The Endless Wars Of Yemen
The mountainous crust of Southern Arabia is a familiar setting for tribal societies and their feuds. As a peripheral region with forbidding geography it’s no wonder Yemen has oscillated from crisis to civil war in the last hundred years.
Should an invading army seize Yemen it gains a vantage point for interdicting maritime traffic from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. It can also guard a passageway to East Africa and either march to the heart of Arabia or strangle the Persian Gulf.
The Roman Empire understood the value of what it called Arabia Felix. So did the Abyssinian and the Sassanian Persians and whoever else tried to achieve hegemony in the Middle East.
With Yemen ravaged by a civil war fueled by its neighbors it’s worth exploring recent history to find the underlying causes of its endless strife. In a region synonymous with violence Yemen represents a unique case of foreign interference in parochial struggles that thrive when a strong and centralized state is nonexistent.
The Turks and the British
When the Zaidi Imamate is established over the trading city of Sana’a in the 10th century Shia Islam takes root in the local culture and thrives. But Yemen falls under Mameluke rule from the late Medieval era until the Ottoman Empire imposed control over Islam’s holy cities in the mid-16th century. This dominion extends to Yemen and endures, albeit tenuously, until the modern era. While the Portuguese did vie for control of passage to the Red Sea it was the British East India Company who managed annexing Aden, a small settlement overlooking a natural harbor, in 1839. The opening of the Suez in 1869 and the vibrant maritime trade with India expanded Aden’s role as a port and this soon grew to an entire British-controlled Crown Colony in 1931 surrounded by allied pint-sized republics ruled by tribal leaders.
With the Ottoman Empire defeated after World War One the Zaidi Imammate–an uninterrupted line of quasi-religious monarchs–restores its power in the old city of Sana’a and North Yemen. In the south, however, the British remain in firm control of Aden and its port. To pacify restive tribes who could threaten Aden the British authorities create the Federation of South Arabia that encompasses Yemen’s lawless interior.
The territory known as Yemen now assumed two distinct polities, the Imamate in the north and the Protectorate in the south, that will haunt the region for decades to come.
With Saudi Arabia established by force of arms the plains leading to the forbidding Zaidi realm becomes contested territory. In 1932 the Kingdom’s border’s stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Empty Quarter and occupied the holy places of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Yet who controlled the routes to the Indian Ocean?
The brief conflict between the Zaidi’s and the nascent Saudis in 1934 favored the latter faction. The resulting Treaty of Tai’f ceded two “provinces,” Jazan and Nazran, to the Saudi kingdom while “the Yemen,” or the Mutwakillite Kingdom of Yemen, endures as a remote patchwork nation, a stark contrast to the British dominion in the south. This re-alignment of the shared border remains until the present.
Last Hurrah of the Imamate
With nationalism taking hold across the Arab world the reign of Muhammad al-Badr in the north is undone by the sudden intervention of Egypt. This began with a putsch on September 26, 1962, when the Imam’s residence was shelled by mutinous soldiers in their bid for revolution. Escaping to the mountains, the embattled sovereign rallies loyal Shia tribesmen and launches a guerilla war against the Egyptians–whom he once considered allies–who sought to refashion the Yemen into part of a greater pan-Arab state.
As the long civil war grinds on two embattled countries slowly emerge from the chaos. There’s the Imam al-Badr’s tenuous rule over the loyal tribes, who are covertly supported by Saudi Arabia and the British, and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) ruled from Sana’a. Egypt pays dearly for their adventure with a reported 26,000 casualties by they time they withdrew in 1970.
Misfortune cut both ways, however. Beginning in 1961 the British tried arranging for the transition of their Crown Colony in Aden, along with the Federation of South Arabia, into a genuine republic. The project is a failure. Riots in the Aden Protectorate embroil the British army and police in a thankless effort to restore order against the vicious onslaught of Marxist revolutionaries called the National Liberation Front who are succored by Cairo and Moscow.
The British garrison evacuates by November 1967 and Aden becomes part of a new entity called South Yemen that stretches to the border with Oman. After a coup d’etat in 1969 the young country drifts toward the Soviet orbit and is formally recognized as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Imam al-Badr’s rebellion collapses and in 1970 he flees to London where he passes away 26 years later.
The Great Divide
Two antagonistic republics now vie for dominance over their corner of Arabia. A full-blown but inconclusive war erupts in 1972, leaving thousands killed on both sides. The presence of Soviet and Eastern Bloc advisers in the PDRY forces the smaller YAR to solicit financial support from Saudi Arabia. This paves the way for the rise of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former lieutenant colonel and civil war veteran who seizes power in a 1978 coup. His particular brand of iron-fisted rule is uncontested for decades.
Lacking a sound economic platform, Saleh’s becomes a willing recipient of Saudi largess. Financial aid from Riyadh keeps the regime solvent while thousands of citizens find work in the kingdom.
Matters are far from tranquil in the PDRY where multiple coups deprive it of healthy political development. But unfailing support from the Soviet Union keeps its economy afloat. Besides, the Soviet navy and air force need facilities in South Yemen for deployments across Africa and the Indian Ocean. Generous arms transfers to the PDRY makes it far from an amicable neighbor though. It plays an active role in the Dofar Rebellion that sought to take over Oman.
The YAR and PDRY clash once again in 1978, to little avail. In 1986 the PDRY capital Aden is rocked by vicious in-fighting within the ruling Communist Party. The resulting purge kills an estimated 10,000 people and leaves the republic increasingly vulnerable as Soviet aid falters.
