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How Yemen’s Dream of Unity Turned Sour

Thirty years ago today, Yemen united as one country in a mood of optimism about the future. Those hopes were to be cruelly disappointed, thanks to the destructive, self-serving record and rivalry of Yemen's political elites.

A view of the city of Sana'a on November 22, 2005 in Sana'a, Yemen. Brent Stirton / Getty

We are now into the sixth year of an internationalized civil war that is destroying Yemen and has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It seems difficult to remember that on May 22 thirty years ago, Yemenis throughout the country were overjoyed and enthusiastic at the prospect of living in a single, unified state. 

That day, the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) joined to form the Republic of Yemen. The popularity of the “Yemeni Unity” slogan throughout the two states had been one of a number of incentives that persuaded leaders in Sana’a and Aden to reach agreement.

The majority of Yemenis alive today were born in the period following unification, so a reexamination of this moment in the country’s history may help contribute to the search for solutions that might guide the country out of its current desperate straits. 

Today, the merits of unification are not questioned in what was the YAR. In the former PDRY, however, many are calling for the return of a state within its former borders, though few are socialists, and fewer still have a clear understanding of the socialist regime that existed in the PDRY. Moving beyond a stereotypical interpretation of history and its associated myths and prejudices is the first step towards a better future. 

The 26 September Revolution

Discussion of Yemen in the second half of the twentieth century must be framed within the overall political environment of that period in the Arab world and beyond. In contrast with the situation today, political debate at that time focused neither on sectarianism nor on jihadism, but rather on themes like anti-colonialism, nationalism, and socialism. 

The main political rivalries were between republics and monarchies, with the Palestinian issue and the concept of Arab socialism at the heart of debates throughout the region. Even though most of the republics in the region had emerged from military coups, there was still a widespread belief that elections might change leaderships and governments.

The Yemen Arab Republic was born on September 26, 1962, when a group of Yemeni officers who had been trained in Iraq and Egypt overthrew the state’s new Imam just ten days into his reign. Officially known in Yemen as the “26 September revolution,” it was not a mass movement, although it had widespread support. 

The new Imam escaped from the country and subsequently received assistance from Saudi Arabia and Britain in his fight against the republican regime. Egypt gave military support to the republican side in this conflict, and also helped to introduce a bureaucracy based on the Nasserite model. 

A seven-year civil war ensued, involving up to 70,000 Egyptian troops. Local tribes and other groups aligned themselves with one side or the other on the basis of complex local issues as much as their belief in republicanism or monarchism as political systems.

Saleh’s Rise

This conflict came to an end, not through victory for one side, but as a by-product of the Arab defeat in the June 1967 war against Israel, which weakened Nasser and obliged him to compromise with Saudi Arabia and withdraw his forces from Yemen. The 1970 agreement made the balance of power between the two local sides explicit: it maintained a republican regime, but excluded the left-wing, socialist elements, and brought many royalists into the government. 

Over the decade that followed, Yemenis sought to implement a locally based approach to modernization through community-based “Local Development Associations.” However, political instability persisted, including the three-year rule of President Ibrahim al Hamdi (1974–77). Al Hamdi is still popular and widely praised today, thanks to his reputation as a figure who promoted development and good governance. 

Ali Abdullah Saleh came to power in 1978 and established a system which ruled over the YAR — and later the unified state — until 2011. It was an autocratic structure that relied upon patronage and the nepotistic distribution of assets, ensuring that power and wealth remained under Saleh’s own control and that of his inner circle. 

Political parties were illegal, with the exception of the General People’s Congress (GPC), created by Saleh to strengthen his hold on the population and organize support for the regime. The discovery of oil increased popular expectations, leading to pressure on Saleh’s regime as frustration grew when those demands remained unsatisfied.

Birth of the PDRY

The coastal region of Aden was a British colony from 1839 onwards, and served as a base from which Britain gradually established protectorate agreements with political entities of various sizes in its hinterland over the following century. Anti-colonialism emerged in the 1950s, alongside the important labor movement in Aden, which was then one of the world’s busiest ports. 

Yemeni students in Lebanon joined the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN), founded at the American University of Beirut in 1952. They drew encouragement from the Sana’a revolution in 1962. Following a series of anti-British activities, the National Liberation Front (NLF) began an armed struggle against British rule on October 14, 1963 in the mountains north of Aden. 

The next four years witnessed the unfolding of two simultaneous conflicts. The anti-British movement was split between the Nasserists — including the labor movement — who came under the umbrella of the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY), and the NLF, which brought together more radical elements of the MAN and local groups in rural areas. 

The NLF fought against Britain as well as against FLOSY. By mid-1967, most of the hinterland statelets had aligned themselves with the NLF, which defeated FLOSY in Aden and became Britain’s interlocutor for independence talks. 

