Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 1994, Page 48

Special Report

North and South Yemen: Lead-up to the Break-up

By Robert Hurd and Greg Noakes

Unified Yemen's nine-month-long slide toward civil war culminated in early May in open conflict between the northern and southern armed forces and a growing number of military and civilian casualties. Yemeni war bulletins often are contradictory and filled with more rhetoric than reporting, yet it is clear that the four-year Yemeni union has come to a bitter, bloody end.

Yemen is one of the oldest nations on earth, blessed with a rich history and distinctive culture. The biblical Queen of Sheba ruled over this land, known to the Romans as "Arabia Felix" ("Happy Arabia") because of its relative prosperity. Islam came to Yemen during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. While most southerners are Sunnis of the Shafi'ilegal school, many in the northern mountains are Zaydis, or "fiver" Shi'i. The line of Zaydi imams, who first came to power in 893, ruled northern Yemen for over a millenium.

In the 1950s, Imam Ahmad began to open his formerly isolated country to the outside world, going so far as to join the United Arab Republic union of Egypt and Syria in 1958. The Egypt-Syria-Yemen union collapsed in 1961. The following year Imam Ahmad was deposed and civil war broke out in North Yemen between royalists backed by Saudi Arabia and republicans supported by Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. The dueling Yemeni factions fought on even after their foreign patrons had tired of the war. The republicans finally claimed victory in 1970, and established the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). The next decade saw a series of authoritarian regimes in power in the capital of San'a, each replaced by another through coup or assassination.

South Yemen had become a British Crown Colony in the early part of the 19th century, and from 1839 the capital of Aden was an important cooling port for British ships plying the route between England and India. An armed uprising starting in the late 1950s persuaded the British to strike their colors and go home in 1967. Marxists assumed control of South Yemen, eventually establishing there the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).

Although Soviet assistance propped up the weak economy, politics in the south proved to be as deadly and conspiratorial as in the north. The most spectacular change of regime occurred in 1986, when President Ali Nasser Mohammed invited hardliners in his Politburo to a meeting and had them executed by his personal guards. This touched off a civil war which resulted in Mohammed's flight to the north and 10,000 South Yemeni dead.

Bilateral relations between San'a and Aden were marked by long periods of hostility interrupted by brief reconciliations and attempts at unification. When Yemeni officials north and south weren't discussing their plans for union they generally were plotting to destabilize each other. Open war flared in October 1972. In 1978, a PDRY peace envoy assassinated northern President Ahmed ibn Hussein Al-Ghashmi with a bomb hidden in his briefcase.

In the spring of 1988, however, serious moves toward reconciliation and unification began. They were spurred by worsening economic conditions in the PDRY, as its Soviet benefactors suffered domestic collapse, cutting foreign assistance to their South Yemeni clients. In December 1989 North Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an army officer who had come to power after Al-Ghashmi's 1978 assassination, and South Yemeni President Ali Salim Al-Beidh, who took over in the wake of Aden's 1986 civil war, signed a draft constitution and agreed to a one-year timetable for unification.

Approval for the union was overwhelming in the PDRY, but the northern Muslim Brotherhood objected to a constitutional clause making Islamic law "a principal source of legislation" rather than the sole source. Eventually the YAR's parliament approved the constitution and on May 22, 1990, north and south merged to form the Republic of Yemen.

An Uneasy Union

The north's Ali Abdullah Saleh assumed the presidency of the transitional government, while the south's Ali Salim Al-Beidh became vice president. A veteran southern politician, Haider Abu Bakr Al-Attas, was appointed prime minister. The cabinet seats were halved between members of Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) and Beidh's Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). The newly integrated government, in which nearly every former southern and northern functionary found a position, was based in San'a while Aden staked its claim to be the country's financial center.

In a decision which has come back to haunt the country, it was decided to delay the integration of the northern and southern armed forces. While 15,000 southern troops were moved to the north and 8,000 northern soldiers posted to the south, the armies remained under separate commands.

From the beginning the union was tenuous. Although the former PDRY was larger geographically, the ex-YAR held 80 percent of the estimated 13 million Yemenis. The southern leadership, fearful of being overwhelmed, pressed for a speedy integration to consolidate its privileged share of power. In addition, the injection of the ex-Marxist southern politicians into the fragile network of party and tribal leaders in the north caused considerable political disruption.

Yemen's April 27, 1993 multiparty elections confirmed the south's fears. Beidh's YSP won only 54 of the 301 parliament seats (though it later attracted some independent winners), while Saleh's GPC took 122 races and a northern Islamist-tribal alliance, Al-Islah, captured 62 seats. Saleh, Beidh and Attas retained their positions but Al-Islah's influential leader, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ahmar of the Hashid tribal confederation, became speaker of the parliament. The former 50-50 split between the GPC and YSP became an uneven three-way partnership.

In August 1993 Beidh left San'a for Aden to protest the slow pace of integration and perceived northern slights of the south. Beidh's prolonged absence and his refusal to take the oath of office as vice president paralyzed the government, while an ongoing campaign of assassination claimed some 150 YSP leaders and heightened tensions throughout Yemen. In December, Beidh suggested he and Saleh resign to break the impasse, prompting Foreign Minister Mohammed Basindwah to tell journalists, "There is an unannounced split. The only thing left is to declare the split." A Jordanian-brokered accord signed in February collapsed as northern and southern units exchanged occasional gunfire.

