- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
Over the past few years, Yemen has featured in the news as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The hopes of the protest movement in 2011 gave way to civil war and a brutal Saudi-led invasion.
But the people of Yemen aren’t just the victims of a political tragedy. In its modern history, Yemen has inflicted a humiliating defeat on the British Empire. One part of the country became the only Arab state to adopt Soviet-style Marxism as its ideology. Yemen’s path to its current disastrous condition is a complex and fascinating story that tells us a lot about the modern world system.
Helen Lackner is one of the leading experts on modern Yemen. She spent several years living in the country and has written numerous books and articles about it, including Yemen in Crisis: The Road to War.
For the last thirty years, Yemen has been formally united in a single state, although the conflict of the last decade has broken up that political unity in practice. Previously, however, Yemen had been divided into two states. What were the origins of that divide?
Yemen within its current official borders had never existed as a single state in the past, and I think that’s worth remembering when trying to analyze the current situation. Way back, you had a number of different states that covered different parts of the country. More recently, in the nineteenth century, you had Ottoman rule in what were roughly the borders of what became the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), or North Yemen. After the British arrived in 1839, they gradually took control, to a large extent and not necessarily that closely, of what later became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), or South Yemen.
In the Ottoman period, what later became the YAR was ruled primarily by a Zaidi imam. That person was a sayyid, a member of a social group that considers themselves descendants of the Prophet. In Yemen, they are called sayyid; in other countries, they’re called Hashemites or ashraf. This is particularly relevant if one looks now at the situation with the Houthis.
You had two states in the nineteenth century and until the middle of the twentieth century. One was ruled by an imam on a theocratic basis. Further south, after the British arrived, you had their colony in Aden and the Eastern and Western Protectorates, which were largely left to their own chaotic devices. There was much more chaos in the Western Protectorate than in the Eastern one, where you had semistates operating. That was basically the situation up to the early 1960s.
What factors lay behind the republican military coup in 1962? Why was it followed by civil war and by the intervention of foreign powers in North Yemen?
The military coup is known in Yemen as the revolution, rather than as a coup, although objectively, it was a coup. But it was generally described by most people in the country and is perceived today as the overthrow of the imamate and the beginning of a republic. It came about after decades of frustration against the imam.
The imams ruled very autocratically and oppressively — particularly the penultimate one, Ahmad bin Yahya. There had been a large number of uprisings, the most famous being the ones in 1948 and 1955, when groups of educated elites opposed the imam and tried to overthrow him militarily. They were very severely repressed: a lot of heads were cut off and put on display to the public in various locations.
You had a regime that many describe as retrograde and comparable to the one that existed in Oman prior to 1970. The characteristics of that regime included heavy taxation throughout the country, which made life difficult for the population at large, and very limited investment in any of the modern aspects of life that people were interested in, such as health and education. The imam had also sent a number of officers for training to Iraq. They came back with Arab nationalist ideology, and therefore with anti-monarchical sentiments that made them ready to get rid of the imam.
Ahmad bin Yahya died in his bed. His successor, his son Muhammad al-Badr, was quite progressive in certain senses and was expected to operate much more within an Arab nationalist framework, but he was in power for barely ten days before he was overthrown. The reason it became a civil war was that the revolutionaries failed to kill him. He escaped and went north, where he rallied tribespeople and was also supported by the Saudi regime and others to fight back.
The revolutionaries were immediately supported by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who sent significant numbers of troops to Yemen. At times, there were up to 70,000 Egyptians in the country, as well as a lot of administrators and political advisers, who were really more than advisers. It was a civil war but with significant international involvement, just like the civil war today.
The Egyptians supported the republican side, while the Saudis and the British supported the monarchist side. The British were a bit less open about their involvement, but you could call it an open secret. They sent some Special Air Service (SAS) units, and there was even some Israeli support for the monarchists.
The civil war had basically reached a stalemate by late 1967 or early 1968. After Nasser withdrew his troops, there was an attempt by the royalists to take over the city of Sana’a, with a seventy-day siege, which remains very famous in the memories of Yemenis. But that siege failed to oust the republicans. In 1967–69, there was a process whereby the most extreme royalists were defeated or marginalized, while on the other hand, the left wing of the republican movement was also marginalized. In some cases, people were killed.
