population would tip the numerical balance against the tribes. A further consideration was that the southern army, unlike that of the north, might be relied upon to impose discipline on the tribes when necessary [32]. According the Charles Dunbar, US ambassador in Sana’a from 1988 to 1991, the northern government’s relationship with the tribes was a central factor in the YAR leadership’s desire for unity. When the impact of unification on oil revenues and the tribal balance was considered as a whole, it presented a new and challenging prospect: the ability to construct a modern state. For the first time, thanks to oil, a government in Sana’a would have the funds to establish its authority over the whole country, including the tribes.

Pressures in the south

THE SOUTH'S difficulties were most apparent in the economic field; an extremely gloomy report by the World Bank caused its leaders particular alarm [33]. In the autumn before unification, as one contemporary account put it:

the economy had effectively broken down; farmers refused to deliver food for the miserable prices they could get, for weeks the only food available in Aden market was potatoes, bread and onions. The government’s coffers were empty ... South Yemen’s main export is honey, particularly prized in Saudi Arabia for its supposed aphrodisiac properties. [34]

Honey apart, the PDRY’s principal assets were its strategic location and its Marxist political system, both of which had proved sufficiently appealing to the Soviet Union to attract large amounts of financial support. But outside the capital, industry was virtually non-existent and the only large-scale government enterprise considered to be financially successful was the Seera brewery in Aden. As this was the only legal source of alcohol in the entire Arabian peninsula, profits were virtually guaranteed, regardless of its efficiency.

Elsewhere, it was a bleak picture. Many of the country’s economic problems were epitomised in the Port of Aden which, in its heyday, had been a major refuelling point on the shipping route to India. Although it is said at one stage to have been the world’s third busiest port (behind New York and Liverpool), its importance had declined with the British Empire. More recently, it had begun to face tough competition from several other ports in the region, notably Djibouti, Jeddah, Port Rashid and Jabal ’Ali – though even then it retained considerable potential, with its natural harbour in an excellent location. Studies suggested that with sufficient investment and proper management it could be a major transhipment port for East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. One problem was the lack of quayside berths with enough depth of water to take modern vessels, which meant that ships had to moor in deep water some distance from the quay while their cargoes were laboriously unloaded into lighters (smaller ships) for transport ashore. Lighterage fees accounted for 45% of port charges [35] and this, coupled with the port’s reputation for poor labour relations, meant that many shippers found it more cost-effective to make a detour of up to three days to an alternative port with better facilities. Although some efforts were being made to modernise Aden’s port around the time of unification, they were extremely modest in comparison with the $1 billion invested elsewhere on the peninsula at Jabal ’Ali and it was clearly going to be difficult to dispel the image described by one resident diplomat, that Aden was “the second most expensive port in the region, with bolshy unions and one fork-lift truck.” [36]

Aden’s other large industrial enterprise, the oil refinery, was both inefficient and technically outdated. It had been constructed in 1954 by British Petroleum and sold to the government of South Yemen in 1977 for the token sum of 1 dinar. BP had continued to supervise its operation for a further five years and had helped with development plans. One of the difficulties was that it had originally been built to provide bunkering fuel for ships visiting Aden, but as the port declined it had to be adapted to produce other types of fuel. Despite some improvements, shortly after Yemeni unification it was estimated that the refinery needed further investments of at least $200 million [37].

In general, the most notable feature of the state sector in the southern economy was its low productivity. Partly this was because lack of investment led to the use of antiquated equipment and partly because, for political reasons, large numbers of people were employed to do relatively little work. The refinery, for instance, had almost 3,000 employees when a more modern plant of similar capacity would normally have between 400 and 500 [38]. Another example was a large chicken farm which employed 500 people on the extraordinarily high ratio of one person to every 240 birds [39].

The only expanding area of industrial activity was oil exploration which, in comparison with other parts of the peninsula, had started late in both parts of Yemen. Although there had been reports of oil shales and seepages in the south since the 1920s, the remoteness and harshness of the terrain, coupled with the potential hostility of local tribes and uncertainties about international boundaries, discouraged further investigation. In 1982, however, the Italian company, Agip, made a small offshore strike near Mukalla and, by 1984, amid promising seismic surveys, the government had made five areas available for concessions [40]. In 1986 the Soviet Technoexport company struck very high quality oil in western Shabwa, 200 miles north-east of Aden, and within a year three fields in the area – Iyad East, Iyad West, and Amal – were producing 5,000-10,000 bpd which was transported by truck to the Aden refinery.

