The Birth of Modern Yemen - Chapter 12

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

12. The outbreak of war

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THE TRANSITION from crisis to all-out war came towards the end of April, 1994, with renewed clashes involving the forces that north and south had stationed on the opposite sides of the border at the time of unification. Although in 1990 the exchange of troops had been intended as a confidence-building measure and a prelude to merging the two armies, in the heightened tension of the crisis this merely increased the risk of conflict, creating flashpoints where each side was perceived as threatening the other while at the same time considering itself to be under threat.

In the north, the Socialists had five brigades: the Third Armoured at Amran, 38 miles north of Sana’a, the Basahib at Dhamar, 60 miles south of the capital, the First Artillery at Yarim, a few miles further south, the Fourth Infantry at Kawlan and the Fifth Infantry at Harf Sufyan. The northern forces stationed in the south were the Amaliqah Brigade at Lawdar in Abyan province, the Second Armoured Brigade at al-Raha in Lahij province and Central Security near Aden airport. For weeks all these – both north and south – had been shadowed and in some cases almost surrounded by troops of the opposing side. They were in a high state of alert and nervousness, as had been illustrated on April 6 when the Basahib at Dhamar had fired wildly into the night. Isolated and in hostile territory, all eight brigades faced the risk of having their supply lines cut. By the third week of April, for example, the north was using helicopters to supply the Amaliqah after southern forces blocked the road [1].

On April 27 (the first anniversary of the general election), a tank battle erupted at Amran in the north, where the southern Third Armoured Brigade and the northern First Armoured Brigade shared a camp. According to the northern account, a discharged officer, Yahya Dahesh, led an attack with 10 vehicles against the northern barracks while the troops were having lunch. Officers from a multinational military commission (Jordanians, Omanis, Americans and French) who were in Yemen attempting to defuse the military confrontation, also came under fire and fled in several directions. The YSP, meanwhile, claimed that its troops had come under an unprovoked attack from the northern forces, commanded by Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a kinsman of the president.2 Whatever the initial spark, the north appears to have had the advantage of surprise. The ensuing battle lasted three days and involved some 200 tanks fighting at close quarters. Casualty figures ranged from 180 dead and wounded to as many as 400 [3]; some 60 southern tanks were destroyed [4]. Small-scale fighting continued for a few more days, but by May 2 there was nothing left of the southern brigade: those who had not been killed had either fled to surrounding villages or been taken prisoner. For the northern forces, who had wiped out a brigade twice their own size, the battle of Amran was a startling success; for the south it came as a shocking blow which the YSP described as tantamount to a declaration of war [5].

Amran, despite its distance from Aden, was one place where the Socialists had felt reasonably secure. Although less than 40 miles from Sana’a, it lies within the territory of the ’Iyal Surayh, part of the Bakil tribal confederation which is traditionally hostile to the north’s Hashid rulers. A YSP communiqué during the battle went so far as to claim that tribesmen were supporting the southern forces and had themselves destroyed 13 northern tanks [6]. Meanwhile in Sana’a, on April 28, Hassan Makki, deputy prime minister and a member of the GPC, was wounded, and three of his guards killed, in an assassination attempt outside the Ministry of Local Government. The shooting followed a row between Makki and Naji Abd al-Aziz al-Sha’if, head of the Bakil, over the battle at Amran [7]. A warrant was duly issued for Sha’if’s arrest, but he disappeared before it could be implemented [8].

In the wake of Amran, manoeuvres gathered pace elsewhere. Northern forces, including units of the Republican Guard, surrounded the southern brigades at Yarim and Dhamar, amid claims that the southerners in Dhamar were preparing to leave camp and attack Sana’a. Further south, both sides accused each other of moving forces around the oil province of Shabwa, in an apparent attempt to secure the old border. In Lahij, northern forces shot down a southern MiG-21 as it made a low sortie over their camp.