That made possible the deal that was reached in 1970. Those who signed it agreed to retain the republic. However, it was a “republic” of right-wing republicans and the less extreme supporters of the imamate. None of the imam’s family were allowed to come back, but at the same time, the left wing of the movement was also eliminated.
How did Ali Abdullah Saleh come to be the leader of North Yemen by the end of the 1970s?
Ali Abdullah Saleh was an army officer from a small tribe called the Sanhan, a minor branch of the most important tribal confederation in Yemen, the Hashid. In 1977–78, three Yemeni presidents were assassinated, including two in the North. The first was Ibrahim al-Hamdi, who is still remembered and revered all over the country as the great hope of Yemenis. He was assassinated in October 1977, just as he was about to go to Aden sign a unity agreement with the president of the South, Salim Rubai Ali, known as Salimin.
After al-Hamdi’s assassination, another officer, Ahmad al-Ghashmi, became president in Sana’a. He in turn was assassinated in June 1978, supposedly by an envoy from Salimin. There’s some debate about whether that is really what happened: that is to say, the identity of his assassin is clear, because they died together, but whether it was on Salimin’s orders is another question. In any case, the southern leaders used that as an opportunity to kill Salimin, and that’s how Yemen lost three presidents by the end of June 1978.
At that point, several maneuvers took place in Sana’a. I suspect that Saleh was appointed as president on the assumption that he would essentially take orders from various figures. When I first went to Sana’a in 1980, throughout that period and for many years afterward, all of us expected there would be a coup tomorrow morning. We expected to wake up and find that Saleh had been assassinated.
The saying was that nobody would sell him a life insurance policy for a million dollars, because it would have to be paid up so quickly. History has shown, of course, that this was a mistaken assumption. He lasted for thirty-three years as president.
What was the nature of the struggle against British colonial rule in Aden in the 1960s? And what was the outcome of that struggle?
Aden was a different situation. After the revolution in Sana’a in 1962, there was an incentive for the southern nationalists to seriously challenge British colonial rule. There had been challenges to British rule throughout the period, of greater or lesser significance. But they were very localized: southern Yemeni society was already very fragmented at that time.
After 1962, you had the influence of Nasserism on the one hand, as well as the rise of the trade union movement in Aden on the other. The unions were a very important element of left-wing politics in that region, which had been emerging since the early to mid-1950s. Ever since the refinery had been built, there was a strong trade union movement in Aden.
A number of people who had been sent to study at the American University of Beirut came back very much influenced by the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN) established in 1958. The MAN was the ancestor of many left-wing movements in the Arab world, such as the two main Palestinian left-wing organizations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), as well as the movement in Oman, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG).
You had the combination of two movements, one primarily rural, which was connected with the MAN, and an urban movement, which stemmed from the trade union movement. That is why you ended up with a struggle as much between two rival liberation movements as against the British: the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY), which was aligned with the trade unions and very Nasserist in its political orientation, and the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was much more diverse initially. The NLF included MAN people, as well as those who had an even clearer left-wing ideology, and others who had a more tribal approach. It was a much more diverse movement than FLOSY.
Before Britain left, in the summer of 1967, there was more fighting going on between these two groups than between either of them and the British. The NLF effectively defeated FLOSY in August that year, which is one of the reasons why the British negotiated independence with the NLF rather than with FLOSY.
Another reason was that FLOSY was, in British eyes and in reality, closely associated with Nasserism, and the British in that period considered Nasser to be barely an improvement on the devil. A third factor was that they knew extremely little about the NLF. When you read documents or memoirs that British officials have written on the period, they often recognize that they basically had no idea what the NLF was.
After the British withdrawal, why did South Yemen come under the rule of the NLF and then become the only Arab country with a formal commitment to Soviet-style Marxism? Behind the rhetoric, what did that system actually mean for the people over whom it ruled?
The second part of your question is the easier one. What it meant for the people was a very reasonable standard of living — indeed, a standard of living above and beyond the financial capacities of the state, given its economic circumstances and limited natural resources. It is important to remember that the two main economic resources of that part of Yemen were the Aden port, whose activities collapsed with the closure of the Suez Canal after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the British base, which of course closed when the British left.