The government, anxious not to become totally dependent on Soviet efforts, encouraged a number of other companies to explore for oil in a variety of areas, among them Braspetrol of Brazil, Elf Aquitaine and Total of France, the Independent Petroleum Group of Kuwait, and Canadian Occidental. In 1988, Salih Abu Bakr bin Husaynun, the minister of energy and minerals, said reserves were about 3.5 billion barrels, much higher than previous estimates [41]. Theoretically, this should have been sufficient to meet all South Yemen’s energy needs and also to provide modest amounts of hard currency.
Early in 1989 the Soviet Union agreed to finance two projects costing a total of almost $500 million: a central complex in Shabwa to include gas separation and de-sulphuring units, and a 150-mile pipeline from Shabwa to Bir ’Ali on the Arabian Sea, which would later be connected by a spur to the Aden refinery. These developments generated considerable optimism at the time:

The long-term economic implications of the oil find would be hard to overestimate. The magnitude and exploitability of the oil reserves already confirmed in Shabwa assure that the PDRY will both meet its energy needs for the foreseeable future and have – even at $10 a barrel – all of the hard currency required for a modestly rising general prosperity and an ambitious program of socio-economic development well into the next century … Briefly, a poor PDRY that was facing possibly even harder times suddenly has a promising economic future. [42]

It was not long, however, before this optimism was shown to be totally misplaced. Writing a few years later, a former US ambassador to North Yemen gave a much bleaker assessment:

Nowhere was the bankruptcy of the PDRY’s system more apparent than in the petroleum sector. The discovery of oil in the YAR by the US-based Hunt Oil company in 1984 had led to exports of 200,000 barrels of oil a day five years later. A more or less contemporaneous Soviet discovery just across the border in the PDRY had put Aden $500 million in debt with nothing to show for it other than 60 or so mostly non-functioning wells, a pipeline suspected of leaking, an outmoded oil processing complex, and a few barrels of crude oil trucked sporadically to Aden’s decrepit refinery. Ali Nasir Muhammad’s opening to the West had brought several Western companies into the PDRY, but none had made a discovery. [43] 

It is claimed that the Russians made a series of technical mistakes and damaged some of the wells by drilling in the wrong places [44]. In any case, the contrast between Technoexport’s poor performance in the south and Hunt-Exxon’s successful effort in the north was acutely embarrassing for the southern regime. Technoexport was patently incapable of meeting the challenge but seems to have taken it on for reasons of east-west rivalry after some elements in the PDRY voiced their regret that Western oil companies were not involved in Shabwa. There were also grievances on the Soviet side, especially over the insistence of PDRY officials on making favourable oil projections public [45].

The problems in the oil industry were just one sign of increasing strain in the economic relations between the PDRY and the Soviet Union. In addition, the quality and quantity of Soviet goods reaching the PDRY was declining [46], and delays in the construction of a hugely expensive power and desalination plant in Aden caused further friction on both sides. Although precise figures for Soviet aid to the PDRY are not obtainable, it is estimated that this fell from about $400 million in 1988 to $50 million in 1989 before ceasing altogether in 1990 [47]. Also, the PDRY was deeply indebted to the Soviet Union: in 1992 it emerged that Yemen (as a whole) had been the USSR’s seventh largest debtor, with debts of $5.6 billion. Most of this had been incurred by the PDRY [48]. Thus, on the eve of unification, the south’s dire economic circumstances were compounded by the fact that its principal financial lifeline – from the Soviet Union and East Germany – was on the point of being cut off. 

The south’s economic problems were matched in the political sphere by the conflict in 1986 between supporters of Abd al-Fattah Ismail and Ali Nasir Muhammad. Ismail, who represented the pro-Soviet faction in Aden and was regarded by his opponents as a doctrinaire figure of the hard left, had come to power in 1978. Shortly afterwards, he established the Yemen Socialist Party which he provocatively claimed to be the legitimate ruler of all Yemen [49]. In 1980, however, he was exiled to Moscow because of his uncompromising approach, and replaced by Ali Nasir Muhammad with the Soviet Union’s blessing. President Muhammad, a more pragmatic leader, introduced a policy of domestic liberalisation and developed friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf states, as well as engaging in unification talks with the YAR.

These moves were fiercely opposed by some sections of the party, led by Ismail (who had returned from Moscow in 1984), Ali Ahmad Nasir Antar, the YSP’s deputy secretary-general and Salih Muslih Qasim, the defence minister. Among other things, they accused President Muhammad of bypassing the party, accumulating power, favouring certain regions and groups, reviving parasitic bourgeois elements, and being “ideologically impotent.” [50] Suspecting a plot to depose him, President Muhammad decided to strike first. He summoned his enemies to a Politburo meeting on January 13, 1986 and had them shot in cold blood. The fighting that followed involved all levels of the party, the armed forces, the popular militias, tribal groups and numerous civilians, and lasted for 12 days. By the time order was restored, between 10,000 and 13,000 people were dead and President Muhammad had fled to the north.

The events of 1986 produced what, in many ways, was the worst possible outcome. The ousted president survived abroad, along with some thousands of his supporters – giving rise to fears that he might one day launch a strike against the new regime. Meanwhile the winning side had lost its most able and experienced leaders in the fighting. According to one estimate, about two-thirds of the YSP’s Central Committee were dead, wounded, jailed, or in exile [51]. Among the young, little-known and relatively inexperienced survivors who took over were Ali Salim al-Baid and Salim Salih Muhammad who became secretary-general and deputy secretary-general respectively.

