Fragile union at mercy of outside forces

Fragile union at mercy of outside forces

Originally published in The Guardian, 7 April 19 94

The two Alis have brought Yemen to the point of disintegration, but other countries are players in the game: North and south accused each other yesterday of massing troops on the border for a civil war. BRIAN WHITAKER weighs the situation

IN THE ornate world of Yemeni politics, where the patterns of intrigue and shifting allegiances would amaze even John le Carre, there has been nothing to match the quarrel of 'the two Alis'.

One is Ali Abdullah Salih, a tribesman who rose to colonel in the army, took over the presidency of North Yemen in 1978 and clung on to it with a little advice from Saddam Hussein. He is now a democrat and has reason to regret it.

The other is Ali Salim al-Baid, vice-president, socialist, ex-Marxist and descendant of the Prophet, who led South Yemen into union with the North four years ago and is now on the point of leading it out again.

After initial declarations of brotherhood at the birth of united Yemen in 1990, the two Alis were rarely seen together.

Last August, Ali Salim al-Baid went to Washington, where he met Vice-President Gore without permission from President Salih. Mr Salih was furious and Mr al-Baid retired to Aden, the old southern capital, and refused to budge.

Rarely has one man wreaked so much havoc by doing so little.

As the months passed, bickering turned into brinkmanship and it became clear there was more to the quarrel than a clash of personalities. In Aden, the vice-president issued a list of 18 demands which had to be met before he would resume his duties in the capital, Sana'a. It included some much-needed reforms, but also points which he clearly expected - and possibly hoped - the president would reject.

But a committee of the great and good incorporated most of the points into a detailed agreement known as the Document of Pledge and Accord, which the two Alis signed in February.

Vice-President al-Baid, patently reluctant, arrived late for the ceremony and shook hands only when cajoled by King Hussein. Next day the agreement foundered as military forces clashed in southern Yemen.

Since then there have been persistent hints from the vice-president's camp that southern Yemen may once again become a separate state. Some observers believe the Socialist Party has already decided in principle on separation and needs only a pretext and - perhaps more difficult - a decision on what form it should take.

In reality, a separation of sorts already exists. The Socialists still have their own army, because the forces of north and south never merged. For several months they have been conducting what amounts to an independent foreign policy, visiting sympathetic Arab states to drum up support. The civil servants who transferred en bloc to Sana'a after unification have moved south again - though Sana'a continues to pay them.

President Salih insists that he will protect unity 'no matter what the price', implying that there will be war if the Socialists formally declare a separation.

Not everyone believes him, though both sides certainly have the means to fight. Besides the two armies, there are 30,000 men in the presidential guard, plus countless tribal militias. Most north Yemeni households have at least one gun. The better-off employ bodyguards while the seriously rich can buy anything from mortars to armoured cars on the open market.

Seven months of political crisis have brought a boom for the arms suppliers. According to one estimate, weapons worth $200 million have arrived since August. It is generally believed that Saudi and Kuwaiti interests are paying.

In retribution for Yemen's refusal to support them in the war with Iraq, and perhaps feeling threatened by a united democratic Yemen, the Saudis are only too willing to help the country smash itself to pieces.

Northern leaders say their quarrel is not with the south, nor even with the Socialist Party as a whole, but with the three or four people who control it.

There is little doubt that large parts of the south have genuine grievances. Ordinary people in Aden, Socialists and non-Socialists alike, say union has given them nothing and cost them dear.

They complain that northern practices are creeping south. The better aspects of Marxist rule have been thrown out along with the bad: the once-free health service is in ruins and long-term social planning has gone by the board.

The habit of chewing qat leaves, on which northerners spend a huge proportion of their income, used to be restricted in the south because qat-growing was forbidden on state-owned farms. With land privatisation, that is changing. Businessmen complain that institutionalised corruption is spreading south.

Economically, separation is tempting for the south. It has one-third of Yemen's oil but only one-sixth of the population. Prospects for Aden's free port are looking brighter and there is money around for investment. One much-quoted (but uncheckable) claim is that south Yemeni exiles have $25 billion in Saudi banks.

For the north, separation would bring no cheer. President Salih has staked his reputation on restoring Yemen to a golden age of unity which never, historically, existed. In practice the Socialists, when suitably restrained, were a useful counterweight to troublesome tribal and religious elements in the north. Without them, the conservative Islamic party, Islah, will hold increasing sway.

So the search is on, aided by President Mubarak of Egypt and the Sultan of Oman among others, for a fig-leaf which will give the south autonomy while keeping a semblance of unity.

The Socialists may be persuaded to stop short of outright separation, though the proposed system of regional governments is unlikely to satisfy them. Federation or a looser confederation is more likely.

That is the point where many Yemenis lose interest in discussing their country's future and fatalism takes over. There is a sense that Yemen is a pawn in some great geopolitical conspiracy and that whatever is to happen will be decided by someone else. The Americans, it is said, are beginning to worry about Saudi Arabia; they want Yemeni oil as an insurance policy in case King Fahd is deposed.

But are two Yemens, two insurance policies, better for the Americans than one? Who knows? Twisting an old Arabic phrase, they shrug and say: 'Ma sha Clinton.' Not God's will, but Clinton's.