Having established the formally independent Federation of South Arabia in 1962, factors that were largely unrelated to the local situation prompted Britain to leave Aden and the Protectorates by 1968. Pressure from the armed struggle, particularly in Aden, encouraged the British to speed up the process. 

Having regarded FLOSY as their main enemy for years, the British authorities knew little about the NLF. Their decision to hand over the country to this organization could partly be attributed to the fact that they didn’t associate it with Nasser, whom the British abhorred. 

Independence came on November 30, 1967. Within two years, the NLF regime had taken a sharp turn to the left, and in 1970 it renamed the country the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). 

The socialist regime lasted for twenty-three years, ending with unification in 1990. Despite the many internal and external difficulties it faced, the PDRY gave its population comparatively high living standards.

A Socialist Experiment

From the very start, the PDRY’s socialist system faced an extremely difficult economic situation. The new state possessed limited agricultural resources, although its fisheries did contain potential, and had to grapple with the loss of its two main income sources. 

The closure of the Suez Canal as a result of the 1967 war reduced Aden’s port to almost complete inactivity, and the British base with its associated service sector had disappeared. To these problems must be added the departure of the small capitalist class following the nationalization of almost all urban and industrial economic activity. 

For much of its existence, the PDRY modeled its economic policies on those to be found in Eastern Europe, emphasizing public-sector industries and state farms, which were established on new lands and on the large holdings of the state’s former rulers. Most of the agriculture and fisheries sector was under cooperative management, leaving a small private sector of smallholdings, particularly in the mountainous areas. 

Over time, the PDRY’s rulers moderated these policies. Eventually the cooperatives came to resemble those found in the West: they only operated for the purposes of collective marketing and purchasing of inputs, allowing individual farmers to cultivate more or less what they wanted, and prices were liberalized. 

This shift was prompted by the resistance of farmers to detailed production plans and fixed prices for their produce, a policy which failed to increase agricultural production. In the 1980s, the PDRY also encouraged the private sector in industry and services, albeit with limited success. 

Social Achievements

The antagonism of neighboring countries meant that only Kuwait provided economic assistance to the PDRY. The other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states were actively hostile in the early years, although the situation began to improve in the 1980s, and South Yemen established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 1986. 

The state’s alignment with the eastern bloc did mean that it received some economic support and assistance. However, that aid was not always appropriate to the local context, for example in agriculture, where the PDRY’s allies did not supply equipment or advice that was suitable to the state’s agro-ecological conditions.

Despite its economic difficulties, the socialist regime succeeded in carrying out social policies which are remembered today with some nostalgia at a time when state provision of basic services is effectively nonexistent. The regime developed a strong medical infrastructure, both human and physical, which eventually included both a medical school and health centers in remote rural areas, despite the country’s low population density. 

The PDRY set up a comprehensive education system which encouraged female students. Its policies towards women were exceptional in the Arab world, with a progressive Family Law (1974) that was as advanced as that of Tunisia. The regime also struggled to eliminate tribalism and nomadism — policies it shared with a number of modernist regimes, socialist or otherwise, although many consider this approach to have been misguided.

Fratricidal Conflicts

In contrast with these impressive social and economic policies, which improved life for the country’s small population of two million people, the politics of the regime were characterized by a series of internecine struggles that exploded into murderous conflict in 1969, 1978, and most significantly in 1986. While the first two episodes concerned serious policy differences, the last was really no more than a power struggle. 

Once again, it is essential to take into account the international political context in the socialist camp and elsewhere, which included the ending of the Sino-Soviet dispute, economic difficulties and political changes in the USSR, and developments in Third World socialist states (Vietnam, Cuba) and the liberation movements in Africa (particularly South Africa, Mozambique, and Angola). 

During the 1970s, Salmine was the dominant figure in the PDRY leadership. His profile was more populist and “Maoist.” Key events during this period included the 1972 “seven days,” when the masses were invited to demonstrate in Aden, calling for a reduction of salaries — at a time when the state had no resources — and the implementation of agrarian reform through local uprisings against the landowners still remaining in the country. 

In 1978 Salmine was overthrown and executed, to be succeeded by Abdul Fattah Ismail, the most conventionally “communist” figure among the country’s leaders, who was closely aligned with the Soviet approach to constructing socialism. The regime established the Yemeni Socialist Party under his auspices in 1978. Within two years, he had left for Moscow for “health reasons” — a reasonable explanation, given the likely damage to his health had he stayed in Aden.

His departure led to a period of five years during which Ali Nasser Mohammed held all three of the top jobs (Party Secretary, President, and Prime Minister), as tensions continued. The return of Abdul Fattah and other exiles in 1985 gave rise to the “events” of January 13, 1986, which proved to be the bloodiest of these internecine conflicts. This clash led to the exile of Ali Nasser and his followers, who moved to Sana’a and became supporters of Saleh. 

