I’ve evolved kind of an odd format for this Yemen series. History is always written with an eye towards what’s happening right now. In my research for this series I found the only book written after the Saudi intervention in Yemen to be the most useful. The other books were kind of haunted by the idea that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Yemen wasn’t sustainable. Yemen Endures, the best of the bunch, was very sure it wasn’t. History is about drawing lessons, and the lessons we need apply to what’s happening now.
With these videos I think I’m doing a kind of extreme version of that. I started with the current crisis, and now I’m working my way through Yemen’s history in a telescoping format. Part 2 covered 1500-1970 or so, today’s part 3 covers 1970-2001, and (maybe) Tuesday’s should cover 2001-2011. As I go along I try to draw out the lessons for today’s issues that are useful. I find this approach pretty satisfying. How is it for the viewers?
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there! And welcome back to our chronicling of Yemen’s disaster. Before we get into it, I’d like to mention that this is a very broad strokes history. Yemen is a tremendously diverse country with great natural beauty, a long and illustrious history, and millions of good people who are trapped in a bad situation. I’m focusing on the worst that Yemen has to offer because unfortunately the worst has been driving Yemen’s chaotic story for quite some time. Today we’ll be talking about one of the worst of the worst, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a man who has dominated the Yemeni stage for almost 40 years.
To tell that story we’ve got to go back to the late 1960s. Yemen had emerged from two separate and bloody histories as North and South Yemen. There’s one very important note here. These two countries look to be similarly sized, but they’re really not. South Yemen was mostly Desert. Much of the population was centered around the Port of Aden and other coastal regions. The population of the North has consistently been around 5 or 6 times larger than the population of the south. The South has always had fewer people, and its history of British colonialism and Communism gave gives those people a very different perspective.
This difference in population distribution is important to remember when we eventually look at the front lines in Yemen’s current war in an upcoming video. After two years of fighting, it may look like Saudi Arabia has made some real progress. But in population terms they really haven’t.
Both Yemens were tremendously dangerous places for leaders. Throughout the 20th century and in the 1970’s in particular, multiple leaders in both countries died by violence. When Ali Abdullah Saleh became president in July of 1978 after yet another assassination, nobody expected him to last long. Yet He’s still probably the most powerful figure in Yemen today, despite a resignation, a rocket attack, and being opposed by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
As I mentioned last time, North Yemen and South Yemen, and the Yemeni state as a whole after 1990 is more of a negotiation between armed power blocs than a functioning country. It makes sense to think about it in layers. As a base layer, there are tribes, and family groups within those tribes. Religion is another layer of complexity. Zaydi Shia amount to 45% of the country or so, but have traditionally been dominant over the Sunni majority on the coasts. The rich history and interests of the 34% of Yemen’s population that lives in cities constitute another layer. Yemen has had urban mercantile classes for all of recorded history, and they have deep connections to the wider world that often clash with more parochial tribal interests. Government and business institutions like the military and economic development corporations are another layer. The different histories of North and South are another layer. And perhaps most importantly there is the layer of outside powers. Yemen is a terribly poor country, and any amount of outside funding warps the country, whether it’s religious, humanitarian, or most damagingly, for purposes of Counter-terrorism.
.Oh yeah, one more thing. All of these different layers are armed. Heavily armed. Yemen is estimated to have the third highest number of guns per per person, and unlike more heavily armed countries like the United States, a very high proportion of those guns are AK-47s. Any of Yemen’s layers are capable of quite literally going to war. But Ali Abdullah Saleh proved himself to be a genius in navigating these layers. Over 40 years he hasn’t just survived, he has thrived. It’s important to remember than none of these conflicts plays out in a straight -forward way. Tribal and religious loyalties are important, but they interact with the different layers in surprising ways. Lets jump forward for an example. Saleh is a Zaydi Shia, but he spent most of the 2000s using Saudi and US money to fight a Zaydi Shia insurgency, known as the Houthis. From 1978 to 2011 one of the greatest supporters of Saleh’s rule was Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, a member of Saleh’s Sanhan tribe. In 2011 these two men had a falling out, and Saleh’s section of the military is now allied with the Houthis he fought for over a decade. Ali Mohsen’s section of the military is still working with Saudi Arabia. It’s all terribly confusing. This is top level stuff, but Saleh has been living in the minutiae for 40 years. He famously described running Yemen as dancing on the heads of snakes. He’s a pretty good dancer.
Saleh’s greatest triumph came 12 years into his presidency when he oversaw the Unification of North and South Yemen under his leadership. With the end of the Cold War the South’s main backer, the Soviet Union, disappeared. After surviving its own murderous civil war the South was ready to join its larger neighbor. Oil had been discovered, and the hope was that a unified country could finally bring about some real development.
That’s not how it ended up working out. Saleh’s poorly judged loyalty to Saddam Hussein, his Arab nationalist brother, cost Yemen dearly. In 1990 and 1991 as many as a million migrant workers were booted out of Saudi Arabia, and US aid was cut dramatically. The South’s promised economic development never came, and 1994 saw a brief but bloody civil war. The South lost. What was supposed to be a partnership ended up as occupation. Southern land and business was parceled out between Saleh’s Northern Supporters. Many Southern leaders ended up in exile. This crushing of the South created tensions that are still playing out today.
But for a while it looked like Saleh had pulled it off. In the 1990s and early 2000s Yemen was one of the only Arab countries with a semi-functioning parliament. His control of the oil revenues allowed him to bribe whoever was necessary to keep the peace. In a fully armed country, where tribal rivalries were constantly spilling over into small scale warfare, this money was necessary. But economic development lost out to patronage and corruption. Oil alone provided 75% of government revenues. Yemen remained a terrible place to do business. Oil revenue peaked in 2002, and the lack of new investment meant that the oil money was constantly falling from that point. Saleh needed a new source of revenue.
On September 11, 2001, Saleh got exactly what he needed. Next time we’ll cover the Al Queda business, pretty much the only growth industry Yemen has had over the past 15 years. Saleh’s expert playing of the United States kept the Yemeni government going for a while, but it all ended in disaster.
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