“Dancing on the Heads of Snakes:” Yemen, Then and Now

by Monia Al-Haidary

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska. Photo credit: Antonia Polin

Amongst the many conflicts boiling over in the Middle East, the ongoing civil war in Yemen is perhaps the most destructive. Incessant Saudi intervention in the region has sparked the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Western nations have been complicit as well; last year, the UK Court of Appeals ruled the British sale of arms to Saudi Arabia unlawful on the basis of humanitarian law. Despite the cessation of British weapons imports, the conflict—and the resulting famine—rages on.


The current tragedy in Yemen is not, as many Western media outlets claim, merely the result of a few cases of civil unrest brought on by corruption and bad leadership. To explain the circumstances in Yemen as such is overly simplistic and dangerous. The conflict is, rather, part of a long continuum of heightened separations, foreign interventions, and separatist beliefs.

The legacies of competing British and Ottoman imperialism resulted in the division of the country into North and South Yemen at the end of the First World War. For most of the 20th century, the two parts of Yemen held wildly different political systems and economic doctrines. Regional powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia inserted themselves into Yemeni affairs, while global superpowers like the Soviet Union and the British Empire vied for influence in the area. Even at its most unified, the “Republic of Yemen”—a precarious title at best—has faced insurgencies, separatism, and civil war. Policymakers looking to find a peaceful solution to the human suffering in Yemen must first understand the complex geopolitical history of the war-torn country.


A Yemeni market. Photo by Antonia Polin

A Long History of Competing Superpowers


In the early 19th century, the British Empire needed a coal depot for ships en route to their lucrative territories in India. The port city of Aden—Yemen’s temporary capital since 2015—provided an ideal target. Aden occupied a strategically important position at the entrance to the Red Sea. The British saw it as a place that, if not under their control, could possibly put the United Kingdom in a vulnerable position regarding its communications with India. In 1839, the British muscled into the region, forcing local leaders to sign protection agreements. The opening of the Suez Canal 30 years later only served to increase the region’s importance.


Britain’s occupation of Aden angered the Ottoman Empire, who feared the incursion would soon pose a threat to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. To forestall further British advances, the Ottomans moved south in 1849. After 30 years of sporadic fighting in the Yemeni highlands with the local Zaydis, who represent a minority sect of Shia Islam, the Ottomans captured the central outpost of Sana’a and consolidated the surrounding region as a vilayet (or province) of the Ottoman Empire. Yet they were never able to pacify the local tribes, particularly those led by Imam Yahya Muhammad. Yahya became Imam in 1904, giving him religious and political authority over the Zaydis. He launched guerrilla campaigns against the Ottomans, who ceded a limited degree of autonomy to the Zaydis in the Treaty of Da’an in 1911. The complete collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War left a power vacuum, allowing Yahya to strengthen his grip over North Yemen.


For the next forty years, the geopolitical situation in Yemen remained stagnant, though certainly not peaceful. Britain loosely controlled a swathe of territory in the south, reorganized as the Aden Protectorate in 1937; in the north, Yahya Muhammed ruled over a coalition of Zaydi tribes. There was no regulation of the boundaries between the two entities, leading to frequent clashes. These conflicts, however, would prove to be mere skirmishes compared to the events of the 1960s.


Yemen during the 1962 revolution. Photo from alamree.net

Dividing Cultures and Revolutionaries in the 1960s


Under Yahya Muhammed, North Yemen was a theocratic monarchy. Yahya rejected modernisation and instead ruled in accordance with traditional tribal customs. While Yahya was able to maintain relative stability, his son Ahmad’s reign was more turbulent. During the 1950s, Yemenis grew increasingly impatient with the imamate’s continued rejection of modernity. Yemeni military officers wanted to reform their country along the lines of the Free Officers Movement, a nationalist, modernist Egyptian group formed by President Gamel Abdel Nasser. After Ahmad’s death, his son and heir Muhammed Al-Badr backtracked on promises made during his inaugural address to please the upper classes. His about-face triggered a quick and violent reaction. A cadre of military officers, acting with support from Nasser, overthrew Al-Badr on September 26, 1962 and established the Yemen Arab Republic.