The outbreak of open fighting between the two Yemeni armies came on May 4. Southern forces in the north were attacked and mauled while northern troops in the ex-PDRY who escaped capture formed the advance guard of a northern assault. The following day, as the bulk of his troops neared the former border, President Saleh declared a 30-day state of emergency and dismissed all southerners from the government. Officials in Aden called for a general mobilization as foreign nationals began to evacuate.

Because the northern army held a numerical edge over its southern counterpart, some observers expected Aden to fall quickly. Southern resistance was dogged, however, and southern commanders used their greater air power (the weekly AsSayyad reported the 2,500-man southern air force had 120 combat aircraft, while the 1,000-man northern force possessed just 73 planes) to good effect. The north's offensive bogged down for days at a large airbase at Al-Anad, 35 miles northwest of the capital, allowing the south to regroup and strengthen defenses around Aden.

San'a dismissed Aden's pleas for a cease-fire as a delaying tactic, and Beidh finally declared the independence of the southern Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY) on the eve of the fourth anniversary of unification. Beidh was named president, Abdul Rahman Al-Jifti of the opposition Sons of Yemen League was tapped as vice president, and Al-Attas became the prime minister of the breakaway state. As San'a's columns pressed forward, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states introduced a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire, which was interpreted as GCC support for the southern breakaway state. Meanwhile, the DRY government moved to the city of Al-Mukalla in the eastern Hadramawt region, a Beidh stronghold.

The Seeds of War

Many observers were skeptical of the Yemeni union from the first. Against the forces pushing the two Yemens together a shared culture, the historical dream of union and the south's economic needs there were other factors pulling San'a and Aden apart. These involved clashes between northern and southern elites, rather than among ordinary people, just as the subsequent civil war was being waged because of the leaders' interests, not because of any deep animosity felt by the Yemeni people.

The long conflict between the two Yemeni regimes often was marked by treachery and deceit. These strained relations were further weakened by the personal animosity between "the two Alis," Saleh and Beidh. Both men seized and have retained power in a cut-throat political culture, and are extremely ambitious and shrewd. Their clash of egos was almost inevitable in the framework of unified Yemen.

Beidh saw Saleh as unresponsive to the south (particularly to the concerns of the Yemeni Socialist Party) and determined to amass as much personal power as possible. Saleh's unwillingness to arrest and prosecute the killers of YSP officials, among whom were some of Beidh's extended family, and the wholesale sacking of YSP offices in San'a after the outbreak of hostilities further antagonized Beidh.

Saleh believed Beidh and the YSP held unrealistic aspirations for the south in a unified Yemen. With only a fifth of the population, the south seemed determined to maintain a 50 percent stake in power. Beidh's public sulk in Aden last fall reportedly infuriated Saleh, while Beidh's decision after the signing of February's failed Amman accord to visit Saudi Arabia, which received Beidh with full honors, rather than return directly to Yemen was seen by many as a slap at Saleh, who has been persona non grata in Riyadh since the Gulf war.

Most of the other problems which prompted the republic's dissolution are the result of dashed illusions and heightened southern fears. Access to the stronger North Yemeni economy was a crucial goal in the PDRY's push for unity in May 1990. However, only three months later, after the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Saleh's subsequent support for Saddam Hussain, the economy faltered as more than half of the Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf were expelled, and expatriate remittances plummeted.

Yemen's oil production, the country's other main source of hard currency, stands at 320,000 barrels per day, but Saudi warnings against foreign companies doing business in oil fields near the undemarcated Saudi-Yemeni borders stalled production increases. Just as Saleh's wartime support for Iraq was seen as the main reason for Saudi Arabian threats, many laid the blame for curtailed exploration and production at the president's feet.

Perhaps the single most important factor in the break-up is the changing petroleum production potential in the south. While the north holds newly discovered natural gas reserves, it is now clear that the largest oil deposits lie in the former PDRY. There are reports that Beidh andother YSP officials envision a South Yemeni "oil statelet" along the lines of the Gulf emirates. Suddenly the north no longer appears to be the south's economic savior, but rather an economic drag.

Beidh's YSP also re-examined its political prospects after its feeble showing in the 1993 parliamentary elections. While neither San'a nor Aden blames democracy or democratization per se for the split, the voting did leave southern leaders disillusioned. The YSP won only a sixth of the seats in the new parliament, all from southern constituencies. The party's inability to attract northern votes limited the likelihood of a substantially stronger YSP showing in the future, and effectively froze the party's share of the vote at 20 percent. While Beidh and Attas retained their positions in the government, the chances for continued significant YSP representation in future cabinets were slim.

While most of the conflict between north and south occurred at the elite level, the different social norms in the ex-YAR and PDRY also disturbed many ordinary Yemenis. The north is a socially conservative, largely tribal society with numerous centers of regional and local power. The south, however, retains much of the socialist and secularist outlook of its Marxist past, as well as the experience of a heavily centralized economic system. As one indicator of different social attitudes, particularly toward the role of women in society, Washington's National Democratic Institute for International Affairs reports, "There are several female judges in southern Yemen but none in northern Yemen, and there is apparently only one practicing female lawyer in northern Yemen."