One of the major assets of the PDRY regime was its ability to provide good education, health services, infrastructure, and jobs throughout the country. Most people had incomes which were not particularly fantastic, but were sufficient to maintain their families, thanks to food subsidies and other basic supports.
That’s the aspect of the regime that people look back to even today as containing elements of “the good old days.” Others now look back at the British colonial period as “the good old days.” But the PDRY is certainly remembered positively by those who remember it, and by their children and now grandchildren, for having provided adequate living standards without corruption and without major differentials. That was true in both urban and rural areas — the majority of people were rural, even in that period — despite the fact that the agrarian reform and the rural systems were not entirely satisfactory by any standards.
As to the first part of the question: why did it become the only country committed to Marxism in any shape or form? They didn’t call it Marxism, by the way — they called it “scientific socialism.” You have to look at the whole historical period that you’re dealing with. We’re talking about the late 1970s and the 1980s, after the formal end of the Sino-Soviet dispute. We’re also talking about the remains of the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China. There had been a strong influence from China early on: the debates within the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) reflected those problems.
I think it’s largely because of the overall international situation that this was possible. From 1967 onward, you saw the defeat of Nasserism and Arab nationalism, at a time when Ba’athism in Iraq and Syria were also largely discredited for those who had any familiarity with those regimes. Therefore, the forms of socialism that appeared to offer a possible or reasonable future were East European, Chinese, or Cuban. There was a big Cuban medical mission in Aden: the Cubans trained and developed the medical school there. That had a strong impact ideologically.
We have to remember as well that we were in the context of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union thus found it very convenient to have access to Aden as a naval position and to have a kind of foothold in the region, particularly since the rest of the Arabian Peninsula was run by autocratic monarchies, as it is today. Although that’s not the complete answer, I think the factors that I’ve mentioned contributed significantly to it.
Why did the ruling party in South Yemen then descend into quite bloody power struggles between rival factions in the 1970s and ’80s?
The short answer is, I wish I knew! I lived there for five years, which is a significant percentage of the time that the regime existed. It’s one of the things that I would ask leaders when I came across them. The main question I kept asking them, which I never got an answer to, was: why were they using external models rather than developing their own Marxist analysis based on the social and economic realities of the country?
The factionalism at an early stage clearly had a connection with what I’ve just talked about. For example, of the top leaders, Salimin was considered to be a populist following the Chinese line, whereas Abdul Fattah Ismail was seen as a sort of bureaucrat, following a very straightforward Soviet bureaucratic approach. Ali Nasir Muhammad was seen as an in-between pragmatist. You could say that these differences between them were one element.
Many people say that it was merely a tribal struggle. I don’t accept that. 1986, which was the bloodiest of all the struggles, deteriorated and did become a tribal struggle. After the initial fighting on January 13, people were attacked and killed because of their identity cards and where they came from. It degenerated into a tribal struggle, or a regional struggle, but that’s not what it was at first.
The 1986 struggle, in my view, was initially nothing more than a power struggle: “I want to be in your seat.” A few months after it happened, I went back to Yemen. I had just published my book on the PDRY a few months earlier in October 1985, and many people wanted me to write an analysis of the events of 1986 for an Arabic edition, although that never happened. I spent a month traveling around both the PDRY and Sana’a, where the defeated faction had taken refuge, interviewing as many leaders as I could get hold of, and taking piles and piles of notes, which I still have.
I had a number of questions for them: What are your differences in foreign policy? What are your differences with respect to social policies, economic policies, and particularly rural policies? The answers eventually made pages of nonsense. My conclusion was that the only thing they were fighting about was getting the top seat. That’s certainly true for 1986.
The earlier power struggle in 1969 was a much more straightforward left-right clash over different policies. The one in 1978 was mainly perceived to be an anti-populist move, against those who were pro-Chinese, with the success of the more directly pro-Soviet side. I’m not sure to what extent that answers the question, but I certainly thought at the time, and I still think today, that these struggles were largely counterproductive.
