The Yemen civil war, which devastated the country from early May until early July, offers many lessons: lessons about how to achieve unity between two differing states (and most of all, how not to do it), lessons about oil as a divisive factor, lessons about the role (or meddling) of outside forces, and lessons about democratization and its limitations. Although the war resulted in a conventional military victory by northern (unionist) forces, it is by no means certain that there will not be continuing guerrilla fighting. In any event, at least parts of the south--particularly the Hadramaut region-remain disaffected. The restored unity of Yemen is a unity of conquest, not the negotiated merger of 1990.
So Yemeni unity has failed, despite the restoration of the union by force arms. But why and how did it fail? Almost every war-and certainly almost every civil war-is a product of miscalculation and blunder. The civil war in Yemen is no exception: in fact, in some ways it is an excellent case study.
When the Yemens united in 1990, despite the precipitate decision to do so in May instead of waiting until November, the auguries were generally good. Unlike some past Arab unions (Egypt with Syria, for example, or Libya with anyone it could persuade), Yemenis north and south had much in common, not least of which was a conviction on both sides that they were one people.
There were, of course, enormous obstacles to be overcome. Centuries of colonial history had made north and south very different places. The south, like the coastal cities of the north, included a large Sunni Muslim population, while the mountains of the north were mostly members of the Zaydi sect of Islam. The south had, since independence, been ruled by a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), which in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev had suddenly declared itself democratic. The north was ruled by a former Army officer, but in fact controlled by a loose alliance of tribal leaders, the armed forces and conservative elements of society. Neither northern nor southern leaderships had full control of their hinterlands.
Furthermore, both Yemens had a history of internal violence. The north was tom throughout much of the 1960s by a long and involved civil war, and the south by a small, sharp one within the ruling party in 1987. (The south also had fought a war of independence against Britain.) Most adult Yemenis are armed, and tribal rivalries are of long standing.
Last but by no means least, Yemen's neighbor Saudi Arabia, which retained intimate links with the northern tribes, was anything but enthusiastic about unity. When, only a few months after unity was proclaimed, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Saudis and other Gulf states expelled nearly a million Yemeni guest workers. In the wake of the war, not only has Saudi Arabia continued to seek to punish Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih for his tacit support of Iraq, but Kuwait-previously uninvolved in Yemeni affairs-has been supporting southern efforts to weaken the union. Kuwait's motive appears to be simple revenge. Not to be outdone, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein offered moral and perhaps material support to Salih, and since the outbreak of the civil war, Iraq has openly been calling for a northern military victory. Thus the internal stresses in Yemen became hostage, to some extent, to the broader dynamic of the split within the Arab world since 1990.
Thus, despite some good auguries, the marriage of the two Yemens was always a troubled one, with many unresolved quarrels and some of the neighbors cheering for an early divorce.
Like every civil conflict, the Yemen civil war is a product of complex and interlocking elements. It is not so easy as either side would have us believe. It is important that analysts not be misled by the simplistic explanations which each side is now offering. In the southern view, unity failed because the north was determined to "annex" the south and refused to admit southern rights; the north is portrayed as hidebound, medieval, traditionalist, and ''Islamic fundamentalist.'' The northerners are equally simplistic in their portrayal of the south as secessionist, communist radicals who refused to accept the results of the democratic 1993 elections. It is not, of course, that simple; there is plenty of blame to share by both sides for the failure.
A history of events in Yemen over the past several years would take up far more space than is available here. Instead, this article will identify what I believe are key mistakes and miscalculations which brought about the collapse of Yemeni unity, making reference to specific developments as they relate to these mistakes.
MISTAKE 1: UNDERESTIMATING DIFFERENCES
Almost all Yemenis believe that they are one nation, north and south. Historically and culturally they are right, but there are divisions. First of an, the south was under British domination for centuries (particularly around the port of Aden, with the hinterland less directly controlled) and evolved in a very different way from the north. The north was a monarchy until 1962, went through a long civil war with foreign involvement, and then came under the rule of a series of conservative military rulers. The south fought a struggle against the British, then became the Arab world's only Marxist-Leninist state for nearly a quarter century. While the Yemen Arab Republic (the north) was conservative and Saudi-backed, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (the south) was rabidly secularist, provided the most progressive guarantees for women's rights in any Arab country, and sought to eliminate tribal and traditional practices. (Southern leader Ali Salim al-Baidh was once disciplined by the party for taking a second wife.)