The 1986 “events” discredited the regime for the population at large who, correctly, failed to detect any significant policy differences between the rival groups. Ali Salem al Beedh now led the weakened southern regime. He was one of the few remaining early NLF leaders still alive, but lacked the leadership qualities that might have restored confidence in the regime. 

Furthermore, the changes in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev’s leadership in the mid-1980s resulted in a significant reduction of support from Eastern Europe. For its part, China had already adopted policies that bore no resemblance to the socialist solidarity of the 1970s.

Towards Unity

Throughout its history, the PDRY had difficult relations with “the northern part of the homeland,” as the YAR regime was officially described, including two wars in 1972 and 1979, each of which concluded with a unity agreement that few people took seriously. However, committees did work on the preparation of a unified constitution, education syllabi, and other regulations. 

With the YSP regime looking weak in the late 1980, just as the Saleh regime found itself politically challenged, both leaderships considered unity to be a solution to their internal problems. Yemeni unity was the one official political slogan that met with almost universal popularity on both sides of the border. 

Weeks of negotiations between officials from the two states produced some detailed documents. But direct discussions between Saleh and al Beedh overrode those blueprints. The two leaders agreed to a full merger, which took place on May 22, 1990. Unity inspired widespread popular celebrations, but there were also doubts from many senior politicians of different hues. 

Throughout the country, people looked forward to the prospect of freedom of movement and a multiparty democratic state. They hoped for prosperity that would combine the social services of the socialist regime with a flourishing private-sector economy, a personal status law giving women equal rights, qat consumption on holidays, security, stability, and much else besides.

False Dawn

In many ways, the first two years of unification lived up to these hopes, despite some hints of what was to come. Political parties old and new sprang forth in large numbers — more than fifty were registered, with twenty-three participating in the 1993 parliamentary elections — along with many newspapers and magazines that represented a wide range of views. 

Fairly free parliamentary elections took place, and political and cultural discussions flourished in social meetings such as qat sessions as well as printed publications (in an era that had no social-media platforms). There was a succession of dialogues and conferences that brought together members of different parties and tendencies, as well as independent intellectuals and activists from all the different sectors of society. 

However, the economic hopes associated with unity were promptly dashed by the fallout from Yemen’s anti-war stance at the UN Security Council after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states sent nearly a million Yemeni emigrants home, and the flow of international assistance was also cut. The fall in living standards led to widespread unrest, including riots against price rises in December 1992 which caused at least thirteen deaths.

Political tensions between the Sana’a and Aden leaderships were in evidence almost from the very start, with a series of assassinations, both attempted and successful, of more than 150 YSP leaders and supporters between 1990 and 1993. Although jihadis linked to Saleh’s security services were widely believed to be responsible for these killings, there were no arrests. 

Although the unity of the state was preserved, a short civil war ensued in 1994, resulting in a decisive victory for Saleh’s forces. They had assistance from the YSP faction that had been defeated in the 1986 events, and from jihadis who had fought in Afghanistan. 

Fault Lines

Over the following decade, levels of poverty gradually worsened for the majority of the population. Oil revenues were declining, and Saleh used what money was available to fund a patronage system, instead of investing in the kind of social infrastructure that could have underpinned a new, modernized economy providing benefits to all. The development projects set in train in those years followed the neoliberal economic model, and were geared towards providing economic opportunities for those who supported Saleh. 

Unlike other states presided over by similar power systems, Yemen had a formal democracy whose elections were more than a sham. As a result, for many years its citizens hoped for peaceful political change. The Saleh regime was much less violent and repressive than some of its regional counterparts, with freedom of speech permitted, as long as those exercising it remained without influence or power. 

By the turn of the century, Saleh’s regime faced many serious challenges, included the rise of the part-Islamist Islah party, whose strength became apparent in the 2001 local elections. In the far north of the country, the Shi’i Zaydi revivalist “Believing Youth” organization developed in reaction to a rival Salafi movement that had been growing in Sa’ada, the heartland of Zaydism. This became the Huthi movement, which engaged in six wars against the Saleh regime between 2004 and 2010, each bloodier than the last.

Meanwhile, many people in the south perceived the economic difficulties experienced by Yemenis everywhere as the product of discrimination against southerners. The authorities had forcibly “retired” about 86,000 military and security personnel after the 1994 civil war. In protest at their inadequate pensions, which frequently arrived late or not at all, these retirees formed the Association of Retired Military, Security and Civilian Personnel in late 2006 to demand improvements in their situation. 