Another element one has to remember is the support and sponsorship for opposition to the PDRY regime from the Saudis, the British, and all kinds of sources, who clearly egged them on. The regime had to contend with armed incursions and fighting enemies across the board, including the people who had been defeated when British colonialism ended, and then later after the struggles in 1969, 1978, and 1986.
They certainly had real enemies, and it was obvious that these enemies would use both direct and indirect means to foster division and dissent amongst the leadership. But they could have responded to those proddings by having more of a united front, which obviously they didn’t do.
How did unification come about between the two parts of Yemen in the early 1990s? What kind of system took shape in the new state after unification?
Unification took place in 1990 as a result of several factors. Yemeni unity had long been the most popular political slogan among the official ones in both parts of the country. In Yemeni schools every morning, the children would stand up and declaim the standard national slogans. Of the three elements, Yemeni unity was the most popular; the other two were “defense of the Yemeni revolution” and “implementation of the Five-Year Plan.” That was very ingrained.
People also tended to have relatives in the other part of the country. An enormous number of South Yemenis migrated to work in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states via the North, because the YAR had a special agreement with the Saudis, which meant that its citizens didn’t have to go through the usual regulations for foreign workers and could come and go as they wished and work without a sponsor. Going in with a North Yemeni passport was very convenient for anybody, so many southerners went to Sana’a to claim a YAR passport, which was allowed.
There is, in my view, a Yemeni nation, even though there are differences between somebody from the far east and somebody from the far north. There are certain common features that most Yemenis share. For decades, when people talked about Arab unity, I considered it a joke — I never thought it could happen — whereas I always felt that Yemeni unity was a real possibility, because there was this cultural and historical connection of people within the country from one end of it to the other — including a few bits that are currently not part of it.
Of course, there were a number of political elements. On the one hand, internally, both the PDRY and the YAR were going into crises. By that time, Ali Abdullah Saleh had been in power for almost ten years. His regime was consolidating, and it was causing considerable dissatisfaction amongst the people. Oil income had only just started in 1986–87. There was an uprising in a western region against his regime. Saleh had his problems to deal with.
The PDRY regime after 1986 was basically discredited for the population, because the January 13 struggle was perceived by everybody as nothing more than a murderous power struggle, during which at least 5,000 people were killed. There had been massive emigration of the succession of defeated factions. That regime failed to reestablish credibility among the population, despite a number of very positive efforts that it made — for example, allowing much more freedom of expression, and allowing other parties to exist.
One of the things that triggered unity was the discovery of oil at a particular location, which was on the border between both of the Yemeni states and Saudi Arabia. It was perceived, I think rightly, that if the two Yemens started fighting each other on this one, the Saudis would just take the lot. Forming a unified state was certainly a better option.
Saleh was in favor of it. He thought — and I think history has proved him right — that he would manipulate it and be the stronger element. At the time of unification, you had about nine million Yemenis from the YAR and about two million from the PDRY, so the balance of population was very much in favor of the northern element.
There’s still a lot of debate today about what the unity agreement was, because the Yemeni Socialist Party believed that they had agreed on a federal system, and that their then leader, Ali Salem al Beidh, had been tricked by Saleh to go for full unity. That is the widespread story, and it may be true — I have no idea.
Unity was greeted at the time by Yemenis everywhere with great enthusiasm, as it was something that people had aspired to: being able to travel around freely, and for the southerners to be able to access the material goods available in the north. A lot of people had two main hopes for unity, which are still worth recalling.
Khat, as you may know, is a mild drug that is widely consumed in Yemen. In the PDRY, there were regulations, according to which it could only be consumed on weekends and holidays. In the YAR, it was permitted all the time and had spread enormously — it has spread even more since then. Many people in both parts of Yemen were hoping that the southern rules on khat would be imposed throughout the country.
Another element that many women were certainly hoping for was that the PDRY’s family law would prevail. That gave women a much better position. It officially granted them full rights, by comparison with the situation in the YAR.
Of course, what happened was the opposite. Sana’a’s khat laws spread to all of Yemen, and you now see people chewing afternoon and night, everywhere in the country. The family law of the north was imposed. Southern women, and indeed women throughout Yemen, found that their circumstances deteriorated considerably after that.