Two such different states cannot be united easily. There are other distinctions as well: the north is more Zaydi than the south, and the Zaydi-Sunni division (and the mountain-coastal-plain divisions) are important dynamics in Yemeni history.
Furthermore, Yemen is still a tribal country, north and south, despite the onetime Marxist rhetoric to the contrary. Its mountains and deserts divide it into regions where local loyalties often are far stronger than "national" loyalties. Sanaa's writ often does not run outside the major cities of the north, and while the southerners (with their communist willingness to impose centralism by force) tolerated less regional autonomy, they too have had their problems in controlling the hinterland.
Finally, the two countries are very different in size. Though the south has more territory (neither country has fully defined boundaries with Saudi Arabia, so the real size is debatable), it is much smaller in population: perhaps about 2.5 million of the often-cited 13 or 14 million total (which is probably closer to reality now that a million expatriates have returned). Ten million or more northerners outnumber the southerners by perhaps four to one.
When unification was proclaimed in 1990, the new constitution paid little attention to these problems. North and south simply agreed to share everything equally during a two-and-one-half-year period of transition (which in the end stretched to three), after which, presumably, all would be well.
Yet the differences just cited argue strongly for a gradualist, federalist approach. It was not taken, and this brings us to mistake number two.
MISTAKE 2: REJECTING A FEDERAL SYSTEM
Both northern and southern leaders expressed their commitment to democracy as well as to unity, seemingly overlooking the fact that historically, attempts to combine these two usually require some adjustments. Had they read Hamilton, Madison and Jay in The Federalist, they might have recognized that the imposition of a strongly centralized government on two newly united states with disparate populations was simply not going to work-or at any rate entailed significant risks of failure.
The Swiss Confederation united cantons of differing religion successfully; the Netherlands began its life as a confederacy of semi-independent state lets, and most important, the United States managed to create a union of different-sized states with very different economic and social systems (though its ultimate success required a collapse into civil war). All were federations or confederacies; all adjusted their systems so that direct, tyranny-of-the-majority democracy was counterbalanced by regional guarantees to the weaker or smaller members of the federation.
In Yemen, the south needed, and had recently strongly urged, just such a federal guarantee. As the U.S. Senate was created to give small, weak states the same vote in one chamber of the Congress as big, strong states, the south needed some assurance that its own interests would be protected. Given the differences in the two countries at the time of unification, the northerners' expectation that the southerners would simply submerge themselves in a bigger northern tide, and that the northerners (outvoting the southerners by 10 million to less than three) would simply run the show.
In fact, in recognition of this problem, north and south split all government posts equally during the transition period. But when the transition ended finally with last year's elections, there were no provisions to give the southerners any further guarantees against northern domination. The fact that the YSP's bitterest rivals, the tribal based Isiah (Yemen Reform Rally), almost matched the southerners in seats won and entered the coalition, further emphasized the southerners' loss of their one-time equal role.
But Ali Abdullah Salih has steadfastly rejected any federal or confederal formula as a retreat from national unity. He has even failed to implement the limited guarantees given to the southerners in the Amman accords earlier this year. Northern rejection of federalism of some sort has been a major factor in making it impossible to resolve the dispute.
MISTAKE 3: RUSH TO UNITY
North Yemen and South Yemen had agreed, in principle, on unity in 1989 and planned to use a constitution drawn up some years earlier. Under their initial agreement, unification was to take place in November 1990. Six months ahead of schedule, the two countries suddenly and precipitately declared themselves one. Plans to hold elections for a new parliament and otherwise prepare for the union were postponed under a rushed program that led to the implementation of the aforementioned two-and-one-half-year transition.
The reasons for the precipitate rush to unity remain somewhat obscure. In part, the two ruling parties were worried that opponents of the merger would grow in strength as the November date neared. Opponents in the north included many of the conservative leaders of the northern tribes and lslamists in the urban areas. Opponents in the south included some who feared that the more conservative north would roll back the rights of women in the south. (Islamist groups in the south had been attacking breweries and other targets, too.) Perhaps most influential was the specter of Saudi Arabia, backing the conservative tribes and far from enthusiastic about creating on its border a unified state of 13 million with numerous border disputes, newly discovered oil reserves and dreams of recovering lost territory.