A meeting between President Nasser of Egypt (left) and President al-Sallal of Yemen (right). Photo from Gamal Abdel Nasser Digital Archive

Nasser was highly supportive of the new North Yemen regime, initially funneling money, arms, and eventually ground troops to the region. Doing so allowed him to export his ideas of Arab republicanism and anti-colonialism as well as expand his sphere of influence across the Red Sea. But Egypt was not the only regional power with designs on North Yemen; Saudi Arabia also had a vested interest. Like the former imamate, Saudi Arabia was a theocratic monarchy, and shared core traditionalist values with Yahya and his heirs. In a broader geopolitical sense, Saudi Arabia was especially displeased that Egypt—one of its primary rivals—had intervened in Yemeni affairs so openly. The Saudis threw their support behind Al-Badr and his loyalist forces. The involvement of these major regional powers meant that the North Yemeni Civil War was, in essence, a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


South Yemen had its own problems. Nasser’s rise in Egypt was part of a growing notion of nationalism and anti-imperialism that began to spread throughout the Middle East. Forces of the crumbling British Empire in Aden were a tempting target. In 1963, two rival groups emerged in South Yemen as the predominant anti-British forces: The Marxist National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen. Nasser threw Egypt’s support behind the NLF, who began a guerrilla campaign centered on Aden against the British. British retaliation was usually harsh and overcompensating, which acted both as fuel for resentment towards the British and a boon for NLF recruitment. Though the British were planning to withdraw from Aden in 1968, the NLF insurgency forced them out a year ahead of schedule. In the resulting power vacuum, a radical faction of the NLF seized power and established a one-party socialist state known as the People’s Republic of South Yemen.


Bab Al-Yemen in Sana'a. Photo by Antonia Polin

Egypt’s intervention in South Yemen ended in success, but the situation worsened in North Yemen. Nasser’s forces assisting the Yemen Arab Republic failed to strike a decisive blow at Al-Badr’s loyalists, and by 1965 the war was mired in stalemate. Nasser refused to withdraw, seeing the war as a fight against the Saudis rather than a domestic Yemeni conflict. His obstinance would prove costly after Egypt’s crushing defeat at the hands of Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967. Crippled by defeat, Nasser pulled out of the region. He later called North Yemen “his Vietnam” and explained that he had “sent a company to Yemen and ended up reinforcing it with 70,000 troops.” Though the Egyptians retreated, the republicans had effectively defeated the loyalist forces by 1968. When Saudi Arabia pivoted and recognized the Yemen Arab Republic in 1970, the loyalists and republicans signed a ceasefire, creating the state of North Yemen.


North and South Yemen had entirely different political systems. In the North, false representations of democracy gave way to a small, elite decision-making body of military commanders. In the South, the NLF created the only communist state in the Middle East during the Cold War. Each nation was also allied with rival global powers. Saudi Arabia consistently supported North Yemen, while the Soviet Union and other Marxist states provided aid to South Yemen. The irreconcilable differences between the two sides, along with the antagonism between their allies, led to intermittent (albeit small-scale) military confrontations. A brief war in 1972 resulted in an agreement to move towards unification, though another minor conflict in 1979 stalled proceedings. In 1980, representatives from North and South Yemen drew up a joint constitution and met for multiple rounds of unification talks. The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s left South Yemen without a much-needed source of foreign aid and led to an acceleration of unification talks, culminating in the creation of the Republic of Yemen on May 22, 1990.


Peace in the new republic would not even last the decade.


The Republic of Yemen in Conflict


The new constitution promised free elections, civil liberties, and multiparty democracy. In practice, Yemeni elections were effectively staged; the country had many of the formal trappings of democracy but little genuine political freedom. Political elites from the North were dominant in the new state, including North Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who became the first president of the new Republic of Yemen. There was also a notable break from the socialist heritage of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen; private property rights were enshrined in the constitution.


The upheaval caused by such a sudden change to the system soon led to calls for secession in the South, and in April 1994, former South Yemen President Ali Salim al-Beidh openly broke with the recently created republic. North Yemeni forces defeated the Southern Army, and South Yemen surrendered in July. Yemen remained unified.


Hababah cistern. Photo by Antonia Polin

There was unrest in the North as well. After the 1962 revolution, the Zaydis were subject to mistreatment as they continued to be associated with the ousted monarchy and were increasingly repressed in the Yemen Arab Republic. In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia began promoting Salafism, a strict brand of Sunni Islam, in North Yemen; its growing popularity further isolated the Zaydis. In 1990, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi formed a Zaydi militant group as a rejection of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to spread Salafism into the region. Taking the name of their founder, the group called themselves “the Houthis.”


Initially, Saleh offered his support to the Houthis, seeing them as a useful force against Saudi influence in the region. He stood against Saudi intervention until an agreement was signed in 2000 to resolve a border dispute between the two nations. This, along with increased funding from Saudi Arabia, shifted Saleh's stance and loyalties. He then turned on the Houthis and sought to disarm them. In an unsurprising but recurring development in Middle Eastern politics, the group that he had set out to use for his own political gain was now uncontrollable and too powerful to quash. Throughout the 2000s, the Houthis continued to fight the government on a smaller scale, though they failed to dislodge Saleh. He stayed in power with the help of constitutional amendments that delayed elections and barred opponents from running against him.


During this period, Yemen was united in name alone. While writing this article, I read the updated drafts to my father, who was the CEO of a telecom company in Yemen and frequently dealt with government bureaucracy. He was also the person that facilitated the movement of our family when the situation escalated in Yemen—I viewed him as an invaluable point of reference, as I was only 12 at the time.


