End the War by Saving a Unified Yemen

Tearing Apart Yemen Would Only Create New Conflicts While Harming the Fight Against Al-Qaeda

Fortune continues to hold Yemen in disfavor. Since the independence of South Yemen from the British in 1967 and the overthrow of the monarchy in North Yemen in 1962, what would become a unified country has suffered through a number of bloody conflicts. Today finds the country beset by possibly the most brutal war in its modern history. Forces loyal to the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh battle those who are at least nominally fighting under the banner of the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi’s unwieldy coalition includes, among others, southern separatists, Salafist groups sponsored by either Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, and tribal militias from the country’s east. Taking advantage of this war, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has become as powerful, popular, and mobilized as it has ever been.

Two recent events have brought Yemen to the world’s attention again. First, there was the the Saudi air strike on a funeral in Sana’a that reportedly killed over 140 Yemenis. Second, the world saw the firing of anti-ship missiles, reportedly by Houthi-Saleh forces, at the destroyer U.S.S. Mason, which was operating in international waters in the important Bab el-Mandeb strait that links the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and is a major trade route between Europe and Asia. Both call attention to the dramatic humanitarian crisis, the new threat to international shipping, and the growing strength of Al-Qaeda as vividly depicted in a recent VICE documentary. These factors have many asking how and when the war in Yemen will end.

In “How to End Saudi Arabia’s War of Paranoia,” Simon Henderson writes, “Yemen is a problem that probably won’t be solved until it is dissolved.” Despite the catchy phrasing, Henderson couldn’t be more wrong. Henderson quotes Saudi Arabia’s first king, Abdulaziz, and his supposed deathbed advice, “Never let Yemen be united.” Yet, Henderson doesn’t ask why Abdulaziz thought this. Might it be related to the short war he had fought with the old Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen in the early 1930s? Could it be simple fear that a united Yemen might be able to stand on its own and stand up to Saudi Arabia?

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh ( AFP/Getty Images )

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (AFP/Getty Images)

It is easy to see Yemen’s unification as a mistake. Whereas the union of East and West Germany helped build one of the world’s foremost powers, the unification of Yemen has, if anything, exacerbated regional divisions. The reasons, however, lay within the framework of that very unification. The unification of Yemen was never truly completed, and reconciliation after the 1994 Civil War has never being genuinely been attempted; this is the source of the persistent divide between North and South Yemen. The old powers of North and South Yemen each wanted a unified country in which they held the power, which poisoned the unification process and helped bring on civil war. After the war, the victorious then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh forsook reconciliation in favor of imposing his will and a spoils system that kept separatist sentiments alive. Old rivalries were allowed to survive unification, zero-sum thinking condemning a united government and society. The same problems continue to plague the country as it suffers through the current war.

Henderson and others in favor of separation forget something important in the arguments they make: unification wasn’t forced upon Yemen. As a CIA report from 1990 notes, “North and South Yemen have pursued unity since 1972. Their efforts have led to a number of stillborn agreements…that redundantly spell out the conditions for a joint state.” For years, Yemenis on both sides of the border argued that unification was inevitable and would benefit everyone. Each flare-up between the two Yemens would end with a new statement reaffirming their commitment to unification. One of the reasons for unification was the discovery of oil on the border with Saudi Arabia; the feeling among leaders in both North and South Yemen was that only a unified country could stand up to their powerful northern neighbor and take advantage of their potential resource wealth. Leadership in both countries continued to push for unification, and their respective populations welcomed it. In fact, popular sentiment was so strong that a planned referendum was scrapped in favor of immediate unification, giving birth to the unified Republic of Yemen in May 1990.[1]

Saudi Arabia looked upon these developments with alarm, especially when, soon after unification, Yemeni President Saleh put Yemen firmly on the side of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after their invasion of Kuwait. A united and assertive Yemen on its southern border with Hussein to their north made the Saudis fearful for their security. This anxiety grew even more when Yemeni demands for border negotiations arose soon after unification. Not surprisingly, the Saudis were seen as possible spoilers in the unification process—and they would be.

Ali Salem al-Bid (Alchetron)

Although hopes were high, the rivalry between Saleh and former South Yemeni leader Ali Salem al-Bid evolved from a conflict between nations to an internal struggle, culminating in tit-for-tat assassinations and violence.[2] They were unable to put away  old enmities, and this trickled down through their subordinates. Saleh and Al-Bid could not bring themselves to put the “sharing” in “power-sharing,” and each thought he was stronger and smarter than the other. Economic problems due to an influx of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis expelled from Gulf countries, retribution for Saleh’s support of Saddam Hussein, only exacerbated the situation. Each side looked at the other as the cause of all of the new Yemen’s woes, and having to compete in actual elections (a first for both) did not help matters.

In 1994, with civil war appearing likely at any moment, it was the people of Yemen who stepped in to save a united country. Forming a national dialogue committee, they mediated between the leading northern and southern parties and produced an agreement that was signed by Al-Bid and Saleh.