The northern and southern leadership hoped to address these opponents of unity by simply pre-empting them, delivering Yemeni unity as a fait accompli. Another element is also sometimes heard as affecting the unification. Saddam Hussein's Iraq had long been close to Ali Abdullah Salih and the northerners (while the southerners distrusted Saddam and the Baath party). It was widely believed in the Arab world even before the invasion of Kuwait that Iraqi pressure was involved in the precipitate union of the Yemens. Certainly Saddam encouraged and applauded Yemeni union. When he invaded Kuwait, this helped add to the Saudi belief that Yemen was involved in a plot to encircle the Kingdom.
But the real mistake was simply moving too precipitately and not putting unified institutions in place first.
MISTAKE 4: RETAINING THE OLD LEADERSHIP
Yemen's leap into unification and democratization also required a leap of faith: that leopards actually can change their spots. Ali Abdullah Salih was a career military man who had come to power after southern elements assassinated his predecessor and who had been involved in a number of coups. After a dozen years of holding on to power by foiling coups and assassination attempts himself, his political instincts may not have been appropriate to preside over democratization. Nor were those of his rival/partner, Ali Salim al-Baidh, a lifelong Marxist-Leninist whose own spots changed only with the collapse of Soviet aid to South Yemen.
One result was that the former ruling parties of north and south became the dominant parties in unified Yemen, despite a proliferation of legal political parties and a plethora of newspapers. The only third force to emerge was the Isiah, representing the powerful northern Hashid and Bakil tribal confederations and funded by the Saudis. All the other political parties were essentially marginalized, as last year's election demonstrated. The YSP survived not as a socialist party so much as the party protecting southerners' interests. Yemen thus retained a divided identity, and its leaders were never able to think in genuinely new ways.
MISTAKE 5: AN UNWORKABLE COALITION
When the elections last year saw the Isiah and the YSP run neck-and-neck for second place (a distant second to Salih's General People's Congress), Salih insisted on creating a grand coalition of all three major parties. The problem is that the lslah and the YSP are not only oil and water in their political and social views, but they have longstanding blood feuds with each other. Their ability to work together in one Cabinet was never really tested, since the southerners only rarely agreed to attend Cabinet meetings, and al-Baidh never even took his vice-president's oath. Salih presumably was attempting the government level equivalent of tribal consensus-building, being inclusive rather than exclusive. The Arabian peninsula has little tradition of a "loyal opposition"; instead, Salih, like a tribal sheikh, tried to include everyone. This did not work, and probably was doomed from the beginning, given the profound differences between the tribes and the socialists.
Throughout the election campaign, the YSP had accused the Isiah of being behind dozens (some say hundreds) of attacks on YSP officials and local cadres in various parts of the country. Certainly somebody was taking a toll of YSP members, although northerners generally blamed internal disputes in the YSP and local clan feuds for most of the attacks. Whatever the case, the southerners loudly complained that no one had been arrested or tried for these attacks, which included some against Vice President al-Baidh's own family. Yet the very people the YSP accused of these attacks were now supposed to be their coalition partners.
Meanwhile, it was fairly clear that Salih's General People's Congress was working more closely with Isiah than with the YSP. Salih is from a small tribe within the powerful Hashid confederation, and the grand sheikh of the Hashid, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, is head of the Isiah. Despite al-Ahmar' s longstanding history of close ties with the Saudis, the Hashid have become more supportive of Salih (whom the Saudis still despise for his support of Iraq), and as a result, the other major northern tribal confederation, the Bakil, has taken distinctly different positions from the Hashid and has even reportedly shown pro-southern sympathies in the war, like its Saudi patrons.
One might characterize this mistake as a result of lingering tribalism, but once again, a federal system can take into account tribal allegiances and identifications better than a unitary one.
