Yemen's decade of unity

Yemen's decade of unity

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 19 May, 2000

YEMEN celebrates 10 years of unification on May 22 and - barring last-minute mishaps - the star guest at the party will be Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussein was also invited (purely as a matter of protocol, the Yemenis say) but he declined.

This itself is a remarkable about-turn from the situation a decade ago, when Yemen was perceived as siding with Iraq over Kuwait and the Saudis retaliated by dumping more than 700,000 expatriate guest-workers on Yemen’s doorstep.

Back in 1990, the unification of north and south Yemen was greeted with a mixture of surprise and consternation: here were two regimes which, apart from shared nationality, had wildly differing outlooks. The south was Marxist and relatively secular; the north a traditional Arab society with strong elements of tribalism. Alarmingly for some of its royalist neighbours, Yemen not only unified but announced the birth of a multi-party democracy.

Unification brought a political spring of the kind seen in eastern Europe after the collapse of communism, but rarely in the Arab world. Dozens of new parties were formed and newspapers sprang up, largely unrestrained by government interference.

The two rival regimes formed a coalition government and for three years the faces of President Ali Abdullah Salih and Ali Salim al-Baid, the southern leader who became his deputy, appeared side by side on street posters.

But unity did not mean harmony: there was little real integration of the two former states. In some government offices northerners sat in one room and southerners in another, spending much of their time trying to undermine each other.

Mutual distrust was such that both sides retained their armies and this - almost inevitably - led in 1994 to armed conflict. The southern leaders proclaimed a separate state in the south which lasted just six weeks, despite receiving diplomatic and other support from several countries in the region - most notably Saudi Arabia.

Given that the northern population outnumbered that of the south by more than four to one, it is scarcely surprising that the north won the war - though if it had failed to do so the result could have been very messy: fragmentation into more than two states or a descent into Somali-style anarchy were two scenarios postulated at the time.

Today, despite lingering resentment over northern "hegemony" in the south, Yemen’s unity looks secure. Since the war, low-level violence has continued in the form of shootings, kidnappings and small-scale bombings - variously attributed to Islamists, separatists or the machinations of the Saudis. However, none of this has proved a serious threat to the status quo.

In terms of democracy, Yemen has held two reasonably successful parliamentary elections and one presidential election in which Salih - to nobody’s surprise - defeated a nonentity from his own party.

Although the democratic framework is more advanced than anything Yemen’s neighbours can offer, the practice has left many Yemenis disappointed and frustrated. President Salih’s party, the General People’s Congress, enjoys a massively dominant position - with no prospect of this changing in the foreseeable future.

The only other party with sizeable representation in parliament is Islah, which combines religious and traditional tribal elements and would almost certainly prove too divisive as an alternative government. The Yemen Socialist Party, which once ruled the south and later shared power with Salih, is now a shrinking blip on the radar screen. This is due partly to government harassment but mainly to its own tendency to boycott anything it disapproves of.

The extraordinary press freedom of the early 1990s has also faded into what, for Arab countries, is a normal pattern of prosecutions and harassment. Almost certainly, the authorities had not intended to allow such freedom in the first place but, paralysed by internal rivalries at the time, they were powerless to restrain it.

With hindsight, a similar argument can be made about the origins of pluralism. The multi-party system established in 1990 was not democracy for its own sake. Initially it was a way of acknowledging unresolved differences between the political leaders of north and south.

Amid all the unfulfilled aspirations and unsolved problems - poverty, corruption, and non-enforcement of laws, to name just a few - it’s easy to forget how many narrow escapes from catastrophe Yemen has survived in the last 10 years. Even some of Salih’s opponents grudgingly concede that he may be the only driver capable of keeping the truck on the road.

Looking ahead, Crown Prince Abdullah’s attendance at the unity celebrations is seen as signalling a thaw in relations with Saudi Arabia. If so, it could mean an end to the long-running border dispute - and one problem less for the next 10 years.