The Saleh regime responded with violence to their initially peaceful demonstrations, which radicalized the movement and spread it beyond its original heartland to most areas of the former PDRY. The result was the emergence of a stronger separatist movement calling for a return to the pre-unification borders.

Hopes Dashed

It was in this context of growing poverty and popular challenges to the regime that the national uprising of 2011 intervened. The rebellion was an interlude of optimism for millions of people throughout the country — men and women, rural and urban — who hoped it would lead to a new Yemen. 

Once again the dream they had in mind was a real democracy that would provide basic social services for all, eliminating poverty and enabling Yemenis to achieve a decent standard of living through a “national economy” (although very few people explicitly challenged capitalist economic policies).

Within months, this movement had lost its independence and autonomy. Members of Saleh’s political elite defected from his camp and claimed to support the revolution, leading to military clashes and outside intervention through the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative. 

This agreement, which all parties — including Saleh — had signed up to by November 2011, gave rise to a transitional regime, presided over by Saleh’s vice president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi was a southerner who had taken refuge in Sana’a after his side’s defeat in the January 1986 “events.” 

The two-year transitional period did not produce a new political consensus that was supported by the population at large or by the rival elite factions. During this period, the Huthis strengthened their position on the ground. 

Saleh did not have a place in the government, but he was strong enough to retain control over his old party, the GPC. The ousted president used his position to undermine the process both militarily and politically. By the end of 2014, the Huthis, who by now were allied with Saleh, had taken control of the capital. President Hadi and most of his ministers were soon under house arrest.

A New War

By early 2015, Yemen was on the verge of civil war. Hadi escaped from Sana’a, and the Huthi-Saleh coalition launched attacks on Aden, which he had named as the country’s temporary capital. Hadi’s government fled to Saudi Arabia and asked the GCC states to help restore it to power militarily. 

The Saudi-led coalition began launching air strikes on Sana’a on March 26. The newly appointed Saudi defense minister Mohammed bin Salman, whose father had become king in January 2015, was the chief architect of the operation. The Saudi leadership expected to win the war within weeks, with the help of advanced weaponry and the years of training and support its military had received from the United States, Britain, and other arms-dealing states. 

Five years later the Huthi movement, far from having been defeated, is on the offensive. It can launch drone and missile strikes against Saudi cities, while its opponents have made limited progress on some fronts through air attacks and the deployment of ground forces (mostly Sudanese along with some Emiratis and Saudis, supporting their respective Yemeni allies). The country is deeply fragmented. Hadi’s internationally recognized government is based in exile in Riyadh, while one of the many southern separatist factions, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) controls Aden. 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), the only other decision-making member of the Saudi-led coalition, has supported the STC against its official ally, the Hadi government. This is because of its attitude towards the Islah party, the government’s main component part. The UAE leadership associates that party, which includes a strong Islamist element, with the Muslim Brotherhood, and it considers the Brotherhood to be the worst of all its enemies. 

The STC’s militias are mostly led by Salafis, whose extremist wings are far more dangerous. While some Salafi elements are “quietist” — in other words, supporters of whatever political regime holds power — others are prepared to wage a violent jihad. This has created significant strains between the two main GCC allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in tandem with other differences concerning relations with Iran and the blockade against Qatar.

Learning for the Future

History has clearly not been kind to the vast majority of Yemenis, in a country that now has a population of almost 30 million. For decades, they suffered under a kleptocratic and authoritarian ruler who squandered the country’s modest income from oil exports to line his own pockets and those of his associates, instead of promoting social and economic development. 

Yemen is a country with very limited natural resources: it suffers in particular from a shortage of water, a crucial factor as 70 percent of the population still live in rural areas, and more than half depend on agriculture for its livelihood. The Saleh regime failed to produce the kind of education system that would have enabled Yemenis to develop alternative economic activities, ones that were suitable for their challenging environment, and adapted to the possibilities of the twenty-first century. 

This failure to promote the country’s development, both in the period immediately following unification and again after the 2011 uprising, was not caused by the lack of popular will. We can blame instead the ability of self-serving political elites to block the emergence of new forces and new ways of governing Yemen. The competition between these elites has precipitated the longest armed conflict that the country has ever known, leaving its people to suffer at the hands of three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: war, famine and pestilence.

The current war has fragmented the whole country, fomenting social and political divisions that will be very difficult — perhaps impossible — to repair. Outside intervention in Yemen throughout this period was not concerned with the need of the population for better living standards and governance. Instead, it gave priority to the interests of the foreign powers themselves.

In spite of the disappointments that rapidly followed unification thirty years ago, compounded by the more recent ones of 2011, Yemen’s younger generation should still be reminded of the hope and optimism of those years in today’s dark era. On this anniversary, there is an urgent need to learn the lessons of recent decades, so that Yemenis can unite in the struggle for a more peaceful and equitable future.