Known as ‘Arabia Felix’ or Arabia’s ‘land of happiness’, Yemen has been hard hit by war and other misfortunes. The story, spanning at least 1,500 years, involves everything from early Islamic politics to Arab nationalism and the Cold War. Today, Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East.
A Short and Superficial History
In part, the problems in Yemen mirror the schism that has divided Islam almost from its beginning. (For more detailed information on this topic, sign up for the Cold War Studies email course on Islam. The link is in the sidebar.)
In brief, more than 13 centuries ago, the Muslim world split over who should rule it. Should the rulers of Islam be direct descendants of Mohammed? Or should they come from other tribally-based backgrounds? The Shi’a — always the minority in Islam, took the former view, while the majority group, the Sunnis, took the latter. Not surprisingly, there were further divisions within each of the larger groups.
The majority Sunnis became the establishment throughout most of the Islamic world. Many of their rulers were despots, so the Shi’a managed to position themselves not only as Mohammad’s descendants, but also as opponents of tyranny. Some Shi’a sects even began their life as revolutionary movements. One such sect established itself in Yemen and was known as Zaidism.
In Yemen, a succession of Zaidi states — ruled by their own imams — rose and fell.
Over the centuries of Ottoman occupation, some Zaidi rulers became nationalist leaders fighting foreign occupation.
Northern Yemen was never colonized by a foreign power and the Ottoman occupations were incomplete and temporary.
In the 1920s, Yemen’s imamate was transformed into a hereditary monarchy. There were unsuccessful revolts in 1948 (when the imam was assassinated) and 1955.
The imamate system was overthrown in an army coup in 1962. A bitter 8 year civil war involving the Saudis, the British, the US, and Egyptian backed groups followed, costing at least 100,000 lives. Zaidi royalists were the losers.
Yemen’s Zaydi Shi’as take their name from the fifth imam, Zayd Ibn Ali. They are doctrinally distinct from Iran’s Twelver Shi’as.
Until 1955, Soviet arms transfers had been small, scattered, and directed only to Communist alllies like North Korea. After 1955, the floodgates opened. In 1956, Syria and Yemen received arms supplies. In 1956, also, Czech and Soviet military advisers went to Yemen.
In 1962, a pro Nasser coup in Yemen brought an end to Yemen’s 1,000 year old Shi’a imamate. Nasser’s (Egyptian) army became involved in a prolonged intervention.
From November 1977 through February 1978, Cuban and East German troops appeared in South Yemen.
Upheavals in Yemen in 1978-1979 produced a pro-Soviet regime in south Yemen and pulled the traditionally more moderate North Yemen into a closer relationship with Moscow as well.
South Yemen was advised to thoroughly reorganize along Leninist lines with a centralized, dsciplined party, a broad political organization, a Marxist-Leninist ideology, a centrally planned economy, and a drive to squeeze out the private sector and any political pluralism. The Cuban and East German advisers, who helped organize a disciplined and loyal secret police, were especially valuable in the process of consolidating power.
In 1967, the left took control of South Yemen, a region that had been a British colony/protectorate for over a century. Two years later, the South moved further left and allied itself with the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. The Soviet Union took over the military training of the South Yemeni army, and the South Yemen capital, Aden, became a Soviet naval base.
During the Cold War when the country was split, North Yemen faced multiple threats from the far left.
In the 1970s, the South — known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen — began arming and funding leftist rebels in North Yemen.
Despite this military build-up, peaceful relations were temporarily established and, in 1990 after 300 years, North and South were reunited as one country.
Four years later, southern leftists tried unsuccessfully to secede in a North/South civil war that cost several thousand lives.
Perceptions of external interference in Yemen distract attention from the internal factors driving the brutal stop-start violence in the country. Looting, drug smuggling, gunrunning, people trafficking, and tribal feuds also contribute to the violence in some sectors of the country. Terrorist networks are, of course, a contributing factor.
Hopefully, the above recounting of Yemen’s turbulent history helps to put today’s happenings in context. It seems clear to me that Yemen could never be a stable “ally” of the United States — or anyone else for that matter. Internal schisms, the intrusion of terrorist networks, and external pressures have resulted, instead, in a country plagued by political and social instability and poverty.
For those of you who may be interested, here are a few selected resources for further research and study.
A History of Modern Yemen by Paul Dresch
The Birth of Modern Yemen by Brian Whitaker
A Tribal Order by Shelagh Weir
Yemen Chronicle by Stephen Caton
Peripheral Visions by Lisa Wedeen
For those of you who prefer fiction, why not try Nelson Demille’s The Panther?
According to Amazon:
Anti-Terrorist Task Force agent John Corey and his wife, FBI agent Kate Mayfield, have been posted overseas to Sana’a, Yemen-one of the most dangerous places in the Middle East. While there, they will be working with a small team to track down one of the masterminds behind the USS Cole bombing: a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative known as The Panther. Ruthless and elusive, he’s wanted for multiple terrorist acts and murders-and the U.S. government is determined to bring him down, no matter the cost. As latecomers to a deadly game, John and Kate don’t know the rules, the players, or the score. What they do know is that there is more to their assignment than meets the eye-and that the hunters are about to become the hunted.
Filled with breathtaking plot turns and told in John Corey’s inimitable voice, THE PANTHER is a brilliant depiction of one of the most treacherous countries in the world and raises disturbing questions about whether we can ever know who our enemies – or our allies – really are.
Photo by Gareth Williams.