MISTAKE 6: FAILURE TO UNITE THE ARMIES
Southern leaders had pushed all along for progress on uniting the two armed forces, which after all are a fundamental emblem of sovereignty. Yet four years after union, nothing had really been done, and for months before the outbreak of civil war the two armies were maneuvering for position so that, once war broke out, they would enjoy advantages over their rivals. The presence of two armed forces would be bad enough, but had they been left in place, at least southern secession could have been achieved without the bloodshed now occurring: divorce could have been cleaner. But precisely to demonstrate their commitment to unity, the two sides had moved southern troops into the north and, to a lesser extent, northern troops into the south. Had this been followed promptly by a merger of forces, as originally promised, it would have been acceptable. Instead, it simply left garrisons that were, in the event of a split, hostages.
When Salih began his campaign to bring the south to heel, the first thing he did was attack southern units in the north, routing them. Then he used the largest northern unit stationed in the south, the Amaliqa (Giants) Brigade in Abyan, as the spearhead of the northern advance against Aden. In addition, many of the brigades, north and south, remain tribally or regionally based, further adding to tribal and regional divisions.
MISTAKE 7: FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP
Perhaps a direct outgrowth of Mistake 4, retaining the old leaders, Yemen has suffered from a failure of either party to provide real leadership, each responding instead to the pressures of his supporters. The accords reached between the two in Jordan earlier this year reportedly were effected with some degree of cordiality but came apart because of lack of implementation. At one point al-Baidh claimed that Salih had actually told him at Amman that he could not implement some aspects of the agreement because the tribes and elements of the army would not support him. Some reports also suggest that the two men got along better at the Salalah summit in Oman than the results seemed to indicate, but neither has been willing to act against the pressures brought to bear by his supporters.
In the end, Salih-the military man who has been battling opponents for sixteen years-simply gave up on the diplomatic efforts to keep unity together by an agreement with the YSP. He decided instead on a gamble which might have destroyed Yemen north and south: an attempt to eliminate the YSP by military force and maintain Yemeni unity by the sword. For now, he seems to have won his gamble.
MISTAKE 8: UNDERESTIMATING OUTSIDE FORCES
The role of outside players has not been saved for last because it is marginal, for in fact it is probably central. But the other mistakes and miscalculations, taken cumulatively, provided the opportunities for outside players to involve themselves more closely.
Saudi Arabia is the major outside player in Yemeni politics if only because it is the biggest kid on the block in economic and military terms and shares a long and never delineated border with Yemen. A little history is in order. As recently as 1934, Saudi Arabia managed to win from Yemen what some Yemenis still think of as the "northern provinces" of Jizan and Najran, and conclusive control of Asir. This is not ancient history: the treaty which surrendered those provinces is supposed to be renewed every twenty years and is in fact up for renewal. And the military commander of Saudi forces in the 1934 campaign was Prince (later King) Feisal, elder brother of the present king. These events are not forgotten.
Nor is the long civil war of the 1%0s. Saudi Arabia at first supported the monarchical side, fighting a surrogate war in Yemen with Nasser's Egypt. Most of today's northern Yemeni politicians and tribal leaders first tasted politics in that era.
Saudi Arabia has always interested itself in Yemen's internal politics for fairly obvious reasons. The 14 million or so Yemenis (north and south) are the largest population on the Arabian peninsula, far more people than in Saudi Arabia, despite some official Saudi estimates putting the Kingdom in the same range. Yemen also has the best agricultural land in the peninsula and historically was the main center of South Arabian civilization. Had Yemen not been disunited, desperately poor and weak, it might have been a major challenge to the Saudis. Therefore, they were not enthusiastic about Yemeni unity nor happy about the discovery of oil. In fact, in recent years Saudi Arabia even warned international oil companies that any company prospecting in areas of Yemen claimed by Saudi Arabia might be barred from operating in the Kingdom. And Saudi territorial claims go deep into what most maps show as Yemen, particularly in former South Yemen. (Yet a Saudi company has the concession in Yemen's Shabwa oilfields.)