Necessity brought together an uneasy mixture of party hard-liners, more moderate technocrats and military figures, which may help to explain why the new government failed to provide any clear direction or evidence of strong leadership from secretary-general al-Baid or the new president, Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas. One difficulty was the way the regime had condemned President Muhammad and his colleagues as the “opportunist right”. This tended to discourage members of the new regime from proposing – let alone adopting – any policies that smacked of pragmatism, for fear of being condemned by the purists. Instead, the various factions vied to prove their loyalty to the “scientific socialism” advanced by the martyred Abd al-Fattah Ismail and others [52]. Towards the end of 1987 rumours of conflict between the pragmatists and dogmatists were confirmed by the exclusion of the foreign minister from the Politburo, apparently because his militancy was questioned [53]. Meanwhile the flow of refugees, including a number of prominent officials, into the YAR increased. As a result, it became impossible to encourage foreign and private investment, or to make the kind of concessions that would be needed to resolve the conflict with ex-president Muhammad. Furthermore, in the age of perestroika, the PDRY found itself increasingly out of step with its Soviet patron.

Despite these weaknesses, the new regime did attempt to grapple with some of its most pressing problems. Elections to the country’s highest legislative body, the Supreme People’s Council, which had been postponed in 1985 because of the party’s internal divisions, took place in October 1986 – for only the second time since independence in 1967. President al-Attas cited these as evidence of the nation’s “ability to overcome wounds.” [54] Meanwhile the fourth Party Congress was carefully orchestrated to display unity; the Central Committee was streamlined to make it more cohesive, and the new critical/analytical party document eventually adopted by the congress was subjected to several months of nationwide debate [55].

Elsewhere, however, efforts to heal the wounds of 1986 were less successful. An amnesty for the “misled” supporters of ex-president Muhammad who had taken refuge in the YAR failed to attract many of them back, largely because they believed that their status and employment prospects would be low if they returned. There was also the decision to put the former president and 141 of his colleagues on trial for treason and other political crimes. Perhaps this had been intended as a way of laying the ghosts of January 1986 to rest once and for all, but the partly-televised trial – which lasted for a year – merely revived old issues, personalities and conflicts at a time when they would have been better forgotten. Almost two years after the original conflict, the resulting death sentences on the exiled former president and 34 of his colleagues put paid to any hopes of an eventual reconciliation. Southern intransigence on the issue appeared to harden further when five of those condemned were actually executed and the parliament called for the extradition of the former president from the YAR.

The events of 1986 severely strained relations between north and south Yemen, especially since President Salih had been on relatively good terms with his ousted southern counterpart. Despite the fact that the north had offered asylum to many of its opponents, the new regime in Aden was particularly anxious to obtain some kind of endorsement from Sana’a, since this would greatly enhance its standing. Besides that, it wanted to ensure that Sana’a would provide no support for any attempt by ex-president Muhammad to destabilise or overthrow the new leaders.

The north, on the other hand, was in little hurry to mend its relations with the south, since it wanted to exact a price for its friendship. Partly, this was a matter of ensuring that the former president’s policies of regional moderation and détente would continue, but more importantly, of finding a way to relieve itself of the burden imposed by providing sanctuary for thousands of southern refugees. To achieve that, it believed that some form of reconciliation between the ex-president and the new regime was essential – and this became the YAR’s main condition for “brotherly” relations. Another reason for proceeding slowly was that many in the YAR thought the new regime in Aden was unlikely to survive for long. There was a strong possibility that political in-fighting would result either in another change of civilian government or a takeover by the military [56].

On the even of unification, therefore, South Yemen was more or less bankrupt – not only economically but politically, too. After the 1986 coup the southern regime had never enjoyed much legitimacy and as events unfolded elsewhere its chances of survival looked increasingly slim. By the end of 1989 Soviet foreign policy had changed dramatically. Moscow had pulled its troops out of Afghanistan, had encouraged Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia and supported an agreement under which Cuban forces would leave Angola. More significantly still, the Soviet Union remained acquiescent as the Berlin wall came down and as the Romanian president, Nicolae Ceausescu, was overthrown and sent to the firing squad in Romania. In the light of all that, it was plain that the Soviet Union would make no effort to preserve an obscure Marxist regime on the southern tip of Arabia. What al-Baid and the Socialist Party needed early in 1990 was a means for self-preservation. It was for this reason, as much as anything, that al-Baid accepted the north’s offer of a chance to share power in a united Yemen. As a short-term means of survival, it had much to commend it: unlike many Marxist politicians who vanished into eclipse along with their regimes, al-Baid and his colleagues prolonged their careers for several more years, remaining continuously in government through the end of the Cold War, the collapse of communism and the first free elections until the early summer of 1994. The more swift-footed of them survived longer and even flourished: Abd al-Qader Ba-Gammal, who held ministerial posts in the PDRY in the 1980s, went on to become deputy prime minister of united Yemen in 1994, its foreign minister in 1998 and its prime minister in 2001.

© Copyright Brian Whitaker 2009