The war began in earnest on the night of May 4-5 when aircraft under YSP command attacked northern airports at Sana’a, Ta’izz and Hudaydah, the presidential palace in Sana’a, the country’s two main power stations, Hudaydah port, and oil storage and pipeline facilities at Ma’rib. The aim of these raids seemed mainly to disrupt the north’s power supplies and hamper retaliatory strikes by the northern air force. For technical reasons the northern aircraft had to wait until daylight before launching reprisal raids against the south. On the ground, northern forces attacked the southern units that remained in the north. Dhamar, a market town on the main Sana’a-Aden highway, was severely damaged in a battle which dispersed or destroyed the Socialist Basahib brigade.

In Sana’a, President Salih declared a 30-day state of emergency (including a night curfew) and at a special session of parliament Ali Salim al-Baid was formally dismissed as vice-president. Although the constitution made no provision for dismissing a member of the Presidential Council, the move could arguably be justified on the grounds that al-Baid had failed to take his oath of office. On May 10 Prime Minister al-Attas was dismissed along with other YSP cabinet ministers after appealing for outside forces to help end the war.

Objectives of north and south

THE OUTBREAK of war changed the complexion of the political struggle. Whereas in the preceding months of crisis the GPC had been largely passive, fending off repeated challenges from the YSP with attempts to preserve the status quo, war provided it with a single, clear objective: to reimpose unity at all costs. The YSP, in contrast, had held the political initiative in the run-up to war; it was the Socialist party’s grievances, on the whole, that had set the political agenda during the year between the elections and war and it was the party’s leaders who had steadily and deliberately escalated the crisis – their confidence and sense of purpose suggesting the existence of a calculated but as yet undeclared plan. The YSP was well aware of the risk of armed conflict and to some extent courted it. When war came, however, the party was thrown into confusion, not only showing every sign of being ill-prepared but also, apparently, lacking a coherent strategy. At the outset, beyond the ever-growing list of things the Socialists were fighting against, there was no clear public statement of what they were fighting for.

The inference to be drawn is that the YSP could not agree on its objectives or, if it had agreed, was unable to declare them openly. With the failure of political processes, only two possible options remained: to take power in a united Yemen by bringing about Salih’s downfall, or to withdraw from the union. It seems likely, at this stage, that the party had not made a definitive choice between them and was trying to keep both options open. Pressure for secession came mainly from the small group of Hadramis at the top of the party – al-Baid, al-Attas, Salih Munassar al-Siyali (the Governor of Aden) and a few others – but elsewhere, even in the south, there was strong residual support for unity and little enthusiasm for separation. Unlike separatist movements elsewhere (the Tamils and Kurds, for example), southern Yemeni separatism was not a movement as such and had no nationalist or ethnic basis. Essentially, the YSP’s position could be interpreted as a reversion to the old pre-unification formula of support for unity in principle, but not until the other side changed its leaders.

This uncertainty about objectives may be one reason for the lack of clarity that soon became apparent in the south’s military strategy. Another view, put forward by a northern leader after the war, is that the south’s military preparations were still up to six months from completion when the fighting broke out. As supporting evidence, he cited the large quantities of new weapons which were arriving in the south just as the war came to an end [9]. There are also indications, however, that the YSP had expected fighting to be concentrated in the north rather than the south. Northern security sources say that the YSP’s battle plan (which it never had the chance to implement) included an uprising in central Sana’a, where Socialist supporters or undercover forces – some dressed as women – were to attack the presidential palace and other key buildings. At the same time, the Socialist-controlled battalions at Amran and Dhamar would converge on the capital, to be joined from the north-east by the ‘Iyal Surayh of the Bakil tribe, possibly supported by air attacks of the kind seen on May 4-5 [10].

Whether or not the president’s security men had drawn the right conclusions about these alleged plans, there is no doubt that the YSP attempted, shortly before the war, to make common cause with various tribal and political elements in the north. It is known from a variety of sources that tribal leaders had been approached for support and, in some cases, bribed to provide it. One of the southern Socialist leaders, Salim Salih Muhammad, indirectly confirmed this by complaining later (without giving details) that expected support in the north had failed to materialise. Other YSP sources complained that the National Democratic Front, a northern political group absorbed into the YSP after unification, had also promised armed support but had not delivered it.