The euphoria surrounding the deal didn’t even last the trip back to Yemen. Al-Bid stopped first in Saudi Arabia in a move that only reignited tensions as North Yemenis hurled accusations of collusion. Furthermore, Al-Bid wouldn’t return to the capital, Sana’a, insisting on staying in the old South Yemeni capital of Aden where his support was strongest. The military, still not fully integrated, split back into northern and southern factions.

Finally, in May 1994, the country plunged into a civil war after fighting broke out and Al-Bid declared South Yemen independent again with Saudi support. Marshalling all of the forces he could, from Salafists urged to take up the fight against “infidel socialists” to Al-Bid’s old foes from an earlier civil war in South Yemen, Saleh’s forces crushed their opponents and ended the war only a few months after it started.

Backed by the Saudi-supported Salafist Islah Party, Saleh treated southern Yemen almost as a sort of colony, controlled by northern politicians and military elites. Northern Yemeni identity was imposed as the official national identity, especially in terms of the more conservative and religious aspects of northern culture. Northern soldiers flooded into the south, while southerners were deprived of important positions and resources. When he was overthrown in 2012, a Saudi-led initiative with the Gulf Cooperation Council imposed a poorly conceived solution on Yemen that led to Hadi, formerly the token southerner in Saleh’s government, being elected president in an race he ran unopposed.

Yemeni protestors take part in a demonstration in Aden, calling for their independence from Sanaa on March 18, 2013. (AFP)

While Saudi Arabia might have wished that Yemen never be united, its problems in Yemen are of its own making, and they have successfully dragged the United States along with them. Dissolving the union would be no guarantor against a resumption of border conflicts that occurred regularly in the 1970s and 80s or against internal conflicts like those in the old countries that indeed helped bring about unification. Both North and South Yemen have been repeatedly wracked with internal strife. Saleh’s two predecessors were assassinated, and he spent years staving off attempts by South Yemen-backed rebels to overthrow him prior to unification. In the South, Al-Bid came to power in 1986 after a short but brutal civil war in which he essentially emerged as the last leader standing. A highlight of the war was a shootout among ministers and their bodyguards in the Politburo meeting room that left the then-Vice President and Defense Minister among the dead.

What should not be done is to, as Henderson recommends, indulge the Saudis. Instead, the focus should be on the difficult but necessary work of promoting good governance in a unified Yemen. While Henderson maintains a focus on the Saudis, their interests and their feelings, he leaves out the most important group: the people of Yemen.

Focusing on the people of Yemen means free and fair elections, a parliament in which the various parties and groups in the country can have a stake, and a judiciary that can be relied upon to effectively settle disputes. The independent tribal patronage system must be broken and the parliament must become a the place where legislation is crafted and policies are decided as opposed to the system imposed by Saleh that saw it become a rubber stamp that did nothing on its own.[3]

That is not to say that tribes must be done away with, or authority centralized in Sana’a with little role for local authorities; the tribal patronage system must be broken as an independent force that allows the rule of law to be circumvented and has been a significant source of corruption and instability in the country. Instead, a way should be found to integrate some aspects of tribal governance, such as its conflict resolution mechanisms, into formal government spheres while encouraging tribal leaders to run for offices or at least become serious members of the civil society. It would be part of building a new Yemeni government and democratic system based on the local context that embraces positive aspects of Yemeni culture and tradition while working to rebuff negative influences that have proven troublesome in the past.

If Yemenis see the parliament and judicial system as tools through which they can seek the redress of grievances, there is a greater chance that they will use them. The 1993 parliamentary elections saw high turnout and real competition between parties, and investment in creating a new, more open and fair election system for an empowered parliament stands the chance of recreating the turnout and enthusiasm seen in 1993.

This will take significant international support, both to build institutional capacity and to prepare Yemenis to participate a vibrant civil society. Finally, Saleh, Hadi, Islah leader Ali Mohsen, and the leaders of the Houthi movement should be sent into exile, as should have been done in 2012, when the GCC-mediated agreement saw Saleh step down. They have continued to put their personal conflicts and desires for power and influence before national unity and effective governance, and removing them from the scene could help reduce their influence and give a chance for new leaders to develop.

Against a Yemen united in spirit as well as in name, it is unlikely that the Houthis would have had the opportunity to overthrow the government, or Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula the ability to become so influential in the country. However, so long as governance remains poor, rule of law remains non-existent, and the basic needs of Yemenis are not met, separatist and extremist movements will thrive. There is strength in genuine unity and legitimacy. Perhaps King Abdulaziz’s deathbed advice about Yemen should have died with him.

Garrett Khoury is a geopolitical and security risk consultant specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. He is a graduate of The George Washington University’s Elliot School and Tel Aviv University’s Master’s Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Opinions expressed are solely his own and do not express the views or opinions of his employer or clients.

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Header Image: The Yemeni village of Al Hajjara. (Josef O'Shea)


[1] Weeden, L. (2008). Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 54.

[2] Day, S. W. (2012). Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 112.

[3] Sharif, A. H. (2002). Weak Institutions and Democracy: The Case of the Yemeni Parliament, 1993-1997. Middle East Policy, 82-93.