When Two Become One
By 1981 conciliatory talks between Sana’a and Aden lay the groundwork for a viable constitution that could bring about a lasting peace. With the PDRY in dire financial straits by 1990 the Saleh regime and his Southern counterpart, President Ali Salim al-Beidh, agree to form a coalition government for a united Yemen. The plan succeeds but rifts soon develop as Southerners feel disenfranchised in the new state.
While the PDRY controlled more territory and had a better equipped armed forces, the YAR had a larger population and an economy buoyed by Saudi aid. Saleh’s military had superior numbers too. After a contested election in 1993 relations between the rival Sana’a and Aden parties soured, leading to a brief three-month civil war in 1994. Military units loyal to the PDRY didn’t hesitate to use their considerable firepower but the north’s determination prevailed and Yemen is united under a single flag and governed from Sana’a.
The Lesser Evils
Yemen’s climate and terrain are the stuff of breathtaking postcards. But the last 20 years have been unkind to the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula. Even a slight bump in oil exports from modest reserves did little to improve the economy. Yemen was still a plaything for world powers anyway.
In 2000 a dinghy packed with explosives almost sank the USS Cole while it was docked. This brazen attack by the shadowy organization calling itself Al Qaeda set the stage for longstanding American interference. But the autocratic President Saleh had little regard for the terrorists running amuck in the south–for years their marginal activities secured financial aid from Washington, DC.
It was the Zaidi loyalists inhabiting Yemen’s northern frontier who were a thorn in Saleh’s side for decades. From 2004 onward the followers of the fallen activist Hussayn al-Houthi launched a determined rebellion against Sana’a, one that drew Riyadh’s attention. These rebels, who called themselves Houthis, posed a threat not just to President Saleh but to the al-Saud dynasty, who feared their dalliance with Tehran.
Successive military campaigns from 2004 to 2010, including forays and airstrikes by the Saudi military, did little to dent the Houthi’s resistance.
President Saleh’s Exit
The Arab Spring was very unkind to the Yemeni people. Widespread protests in Sana’a were met by violent force. It took persistent diplomatic efforts by Riyadh to curb President Saleh’s vengeance on his opponents. But Yemen’s most cunning head of state was eventually undone by an assassination attempt in June 2011 that left him with horrific burns. Surrendering his office to Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi in 2012 the career politician from the former PDRY was welcomed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and symbolized a fresh start for Yemen.
Old habits die hard and within two years the Houthis stormed Sana’a and imposed nominal control over Yemen. This surprising turn of events stemmed from a profound disenchantment among the Houthis, who felt their political demands for representation and reform in the government bureaucracy went unheeded. When the Houthis did enter Sana’a in late 2014 their arrival was met with little resistance. By all intents and purposes, entire units of the armed forces together with allied tribal militias had joined the Houthi cause.
It bears mentioning that for years prior, the US maintained a significant footprint in Yemen with special forces and the CIA preoccupied with hunting down Al Qaeda cells. It’s remarkable how little this effort mattered for Yemeni society and its dangerous politics.
Decisive Storm And Its Discontents
With a new king on the Saudi throne the shocking events in Yemen, where another Middle Eastern civil war seemed to be underway, prompted action from the GCC member states. Rather than appeal to the United Nations or the US, Riyadh launched its own noisy air campaign patterned after NATO’s prior adventures in the Balkans and Libya. Using its air superiority the Saudi Air Force punished the Houthis and the people of Yemen as a whole.
The United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, and Qatar went into action as well. Though Pakistan refused to participate in a full-scale invasion of Yemen, GCC forces recaptured Aden, ensuring former President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi and his followers–who had fled there in February 2015–had a safe zone from which to prosecute the war. The following month, however, Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia to curry favor with his new sponsors.
Undettered, the Houthis brought the fight to Saudi Arabia.
On the second week of October 2016 the grinding conflict in Yemen took another bizarre twist. A US Navy destroyer, the USS Mason, reported coming under attack by shore-based missiles while patrolling the Red Sea. Another incident followed four days after involving the USS Ponce, prompting a salvo of Tomahawk cruise missile launches on three radar sites on October 13.
The growing international outcry from Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate airstrikes on Sana’a and other population centers forced the UN to arrange a ceasefire even when such measures proved futile throughout the year. Meanwhile, in the enclave surrounding Aden the Gulf’s coalition army readies to carve a path of destruction toward the old capital. Their enemies, the Houthis, are more determined than ever to resist and avenge their losses, a desire emboldened by open material support from Iran. The struggle for Yemen has already killed 10,000 people. Without a resolution the body count will inevitably rise.
Wars end either by force or peaceful accord. But neither seem tangible outcomes for Yemen, a land cursed by persistent warfare. During the past half century not a decade has gone by without some form of conflict engulfing Southern Arabia. The lessons learned from a broad survey of its history reveal a damning contradiction. Tribal politics and parochial interests have perpetuated an anarchistic climate where power crumbles in the face of social ills. But the bygone Saleh-era showed how a single autocratic politician, no matter how calculating, can never fully control his subjects.
It almost proves there’s no either-or for Yemen. Is it a shattered republic better off fragmented? Are violent freedom and chaos preferable to brutal dictatorship? Do foreign capitals have the right to control Yemen’s past and future?
Maybe the long march of time will answer these questions instead.