In Sana’a itself, security forces found numerous weapons stores identified as belonging to Socialist supporters. While some of these were probably for self-defence, the location of others was suspiciously close to potential targets. Unknown to the Socialists, the caches had been under surveillance after security forces learned of unusually bulky deliveries to small businesses such as hairdressers. In some cases information was said to have been provided by landlords of the properties concerned. On the orders of the president, the caches remained unmolested until just before the outbreak of war, when they were seized.

One possible interpretation of this is that secession was a fall-back plan, to be implemented only if the northern uprising failed. Obviously, if it had materialised and succeeded in removing President Salih, the political situation would have been transformed to the YSP’s advantage, making secession unnecessary. However, it is unclear whether YSP leaders seriously expected it to succeed: at one point, while the leadership was urging northern comrades to become involved it was simultaneously telling others not to trust them. An alternative interpretation is that the uprising plan was intended as a diversion which would keep the president busy defending the north, force him to pull back his troops from the south, and thus allow the YSP to re-establish a separate state in the south relatively unmolested.

In contrast to the YSP, the president’s forces had a strategy which was clear and straightforward, if militarily ambitious. It had also been thought out with some care, well in advance of the war [11] There were three basic steps:

1. To secure the north (i.e. eliminate the southern forces in the north and prevent tribal or public disturbances).

2. To separate Aden and Hadramaut by driving a wedge southwards though Abyan to the sea.

3. To besiege Aden and force its surrender.

Militarily, the crucial question was whether the northern forces were capable of achieving all – or indeed any – of these objectives. In terms of men the north had a clear numerical advantage while in terms of weapons neither side had a technological advantage, since both possessed relatively old equipment. A month before the war, the Yemen Times estimated that the north had a three to one advantage, though this would decline if the war became prolonged, because the south was re-arming [12].

The south, meanwhile, was encouraged by a belief that it had air superiority and that its forces, despite their smaller numbers, were better disciplined. The numerical imbalance could also be reduced, or perhaps even neutralised, by forcing the president to concentrate his forces on fighting an insurrection in the north. Furthermore, the military demands placed on the southern forces were considerably less: if the war could be fought to a stalemate or a ceasefire imposed through international pressure they had a good chance of establishing a separate state. In other words, the south could “win” simply by not losing. The converse of that, for President Salih, was that in order to claim any sort of victory he must not only survive attempts to bring him down but also avoid a stalemate. For him, it was total victory or nothing. Viewed that way, Salih’s task seemed daunting: two previous north-south wars had ended inconclusively; there were no historical precedents for a conquest of the whole of Yemen and the difficulty of the terrain suggested it might be impossible.

Within a few days of the outbreak of war, diplomatic observers and foreign military experts had formed a clear and surprisingly unanimous view of the probable outcome: that neither side was likely to win but if one side did gain the upper hand it would be the south [13]. The following is a selection of typical comments:

“Do not underestimate the ability of southern troops. They have given northerners a bloody nose in several clashes prior to the unity accord.” – unnamed Western diplomat in Sanaa, May 6.[14]

“I think the southerners can put on a good show and could probably even win it, I suppose, depending on what their objective in the war is. The northerners are complacent and have a difficult military objective while the southerners could have an easier time achieving their goal.” – Western analyst ‘familiar with the military state of readiness of Arab states’, May 7.[15]

“The north has the bigger army but its troops are tribal … badly disciplined and may be no match for the smaller well-motivated southern army.” – unnamed Western diplomat, May 6.[16]

“Neither side can eliminate the other completely.” – senior Arab diplomat in Oman, May 7.[17]

“Salih appears to be going against the grain … he is unlikely to gain a decisive victory.” – unnamed Western diplomat, May 6.[18]