There was a brief civil war in 1994, when some southerners tried to reassert their independence. They were militarily defeated by Saleh’s forces with support not only from a number of Islamists and “Afghans,” as they were known — people who had come back from the jihad in Afghanistan — but also from those who had been defeated in 1986. That is relevant today when you look at the situation with respect to the Southern Transitional Council and southern separatism, as the pro-Saleh forces included the current president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had been on the losing side in 1986.
After 1994, the regime that Saleh had been operating in the YAR spread throughout Yemen. That was a regime where you had formal democracy and the presence of other parties, but decisions were essentially taken by a small military clique, and benefits accrued to a similar small clique of kleptocrats. That caused a lot of dissatisfaction, of course, in the South. It wasn’t particularly appreciated in the North, either, but they were used to it.
What would you say were the main factors behind the uprising that eventually ousted Saleh from 2011 onward? How much do you think Yemen had in common with other Arab countries that ousted their own rulers at the same time?
The points that I’ve just made about frustration at Saleh’s type of rule were certainly major elements that led to the uprising. That frustration was particularly the result of increased poverty throughout the country.
I saw poverty in Yemen in the early 2000s that I had seen in places like Pakistan or West Africa and never thought I would see in Yemen. That was because there were no jobs, the population was increasing by 3 percent every year while resources were not, and the kleptocrats were grabbing everything they could, leaving very little for anybody else. You saw more people in poverty, begging in the streets, every year.
You had rising political tensions. Saleh’s divide-and-rule policy affected everybody, but it was very much focused on the far north, where the Houthi movement emerged. Between 2004 and 2010, there were six wars between the Houthis and the Saleh regime. In the South, it emerged in late 2006 through the southern separatist movement, which started among the thousands of military officers and security people who had been dismissed after 1994 and were left without any income.
Corruption made people angry everywhere. Young people were perhaps getting educated but not finding any jobs. In 2009–10, Saleh tried to change the constitution so that he would be able to stand for election yet again, and he was preparing his son to inherit the presidency.
This brings us to the other half of your question. Saleh was hoping to end up with a “republican monarchy,” following the model that Assad had successfully implemented in Syria and that Hosni Mubarak failed to implement in Egypt, which involved passing on power to their sons. In other aspects, too, the frustration in Yemen was very similar to that in other countries: economic problems, poverty, lack of democracy, and freedom.
You did have much more freedom in Yemen in terms of saying what you wanted. Saleh had realized that you could let people speak and say what they wanted, so long as they didn’t have any influence. That was not the case in Syria, for example, and less so in Egypt or Tunisia. But in terms of economic, social, and political demands, I think it was largely the same everywhere. Similar demands were also made in Algeria and Sudan ten years later.
From that moment of opening or hope, however tentative, in 2011 and 2012, how did the country then descend into civil war? What role did outside powers have to play in what happened?
In 2011, Saleh was forced out of power. The Yemeni military split. A number of Saleh’s supporters joined the protest movement, including a major military unit. You then had a series of military confrontations between the Saleh loyalists and the supposed supporters of the revolution.
This led to international intervention. There was a group of states called the Friends of Yemen, composed of most major states in the world and including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. They supported what was known as the GCC initiative, which later, after November 2011, became the GCC agreement.
Its terms included the departure of Saleh from the presidency. However, because Saleh remained politically strong, he was neither forced out of the country nor forced out of its politics. He retained control of the General People’s Congress, which was his political creation, and which remains one of the major political institutions or parties in the country.
The GCC agreement created a transitional state that was supposed to last for two years. Its president was Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had been Saleh’s vice president. He was elected in an unopposed, uncontested election. Hadi’s background was in the PDRY, as a leading member of the faction that was defeated in the 1986 conflict, so he is the first southern president of Yemen.
From 2012 to 2014, there was supposed to be a transitional state, which would include a number of elements: a government of national unity, security sector reform, and something called the national dialogue conference, which was designed to bring about a new constitution, if necessary, and solve the fundamental political problems of the country. Between them, these initiatives all failed.