The Saudis have traditionally exercised their interests in Yemen through close ties with the Rashid and Bakil, the two big northern tribal confederations already mentioned. But this has been changing. The collapse of communism made the southerners of the YSP less anathema than they had previously been to their Saudi neighbors, and there were links between Yemeni businessmen from Hadramaut (the important east-central inland region of South Yemen) and the Saudis. And both Vice President Ali Salim al-Baidh and Prime Minister Haydar Abu Bakr al-Attas are Hadramautis, too. So links between Saudi Arabia and the southerners had improved in recent years. Then came Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Yemen happened to be holding the Arab seat on the U.N. Security Council at the time; thus its positions were clearly signaled to the world. And to much of the world, those positions looked pro-Iraqi. The Saudis came to fear (and believe in) a plot by Iraq, Jordan and Yemen to dismember Saudi Arabia. While there is no evidence of any such plot, North Yemen had long enjoyed good relations with Iraq before independence, and, as mentioned, Saddam Hussein was said to have encouraged the early declaration of unity. The former South Yemen, meanwhile, had longstanding disputes with Iraq, some going back to the Baath crackdown on the Iraqi Communist party. So within united Yemen, Salih and the northerners tended to be more pro-Iraqi than al-Baidh and the southerners. This too was noticed by Saudi Arabia. During the buildup to the war over Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states expelled perhaps a million Yemeni expatriate workers, creating great strains on Yemen's ability to assimilate them. When the war ended in coalition victory, the Saudis were not about to forgive and forget. They seem to have personalized their revenge seeking, however: it was not so much Yemen as Ali Abdullah Salih who had been the enemy, and this meant supporting his rivals, the ex-Marxist southerners who had once been Saudi Arabia's worst nightmare. Yemenis often complain about Saudi meddling, Iraqi meddling and most recently Kuwaiti meddling, and certainly outside factors play an important role. Yet Yemenis seem to have underestimated the degree to which such meddling could prevent a settlement, given all the other obstacles. Thus, for example, Jordan (along with Oman and Egypt), tried very hard to bring about reconciliation, and Salih and al-Baidh signed a reconciliation agreement early this year in Amman, though it was never implemented. The Jordanians recognized that one outstanding problem was the failure to unite the armies, and Sharif Zayd Bin Shakir, chief of the Royal Court and former military commander, was sent to Yemen several times to discuss means of uniting the armies. But this was a provocation to the Saudis, who still suspect Yemen and Jordan of collusion in 1990, and who have a generations-long dynastic rivalry with the Hashemites, of whom Sharif Zayd is one.
When al-Baidh began to seek support outside Yemen, he was welcomed to Riyadh after making the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca (the umra)-the ex-Marxist doing obeisance to Islam and the Saudis. At almost the same time King Fahd snubbed King Hussein of Jordan during his umra pilgrimage. Other key southern leaders were welcomed in other conservative Gulf states.
The Saudi tilt towards the southerners was also accompanied by growing reports that Kuwait was funding southern arms purchases. The Kuwaitis do not have the Saudis' longstanding national interest in Yemeni affairs, and the only logical explanation of their meddling was simple revenge against Ali Abdullah Salih for his supposed support of lraq. Since the outbreak of the civil war, this division has been maintained. The Saudis have not scrapped their longstanding links with the northern tribes, but these links today seem to favor the Bakil, who are showing reluctance to support Salih, rather than the Hashid, who are backing their fellow tribesman. Soon after al-Baidh declared a new '' Democratic Republic of Yemen," a UAE official report spoke of him as "President" al-Baidh, though the UAE officially insisted this did not constitute recognition of the new South Yemeni state. Somaliland, a breakaway state from Somalia with close links to Sharja, however, did become the first government to recognize the Democratic Republic of Yemen. But in the end, while threatening to recognize the southern state right up to the moment Aden fell, the always-cautious Saudis flinched when the move could only have resulted in their active involvement in the war.
Meanwhile, Iraq was openly calling for a military victory by Salih's northerners; there were meetings with the Sudanese; and Qatar, always the odd man out in Gulf affairs and recently increasingly pursuing a policy of annoying the Saudis, supported the northern (unity) cause.
The Yemen civil war could have become, under certain circumstances, a proxy refighting of the Gulf War, though without the United States and Europeans, whose interests are at best peripheral. Certainly it is not true, as some North Yemenis claim, that Saudi meddling was primarily responsible for the war. But, equally certainly, the role of outside forces, particularly the Saudis, exacerbated the internal tensions and helped encourage the southerners to bolt the union. Whether a guerrilla war will continue depends largely on Saudi willingness to provide arms and sanctuary.