“I have the impression that the fighting is not likely to last long as the two sides face the possibility of running out of ammunition.” – unnamed Western diplomat, May 7.[19]

“Both sides have relatively old weapons, although the southerners are better equipped.” – Arab military expert, May 7.[20]

“The disciplined southerners were well-trained by the Russians and their pilots are much better than the northerners who are divided along tribal and ideological lines.” – ‘another expert’, May 7. [21]

  

The north-south military balance

 

North 

South

Armoured brigades 
Mechanised brigades 
Infantry brigades 
Artillery/commando brigades
Total 

ARMY
Personnel  
Tanks 
Armoured personnel carriers
Guns 
Reconnaissance vehicles
Armoured infantry fighting vehicles
Armoured personnel carriers
Towed artillery 

NAVY 
Personnel 
Patrol craft 
Amphibious craft 

AIR FORCE 
Personnel 
Combat aircraft 

8
1
12
3
34(?)

  
36,000
800
230
600
50
 
120
370
332

500
8
4

1.000
83*

2
2
8
1
14(?)

  
24,000
530
240
250
130
 
150
325
225

1,000
10
5

2,500
114

* Some 40 additional aircraft were thought to be in store.

Source: The Military Balance, and Brigadier Martin Lance. Serviceability of some equipment was uncertain. An armoured brigade consisted of the following battalions: three tank (with 30 tanks each), one mechanised, one artillery, one engineers. A mechanised brigade consisted of the following battalions: three mechanised, one tank, one artillery, one engineers. Southern brigades each had 30% more tanks.

While several commentators noted the north’s numerical superiority (which was considerable), none went so far as to remark on the possibility of a northern victory. Northern Yemenis, confident of their own capabilities, tended to see this as evidence of an international conspiracy against them. In fact, many of the foreign “experts” based their judgements largely on the experience of previous north-south border wars in 1972 and 1979, both of which had ended inconclusively. For the British, there was the additional factor of their own military experience in southern Yemen during the 1960s, with the underlying implication that where Britain had failed Salih could not possibly succeed. The American view was expressed by Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau on May 10:

If the fighting does not stop it’s going to be protracted and very bloody. There is not a military solution to the Yemen problem. It may be that after another brief period, when the leaders, particularly the northern leaders, realise there’s not an easy victory, they will hear the words of the ... world. [22]

This was probably a mixture of erroneous analysis and political expediency. Pelletreau had arrived in Sana’a on a peace mission the day before war broke out, and his argument that neither side could win appeared to have been devised in furtherance of that mission – though he continued to pursue this line for some time after his hasty departure. 

Another factor affecting foreign opinion was the lack of hard information about the progress of the war. Much of the fighting took place in remote or thinly-populated areas. Both sides made conflicting claims which in most cases could not be independently confirmed – with the result that they tended to cancel each other out. Northern leaders frequently made over-optimistic predictions (such as imminent attacks on Aden) which, when they were not fulfilled within the stated time-scale, suggested that something had gone wrong with the northern campaign. Finally, there were the cultural differences between northern and southern regimes which, over the years, had coloured the perceptions of western diplomats. Historically, the south had had more contact with the outside world and attitudes there had been influenced first by the British and later by the Soviet Union. This placed western relations with the south in familiar territory: its leaders gave the impression of being well organised and dealings with them were generally straightforward. Relations with the north, on the other hand, were seen as unduly complex and laden with barely comprehensible subtleties. In their less guarded moments, western diplomats would resort to thinly-disguised caricatures of northerners: their feudalism, their lack of organisation, their comical incompetence. Citing reasons why the north could not win the war, one unnamed “expert” told Reuters: “Just as an example, Saudi Arabia gave Sana’a four helicopters in the 1970s. Within a week one crashed on landing, two collided during takeoff and the fourth hit a building in Sana’a during a low-flying routine.” [23]

With hindsight, it is clear that the north not only had the upper hand from the start but maintained it, with only a few minor hitches, until the end. Northern forces followed their strategic plan almost to the letter and won every major land battle, while southern successes were small or short-lived. The southern air force fared a little better, though none of its strikes had any real effect on the course of the war. Thus the result was not just a defeat for the south but a thoroughly humiliating one; most of the Socialists’ optimistic calculations proved of little benefit and, in some cases, utterly wrong. There are numerous factors which account for the scale of their defeat:

1. The Socialists’ initial disposition of forces placed them at a disadvantage; they stood to lose one-third of their army in the opening stages of the war [24].