He told me two things that I believe help to adequately portray the separatist nature of the country. First, he reminded me that as tensions escalated, the country was already divided. The leader of the South would be shown on the Southern national network denouncing the leader of the North and vice versa on the North's respective network. He also described the difficulty surrounding the acquisition of planning permission. He explained, “you would go to the very top guy in the North and he would say, yeah, go ahead. And then you'd travel down to the South with this permission—and they wouldn't even see you.” This disconnected nature and power struggle present in Yemen in the early 2000s ultimately transformed into an all-out civil war during the Arab Spring in 2011.


Civil War and Saudi Intervention


President Saleh once stated that ruling Yemen was like “dancing on the heads of snakes.” He primarily maintained his rule and the integrity of Yemen as a state through patronage, buying loyalty from people who held power and maneuvering through political divisions. His dealings in playing the Zaydi Houthis and Salafis against each other is a testament to his political machinations. He was similar in person, known to be a charming man outwardly but crooked in his actions. While attending the Sana’a International School with his granddaughter, I vividly remember running around the palace only for her to yell, “stop.” I looked over and saw Saleh. He beckoned me over and said, “How are you, habibti (my love)?” He would later stand by the Saudi-led coalition that bombed my school.


Saleh’s system of patronage was more conducive to short-term stability and obedience than any longer-term construction of a legitimate Yemeni state. When the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East spread to Yemen in 2011, long-held grievances over corruption and economic inequality spilled over into a political and military challenge to the regime itself. This discontent also manifested in active and constant protests against the false elections, forced presidency, and severe income inequality. Houthis joined the peaceful protesters, calling for Saleh to step down. After months of trepidation, including a failed assassination attempt, Saleh ceded power at the end of the year. Despite the violence, it initially appeared that the uprising and subsequent Houthi militancy might be contained.


City of Sana'a. Photo by Antonia Polin

In reality, things have played out differently, with peaceful cooperation giving way to violent and widespread conflict. The Houthis were left disillusioned after the Arab Spring, feeling that further reforms were required, and they launched a military insurgency that won converts by attacking government corruption and Saudi intervention. Houthi rebel groups seized the capital Sana’a in 2014, occupying large parts of the country and forcing Saleh’s successor, President Hadi, to flee to Saudi Arabia. Hadi’s absence has sparked another civil war in Yemen between his supporters and the Houthis, both of whom consider themselves to be the legitimate government of Yemen. Previous civil wars have tended to be brief and easily resolved in favor of incumbent regimes, but the current conflict has lasted far longer. The influence of foreign powers in the region means it is unlikely to end soon.


After the Houthis captured Sana’a, Saudi Arabia launched a counteroffensive, ostensibly to reinstall President Hadi. In doing so, they lent more credence to the Houthi claim that Hadi is merely a Saudi puppet. Saudi Arabia has little regard for the impact of its continuing attacks or the locations of those attacks; in fact, one in three Saudi air strikes has hit civilian targets. Further, the Saudi-led coalition—which is largely armed by the United Kingdom and advised by the United States—has been targeting schools in Yemen. They were the ones who bombed my former school— the school I attended with the Saudi Arabian ambassador’s daughter. They justify their atrocities by claiming that the Houthis are proxy agents of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the Middle East. Though Iran continues to deny involvement, Houthi rebels have been using what appears to be Iranian weaponry, according to a UN report. Whether battling foreign or domestic enemies, supporting or opposing the incumbent regime, Saudi Arabia treats Yemen as a part of its regional sphere of influence, no matter the cost.


Houthis protesting an offer by the Saudi-led coalition to pay compensation for victims of an airstrike in Yemen, September 2018. Photo by Felton Davis

Much attention has rightly been directed toward the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the civil war. Approximately 14 million people within Yemen face the risk of famine, and at least 100,000 people have died in the conflict since 2015. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic is cause for increasing alarm; the UN representative for Yemen noted that “COVID could be the tipping point” for the failing state. The grave impacts of the ongoing conflict are set to become even more severe.


Throughout the entirety of Yemen’s turbulent history, one thing has remained constant: deep internal divides. North and South Yemen have long been on separate paths, with different governments, values, and histories. Their divisions have consistently been widened by foreign intervention—from the contesting imperialisms of the British and the Ottomans, to the regional conflicts between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and now Iran, Yemen has always been an arena for competing ideologies. The current civil war is not Yemen’s first, and with the ongoing involvement of multiple international actors and no compromise in sight amongst Yemeni groups, it is unlikely to be its last.



Monia Al-Haidary comes from an Iraqi family and grew up in Yemen. She graduated from Goldsmiths University of London with a degree in Media and English and is starting a Graduate Diploma in Law at the University of Law this academic year.

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INTERZINE | 2020