Yemeni union was attempted at the wrong place (next door to Saudi Arabia) and the wrong time (as Saddam Hussein was preparing to invade Kuwait), and thus had no real chance of evolving independently of the divided politics of the Gulf region.
MISTAKE 9: OIL ON TROUBLED WATERS
There is one other factor worth mentioning in the breakup of Yemen though it was perhaps not as central as some press reports suggest, the element always lurking in the background of Arabian peninsula politics: oil. The first oil discovered in Yemen was in the north, at Marib. While the Soviets first made oil discoveries in South Yemen, at the time of Yemeni unification it was far from clear how much oil the south possessed. Over time, however, it has become clear that the oilfields at Shabwa in South Yemen are the largest reserves in the country. This certainly made the unity deal seem less attractive: shared among the 2.5 million southerners, the southern oil would bring much more wealth than distributed among all 14 million Yemenis. And Aden, the southern capital, has the country's only refinery, a legacy of British days. The southerners had attempted to claim for themselves 70 percent of the oil revenues, and a more equitable distribution of southern resources to the southerners was one of their demands in the negotiations over maintaining unity. With both the prime minister and oil minister of the former united Yemen being southerners, some oil policies were conducted and agreements signed without full approval of Salih.
Although oil was only one of the several irritants leading to the outbreak of the civil war (or war of southern secession, or war between the Yemens), the oilfields and the refinery have been targets from the first days of the fighting, and thus Yemen's-or both Yemens'-economic future is hostage to the course of hostilities. The northern fields at Marib and the southern fields at Shabwa are both near the old border (and northern troops took Shabwa early in the fighting). The southern field at Masila, which is producing most of the South's current production, is well to the east and so far spared.
Can anything be learned from all these mistakes? The northern side has restored Yemeni unity by force of arms, not by negotiation. While many southern Yemenis did not support the YSP effort at secession (and in the end the Hadramaut faction of the YSP were increasingly isolated), the basic southern complaints against the northerners has a broader popular base. The secular, commercial south is still suspicious of the traditionalist north (and the last brewery in Arabia, the one in Aden, was burned by the northern troops as a sign of southern secularism). The northerners shelled and rocketed Aden, and the war caused a cutoff of its water in the heat of an Indian Ocean summer: though some Adenis cheered the victors, they are surely not happy about the results of the siege. Hadramaut and other areas could try to resist in a guerrilla war, and as the British learned, control of Aden does not guarantee control of the hinterland. (But such a resistance would require Saudi support in arms, funding, logistics and sanctuary for operating bases. It will depend on how deeply the Saudis want vengeance against Ali Abdullah Salih.)
The old southern leadership is in exile (some are dead), and other southerners, who wavered, were in opposition or otherwise not closely identified with secession are being courted by the north as this is written. But Yemeni unity has been shattered by the difficulties and confrontations of the past few years and by the war. It has been restored by main force, and it would take the wisdom of a Lincoln (''With malice toward none ... '') to rebuild unity without resentment after attacking the southern capital, besieging it and rocketing its populace. (And northerners, rocketed and bombed by southern fire, are not likely to be very friendly towards southerners for the moment either.)
Could the war have been averted, and Yemeni unity saved without military conquest as its primary underpinning? As late as the Amman agreements, many Yemenis hoped so. But circumstances, and the cumulative effect of the mistakes discussed, as well as the personal animosities dividing the key players, made escape impossible in the end. The role of Saudi and Kuwaiti involvement on one side and Iraqi on the other is easy to exaggerate, but Saudi Arabia is always a major factor in any internal Yemeni development. Like the old saying about Mexico ("Alas, poor Mexico, so far from God and so near the United States"), Yemen's proximity to the Saudis and their interlocking modern histories create a geographical determinism of sorts. Yemeni unity may survive if the cautious Saudis let it, but it has already lost any claim to being a unity born of the democratic will of all the Yemeni people. Yemeni unity was an experiment conducted not in a pristine laboratory of democratization but in the real Arabian Peninsula of the early 1990s, very much a case of the wrong place at the wrong time.
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