2. The north struck pre-emptively, before the Socialists were ready. Large supplies of weapons were still en route to the south when war broke out and some of the equipment was left unused through lack of trained personnel. The destruction of the battalions at Amran and Dhamar threw the Socialists off course from the beginning.

3. The Socialists’ plans were over-reliant on help from their supposed allies among Arab states and the northern tribes. In the later stages of the war, the Socialists were relying on Arab neighbours to recognise the new state and apply international pressure to stop the fighting. For a variety of reasons, this did not happen. In the initial stages, northern shaykhs had little reason to cause trouble of their own accord, so they had to be bribed. Bribery in Yemen is never effective for long and Sana’a had little difficulty in persuading them to change their minds. Apart from the initial, tentative involvement of the Bakil at Amran, there were no further reports of northern tribes actively taking sides with the south. The most likely explanation is that after witnessing the scale of the Socialists’ defeat at Amran they concluded their interests would best be served by playing no further part. On the whole, Yemeni tribes perceived the war as a conflict between leaders rather than peoples, and consequently largely irrelevant to their daily lives. At the same time they had no wish for battles between the two armies to take place on their land, with the consequent destruction of their homes, crops, villages, etc. A story current at the time told how tribal leaders, finding northern and southern forces confronting each other on their territory, informed the military that whichever side fired the first shot would have the full might of their tribe against it – at which the soldiers departed. While the tale may well be apocryphal, it does reflect what was probably a widespread attitude to the conflict at the time.

4. Whatever value the southern leaders placed on discipline, this counted for little against battle experience. Sections of the northern army had fought for Iraq against Iran during the 1980s and had learned tactics which the southern forces had never encountered. These included pretending to retreat but laying mines to trap their pursuers or pretending to flee from buildings or villages but leaving concealed forces behind to ambush the southerners as they entered. Northern aircraft sometimes surprised southern forces by approaching at altitude from a “friendly” direction, swooping down for the attack only at the last moment. Towards the end of the war, a number of northern tanks succeeded in entering Aden unchallenged simply by displaying posters of Ali Salim al-Baid on their sides.

5. The northern forces were more highly motivated because their goal was simpler and more readily understood: they were fighting for “unity”. Once the Islah leader, Shaykh al-Ahmar had declared the war a jihad [something his party later retracted] it acquired a clear religious dimension as well. Islamists in the south supported the northern forces and, in the view of some observers, played a crucial role. The southern forces, by contrast, were being asked to fight for a somewhat nebulous collection of grievances and, later, for the creation of a state that few seriously wanted. The southern cause was also difficult to justify on religious grounds – which must have raised doubts in many minds. The north exploited the southern forces’ lack of commitment by offering bribes to commanding officers if they would stop fighting. One officer is alleged to have accepted a suitcase full of dollars which later turned out to be counterfeit.

6. Because of the events of 1986, the Socialist army did not represent the south as a whole; it was drawn mainly from Radfan, Dali’ and Yafa’i – three parts of the Lahij province. Ali Nasser Muhammad, the Socialist president ousted in 1986 had come from Abyan, and seven southern brigades from Abyan and Shabwa, which had fled north during the coup, fought on Salih’s side in Shabwa during the 1994 war, with the result that southern defenders were confronted not by “invading” northerners but by returning southerners.