The government of national unity had 50 percent representation for Saleh’s supporters. The other 50 percent was meant to be shared between the formal political opposition in Parliament, composed of the Islah party, which is a combination of northern tribespeople and Islamists, and a whole range of other parties, including the Ba’athists, the socialists, the Nasserists, and so on, plus what were known as the new forces emerging from the uprising — youth, women, and civil society.
This government gained the reputation of being the most corrupt one that had ever existed in Yemen. It was paralyzed in terms of doing anything. The security sector reform failed, for a host of reasons, but particularly because it was unable to transform the loyalty of the main security units away from Saleh to the state. The national dialogue conference failed for another host of reasons. It was badly managed by the United Nations. It had nine working parties to address various questions, including the Houthis, the southern issue, and the new form the state should take. They couldn’t agree on any of the major issues.
During this conference, which lasted for eleven months in 2013–14, the Houthis increased their control in their home area and expanded into other, surrounding areas. They were also beginning to build an alliance with Saleh: he had been their number one enemy previously, but the Houthis and Saleh both opposed federalism, which was one of the main proposals of the transitional regime, and they opposed that regime’s existence. They had a common enemy, so they got together and turfed out the government in the early months of 2015. They worked together in an alliance, which became increasingly tense until the Houthis killed Saleh in December 2017.
2015 is really when the full-scale war started. Primarily, this war is an internal Yemeni conflict between a whole range of different factions, with different social groups and regional aspects involved. The international role is an additional, worsening factor. The direct intervention of Saudi Arabia and the coalition of ten states that it led — of whom only two were really significant, the Saudi themselves and the United Arab Emirates — merely worsened the level of killings and the dire humanitarian situation.
In the current state of play in Yemen, do you see any cause for tentative optimism about whether the conflict can be resolved and the country can move back to a more peaceful and stable situation?
A deal between the Houthis and their opponents is possible, on the proviso that there is a significant change to the UN Security Council Resolution 2216 of April 15, 2015, which has been the determining UN element for action in Yemen. It effectively demands complete Houthi surrender.
Between 2015, when that resolution was voted through, and today, the Houthis have been gaining ground. They now control 70 percent of the country’s population, and they have a functioning government in the area they control. It may be a horrible government. It may be highly oppressive. It may be fundamentalist. But it’s operational.
On the other hand, the people who are against them, and particularly the internationally recognized government, are increasingly weak. That government has barely any footing in the country at all. It only represents a small group of the people opposing the Houthis.
A deal between the Houthis and the Saudis, who the Houthis consider to be the main ones to negotiate with, is possible, because the Saudis have essentially lost this war after five years. It’s costing them a lot of money, and it’s also caused them enormous reputational damage, along with other factors, such as the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. I think Mohammad bin Salman is ready for a deal.
The question is whether a deal can be achieved with the Houthis. They are kind of stuck with their current offensive, but they’ve been making slow progress, and there are certainly factions among them who want to pursue it, while other factions might want to reach a deal. But a deal of that nature is possible: I’m not saying it’s likely, just that it’s possible.
Even if there is a deal, all the other issues will remain, from the separatist movement in the South, to the divisions among the southern separatists themselves, and the various political factions in the North. Those conflicts will go on until there is an entirely new approach to politics in Yemen, starting at the grassroots, which would help develop a new political class who are not a bunch of self-interested thieves.
We must also remember that Yemen is in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Saudis will continue to have massive influence. The Emiratis have also been building up their influence, which is by no means a positive one. There is an Iranian influence on the Houthis, although it is not determining in the sense that many people tend to claim it is. External involvement in one form or another will continue, even if there is a formal end to the fighting.
As well as this, the country’s economy has completely collapsed, so there will be a massive need for financial support for reconstruction. I fear the prospect of neoliberal policies, of Western consultancy firms using Saudi and Emirati funds to promote their own interests and to create development programs that would turn Yemen into an imitation, low-quality version of the worst of the Emirates — I’m talking about the poor Emirates, not Dubai and Abu Dhabi. That is not a prospect to be relished.
I don’t see a short-term solution. I do see, as I have said, the possibility of a deal, which will be presented as a peace deal. But it will probably amount to little more than an end to the fighting between the Houthis and the Saudis.