Yemen is having a pretty horrific time. But it’s not as straightforward as some of the Middle East’s other disasters. Yemen’s fall has been expected for quite some time. That’s the most striking thing about every account I’ve read of Yemen over the past few months. Everybody saw this coming. Which is a pretty horrible thing when you think about it. If everybody knew what was coming, why didn’t anybody do anything to stop it?
That’s one of the many questions that we start to answer with this second video in my quickly ballooning Yemen series. I hope you enjoy it. These videos are taking a ton of work, but they’re also very rewarding. My hope is that peeling back the layers of Yemen’s disaster will help us avoid similar disasters in the future. Let me know what you think!
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Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Last time I talked about the humanitarian disaster going on in Yemen, and how shameful it is that the United States is supporting it. I pointed out that in some ways what’s happening in Yemen is worse than what has been happening in Syria. But in one way it’s better, at least from the US perspective. I think The United States bears the primary responsibility for the Syrian Civil War.
Yemen’s Disaster is not entirely our fault. Yemen was screwed long before the United States got to the region. Afghanistan has a reputation as the Graveyard of Empires, but I think Yemen has just as good a claim to the title. Yemen’s super strategic location at the center of world trade routes has sucked in empire after empire, from the Ottomans to the British to about 1000 years worth of Egyptians.
Yemen managed to give the Ottoman Empire some of its worst defeats in two very different historical eras. From 1538 to 1634 Yemen ate up tens of thousands of Ottoman soldiers. I’ve heard Yemen characterized as the Ottoman Vietnam. The Ottomans were kicked out the first time by Zaydi Shias that ended up ruling parts of the country from the late 1500s up until 1962. Sometimes the Zaydi Shia ruling class was up, We’re Selling A Ton Of Coffee! Should we invade Mecca Again? Sometimes they were down, Dammit the Ottomans are Back! But they remain a dominant factor in Yemen today. It was British adventuring in Yemen in the 19th century that convinced the Ottomans they had to come back.
And that’s where we can find the root of a lot of Yemen’s problems. Or maybe 25% of their problems. Yemen has a lot of problems. In 1839 the British took the Southern port of Aden, which convinced the Ottomans to come back in the North in 1849 to block the British. For the next 150 years or so, up until the 1990s Northern and Southern Yemen developed along very different paths.
The Ottomans spent another 70 years fighting to hold the North, allying with and battling different tribes along the way. They finally gave up entirely in 1918 after losing World War One. The Zaydi Imams were there to pick up the pieces. They fought a good game of thrones against the Hashemites and Sauds in those amorphous years between the World Wars, but they ended up losing pretty badly.
And that is Yemen’s principle misfortune,Since World War II, and the launch of the Saudi oil industry, the forces playing with Yemen have no longer been a sea or a continent away, they’ve been right next door. Having international empires fight over your country sucks. Having more local powers fight can be worse.
South Yemen spent over a century as a british colony. When the British finally gave up in 1967, the folks who kicked them out set up South Yemen, a Communist country that lasted For almost a quarter century. North Yemen functioned as an independent Kingdom from 1918 to 1962, when it fell victim to the clash of two of those local powers, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The last Zaydi Shia king was kicked out in a coup, starting an eight year civil war in North Yemen that killed somewhere between 100 and 200 thousand people.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s the main clash in the Middle East was between Arab nationalists with the support of the Soviet Union, and more old fashioned powers supported by the United States. Egypt’s charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser was the face of Arab Nationalism. Yemen was where the dream of Arab Nationalism died. Nasser’s Egypt sent 70,000 soldiers to support the Yemen’s Military Coup. Saudi Arabia, ironically, armed and supported the forces loyal to the last Zaydi Shia Imam.
This conflict has eerie parallels to today. Egypt exerted itself to an extraordinary extent, spending money and soldiers that it really couldn’t spare. Saudi Arabia mostly just sent money and arms to support the Zaydi Shias and other tribes who were much stronger on the ground. Today Saudi Arabia is spending an extraordinary amount of money and diminishing political capital to fight Zaydi Shias rather than support them. The extent to which Iran is supporting those Zaydi Shias isn’t fully known, but most agree that the war costs Iran a tiny fraction of what it costs Saudi Arabia.
In the end the Egyptian side kind of won, but it killed Egypt as a regional player. The distraction of the war in Yemen guaranteed that Nasser lost the Six Day War with Israel in 1967 destroying Egypt’s credibility. The last Yemeni king did leave the country, but the New Yemeni Arab Republic in the North quickly became a Saudi Client.
The competition between empires and more local powers has been terrible for Yemen. It’s meant a lot of war, but even in times of peace, all this competition has kept the country from functioning. Different tribes and factions within the country are armed and supported by different outside powers. No Modern Yemeni government has really been able to set up a state. The country has always been more of a negotiation between armed power blocs than a nation. For the past half century, Saudi Arabia has made sure that no government emerges that can truly challenge it. Yemen’s disaster hasn’t been entirely the United States Fault. But we’re not blameless either. Saudi Arabia is a US colony after all.
Next Time we’ll look at the the sad story of North and South Yemen, and the Supremely Machiavellian guy who made it look like the country was governable, at least for a while. Today’s disaster makes it clear that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Yemen was always an illusion.
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