7. The benefits of southern air superiority were grossly over-estimated. Although the southern air force did succeed in hitting several important targets, its superiority was relative: it was incapable of mounting huge, sustained attacks of the kind employed by the United States against Iraq in 1991, for example. Furthermore, the southern air force could operate effectively only so long as its airfields and fuel supplies remained out of range of northern artillery. The south also had six launchers for the Russian-made Scud rocket which had acquired some notoriety during the Kuwait war. Although southern Scuds killed a number of civilians in the north they were, as Saddam had discovered, essentially a psychological weapon for use against large populated areas since their destructive power was too limited and their accuracy too unreliable for hitting precise military targets. The performance of the northern air force improved during the war, amid accusations that Iraqi pilots were flying the planes. This was vehemently denied by Sana’a, though the story is widely believed to be true.

Foreign involvement

AS YEMEN’S political crisis moved towards war, what had begun as an internal dispute rapidly acquired an international dimension. Arab support for north and south broadly replicated the divisions of the 1990-91 Gulf war. The two most important peninsular states, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were still bitterly hostile to President Salih because of what they perceived as his support for Saddam. In Kuwait’s case this was the only significant factor, though all the additional factors discussed in Chapter 7 influenced Saudi Arabia’s position: promoting conflict through support for the south served the kingdom’s general goal of keeping Yemen “on the wobble”. A renewed separation would have led the two parts of Yemen, once again, to focus their attentions on each other rather than their larger neighbour, and if, because of its dependence of support from Riyadh, the south became a Saudi puppet state, the long-term goal of a corridor to the southern ocean would be close to fulfilment. There was also the prospect that such a struggle would severely weaken Salih or bring about his overthrow. Finally, there was the possibility that it would halt democratisation, or at least reinforce by example the arguments against democratising Saudi Arabia.

The reasons for foreign involvement were – at least in the beginning – purely opportunistic: the southern leaders needed support from outside and the Saudis (together with other pro-Saudi states in the region) were happy to provide it, if only at arm’s length. The alliance was a tactical one, since the Saudis shared almost none of the Socialist party’s declared aims and almost up to the moment of Yemeni unification had generally regarded its leaders as godless communists.

The full extent of Saudi assistance to the south has never become public. The visible part was diplomatic support, which included urging other states to recognise southern independence – without success. However, it is widely believed to have funded the southern cause (along with Kuwait to a lesser extent), especially in helping to purchase the large quantity of weapons which arrived in the south before and during the 1994 war, among them a number of modern Soviet-built MiG-29 fighter-bombers. Plainly, the south could not have paid for these from its own resources. After the war, Saudi Arabia provided refuge to most of the southern separatist leaders.

The other Arab states considered to have aligned themselves with the south were Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and possibly Egypt. Their support was not particularly strong, though they all backed calls for a ceasefire in circumstances that would have favoured the south. This seems to have been motivated partly by hostility to what they regarded as a pro-Iraqi government in Sana’a and partly by a need to ingratiate themselves with the Saudis. The Egyptian government may also have been influenced by Sudanese support for the north and southern claims that Yemen was exporting Islamist terrorism.

The north’s most vociferous supporter was Saddam Hussein, though because of his status as an international pariah this was less than helpful. It has been suggested that Iraqis advised the north on its military campaign and perhaps piloted some of its warplanes, but United Nations sanctions, which had continued ever since the war over Kuwait, prevented Iraq from offering much tangible assistance. Other states which favoured the north did so mainly out of hostility to Saudi Arabia. Jordan, like Yemen, had earlier incurred the wrath of the Saudis and Kuwaitis for refusing to join the alliance against Saddam. Although King Hussein had attempted to mediate between north and south before the 1994 war, during the war the Jordan air force allegedly provided small-scale help with maintenance of northern F-5 fighters. 

Qatar, although a member of the Gulf Co-operation Council and an active supporter of the war against Saddam, declined to align itself with the Saudis over Yemen and may even have given financial help to the north. This appears to have been motivated by its own border dispute with Saudi Arabia which had led to armed clashes in 1992.