While some in the north, particularly the Islamists and the rural population, feared the impact of the secularist south, southerners were afraid San'a would roll back the PDRY's liberal social legislation. In May 1992 Saleh's Presidential Council passed a personal status law which revoked a woman's right to sue for divorce unless she could prove abuse. The new law permitted a man to divorce by simple repudiation, legalized polygamy and eliminated the ex-PDRY's ceiling on dowries. Residents in the south objected, and some judges in Aden refused to implement the law while challenging it on constitutional grounds. Despite their common culture it became clear that north and south had developed substantially different social norms.

Dynamics of the Conflict

Strategic planning on both sides of the Yemeni civil war has been the subject of a great deal of, speculation. Some observers believe Saleh and the GPC precipitated the conflict, while others are equally convinced that Beidh and the YSP planned to secede months ago.

San'a faced the more difficult strategic task, similar to that faced by the Union in the American Civil War. Just as the Union army had to capture not only Richmond but also New Orleans, Nashville, Atlanta, Savannah, etc. to defeat the Confederacy, San'a dared not pour all its men into the fight for Aden, but had to take all of the southern strong points. San'a also tried to play southern politicians against each other, and brought dissident southerners into the San'a government.

By contrast, Beidh and his supporters felt time was on their side. The northern military campaign was expensive in terms of men and money, and the longer it lasted the more likely the northern leaders would be second-guessed at home. Al-Islah and the northern tribes stood to win if their GPC and YSP rivals continued to bleed one another. The longer the DRY held on, either in Aden or in the Hadramawt, the more likely it was to obtain international recognition.

While the initial fighting involved regular military units using heavy weapons, the conflict had the potential to degenerate into a low-intensity guerrilla conflict. Yemen is one of the world's most heavily armed societies, with nearly every adult male in possession of some type of firearm (guns reportedly outnumber people four to one in Yemen). House-to-house fighting in Aden or Al-Mukalla could take an enormous toll on both sides. Independent tribes of the north also might seize the opportunity to settle scores with the government in San'a.

Outside Players

Proxy wars are not new to Yemen, and it appeared that regional powers quickly chose sides. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states, with the possible exception of independent-minded Qatar, tilted toward Beidh and the south, declaring in a joint statement, "Unity cannot at all be imposed by military means," and expressing tacit approval of the secession. Many of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest families have family ties to the southern Hadramawt region, and may also have offered clandestine support to Beidh's forces.

A number of analysts argue that Yemeni dissonance is music to Riyadh's ears. Given Saleh's pro-Iraq stance in the Gulf war, few Saudis were comfortable with the notion of him at the helm of a single strong state with tremendous economic and political potential directly to their southwest. Balanced against this, however, was the Kingdom's fear of a massive influx of refugees from the Yemeni war. Finally, Riyadh may have seized upon Beidh's need for outside support to lay the groundwork for a renewed attempt after the fighting to demarcate the disputed Saudi-Yemeni border with a friendlier regime.

If Saleh's support for Saddam earned him the wrath of the Gulf states, it may have brought him help from Baghdad. Iraqi newspapers cranked up a print campaign against Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, and there were unverified reports of Iraqi pilots flying for the north. Given Saddam's own domestic problems, however, expertise and rhetoric were the most San'a could expect from Baghdad.

Other Arab countries, particularly Egypt, also were pleased to see Saleh squirm, given his hospitality toward a number of Islamist leaders and organizations. Beidh and others seized upon the threat of "fundamentalism" and predictions of "a second Khartoum" in San'a to woo the Arab and international communities. The DRY would need recognition by two-thirds of the 22 Arab League member-states for admittance to that organization. That in turn would enhance its prospects for further international recognition.

Yemeni Prospects

The views from both San'a and Aden are rather bleak. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where Ali Abdullah Saleh is able to control a unified Yemeni nation. Conditions for strong centralized government are lacking even in the former YAR, and if Saleh tried to coax southern Yemenis back with economic incentives he would anger tribal groups in the north who already believe they have been shut out financially, and in the past have kidnapped foreign oil workers to demonstrate their displeasure.

In the south, the conflict has destroyed millions of dollars worth of infrastructure. The Yemenis as a whole have suffered considerable losses aside from those incurred in battle. Foreign investment capital, which Yemen needs desperately, has fled, as has the foreign resident community, most of which worked in the crucial health, education' petroleum and construction sectors. Four years of effort invested in building a unified Yemen were destroyed in a matter of weeks, as was whatever degree of goodwill had been fostered between the north and south.

If the war started out as a quarrel among elites, it sadly has been brought home to ordinary Yemenis on both sides through personal loss. Many have been stripped of their homes, their livelihoods and their loved ones. It remains to be seen if the leadership can convince the Yemeni people that their losses have been worthwhile.

Robert Hurd is a former book club director for the American Educational Trust. Greg Noakes is the news editor for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.