Libya, Iran, Sudan and Eritrea were also identified with the northern cause. The Sudanese connection was through Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, one of the Yemeni Islah leaders, though Khartoum was too poor and too preoccupied with its own problems to offer much help. Eritrea, on the opposite side of the Red Sea, reportedly allowed northern military aircraft to operate from its territory. This appeared to be a return of favours: Yemen had allowed Eritrean guerrillas to use Hunaish island as a base before independence. Libya and Iran gave no direct assistance, though it is suggested that some Iranian help was channelled through Sudan.

Beyond these Arab and regional players, no other countries actively took sides. Russia may have sold weapons for use in the south, but if so the motives were commercial; it later emerged (unsuccessfully) as a mediator – presumably in the hope of regaining some of the international prestige it had lost.

The conflict placed the United States in a dilemma. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia was its most important regional ally; on the other, it had economic interests in Yemen (through the Hunt Oil Company) and was formally committed to encouraging Yemeni democracy. This resulted in an American position which at first discouraged war, then sought a cease-fire but finally distanced itself from Saudi Arabia, not only by refusing to recognise the separate state in the south but by preventing the Saudis and others from doing so either [see Chapter 11]. Ultimately this helped the north by ending the war, though the Americans’ main concern was almost certainly regional stability; they judged (probably correctly) that the Saudis’ policy would have prolonged the conflict, with possibly dangerous consequences for all Yemen’s neighbours, including the Saudis themselves.

The view in Washington shortly after the war was that external aid received by the south far outweighed that received by the north; there is also little doubt that most of it came from the Saudis [25]. This led one veteran north Yemeni politician to claim (some time after the war) that the real conflict was between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, with the south acting as Riyadh’s proxy. While that interpretation ignores the purely Yemeni aspects of the struggle – of which there were many – and tends to exonerate the north for its part in the political crisis that led to war, it does contain a large measure of truth. The extent of Saudi involvement and manipulation was not fully appreciated at the time but there is now little doubt that Riyadh encouraged the Yemeni power struggle in the hope of weakening President Salih and the country generally. This was partly for the sake of settling old scores (over the Kuwait war in particular) but also in the pursuit of what Riyadh perceived – perhaps wrongly – to be its own security interests.

Both Riyadh and Sana’a tacitly acknowledged a link between the 1994 conflict and their border dispute. At an early stage of the conflict leaders in Sana’a decided that the key to ending the war lay in Riyadh rather than Aden, and began a series of secret contacts with the Saudis. These contacts were stepped up in mid-June 1994 (when southern forces were plainly facing defeat) with the aim of discovering Riyadh’s price for peace. In a private letter, President Salih is understood to have offered a swift agreement on the border question if the Saudis would end their support for the south and accept Yemeni unity [26]. During the war, the Saudis were reported to have deployed troops and tanks in the border area [27]. While this may have been simply a precautionary measure, other reports of Saudi military aircraft entering Yemeni airspace suggest an intention to contrive an incident or conceivably to create a pretext for entering the war directly; if so, Yemen did not rise to the bait. In any event, the Saudis had good reason to suppose that they could get what they wanted without joining the war. Had the YSP succeeded in bringing down Salih, the Saudis would have been in a position to exact a favourable border settlement in exchange for supporting his successors. Short of that, establishment of a separate state in the south would almost certainly have given the Saudis their long-sought oil corridor and possibly also a border settlement with the south that would prejudice northern claims (though by that stage the north, weakened by war, might have been in no position to bargain anyway). The one scenario that held no comfort for the Saudis in terms of the border dispute was a northern victory – which is what actually happened.

To some extent, therefore, the 1994 war may justifiably be considered as a brief episode in the long-running hostility between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. For Riyadh, it was an episode with a highly unsatisfactory ending – which may explain why, less than six months after the war had ended, Yemenis and Saudis clashed directly on the frontier [28].

© Copyright Brian Whitaker 2009