How Yemen Beat The Ottomans | Yemen vs. Empire

I have been working on this one for years. For years I have said that this channel is about politics and history, but with this series I would like to make that more real. In three (or maybe four) videos, my hope is to cover many of the high and low points of the past 500 years of Yemeni history, while also providing an in depth, informed take on Yemen’s current status. I think today’s video is a good start. Wish me luck!

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Video Transcript after the jump…

For two centuries now Yemen has occupied a special place in the world system. Since at least the 1830s it has presented unique challenges to the British and US world empires, as well as many smaller empires as well. In 2022 Yemen appears to have reached a low point in its history. For seven years now it has been fighting off a savage Saudi and Emirati invasion. As many as 400,000 people have been murdered directly and indirectly by the actions of the gulf monarchies. But there’s another way to look at this story. Yemen is bruised and battered, but it may be on the cusp of winning a rare kind of independence. If Yemen succeeds in defeating the plans of the Saudi and Emirati empires, which it seems to be doing, it may achieve a sort of final victory against empire that only a few countries have ever managed. Today I want to tell that more hopeful story. But we can only see beyond today’s horror If we zoom way out, and present the five century long story of Yemen’s extraordinary resilience to waves of empires. That’s what we will start doing today, by focusing on Yemen’s victory over the Ottomans.

Yemen is a country with a staggeringly deep history. Yemeni fighters were one of the largest factions in the prophet Muhammad’s armies, and through those armies, Yemeni influence spread from Spain to the borders of China. But the territory of those first caliphates hasn’t been unified for over a thousand years, and since the time of the Abbasids, the Yemenis have found themselves more often acting as the targets of Empire than the builders of it.

The Ottoman Turks were the last great unifiers of the Muslim world, though they started out as more of a European empire in the 1300s and 1400s. In 1517 Selim the Grim turned his eye towards the Arab lands and swiftly took most of what was easily accessible to the Mediterranean.

The Ottomans were an interesting intervening step between ancient and modern imperial states. They are known as one of the gunpowder empires, and it was that technology that allowed them to knock down the walls of Constantinople, and finally snuff out the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453. When the Ottomans were strong they maintained the first approximation of a standing army that Europe had ever seen, which allowed them to make mincemeat of the more feudal Serbs, Hungarians and Germans through the 1300, 1400s, and 1500s. But during periods of weakness, the greatest of the Turkish empires could look very pre-modern, with local leaders becoming more independent, and peripheral territories like Yemen seeming farther and farther away.

The Ottomans had multiple alternating periods of strength and weakness. In the 1500s they were probably at their strongest, dominating lesser powers in all directions. One theater of war was the contest over Indian Ocean trade routes with the Portuguese. Which first brought them to Yemen. An Ottoman admiral on his way to aid a Muslim prince in India took Aden in 1535.

The Ottomans fought hard for Yemeni lands for over a century, but Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel describes it as a Paper Province, where “constant harassment from indigenous Arab Tribes… prevented the Ottomans from exercising their rule in any meaningful way”.

The question of who the Ottomans were fighting is an important one, because to some extent, it’s the same people the Saudis and Emiratis are losing to today. But not exactly the same people. We run into this again and again in Yemen, where identity is never as straightforward as foreign or domestic propaganda wants it to be.

At one level, we have the Zaydi Shia religion which makes up 35-45% of the population of today’s Yemen, and a slim majority of those in the Houthi controlled North. Though I am sure there were Sunnis who resented the Ottoman invasion as well, the Zaydis led the charge. Then we have the smaller class of Sayyids or Banu Hashem. This hereditary class of descendants of the Prophet Muhammad is present all over the Islamic world, and many believe that only members of this class have the right to rule. And within that special class we have the Imams. Supposedly for the past 1000 years or so the most righteous and learned among that Zaydi Shia Sayyid class is supposed to rule the country. Its not supposed to be hereditary, but in practice it has often worked out that way. So the Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement that has beaten the Saudi invasion is not entirely Zaydi Shia, but it is predominantly Zaydi Shia. The Houthi family and their strongest allies at the head of Ansar Allah are members of that sayyid class that claims descent from the prophet Muhammad. The Houthis are very invested in their sayyid legitimacy, but haven’t yet attempted to sell themselves as the Imams of Yemen. We may see that at some point.

In the 1500s, Mansur al-Qasim gave his name to the most famous branch of Yemeni Imams, the Qasimids who kicked the Ottomans out, not once but twice. By 1608 the Qasimids had retaken Sadah in the north. In 1629 they took Sana’a, and by 1636 the Ottomans were driven from Yemen entirely, for two centuries.

The 1600s were a sort of golden age for Yemen and its Zaydi Imams. Yemen led the way in the large scale commercialization of Coffee, and held a near monopoly on its export, from the port of Mocha. The Imams even managed to challenge the Ottomans for control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for a short period of time.

But since the 1700s, after the country’s lucrative position in the world’s coffee market slipped away, Yemen more often found itself a victim of empires than a beneficiary. It was the ambitions of Muhammad Ali, the modernizing governor of Egypt that brought the Ottomans back. After decades as Istanbul’s most useful servant, Ali decided he could do a better job leading Islam and turned on the Ottoman Sultan in the 1830s. His victorious armies reached deep into Turkey itself, and in 1837, they made it down to Taiz in Yemen. This prompted the British East India Company to take Aden in 1839, to keep the Red Sea from becoming an Egyptian lake. The British preferred the weak and moldable Ottomans to the victorious Muhammad Ali, so they forced him back into Egypt in 1840. The Ottomans, desperate to show some independence from their British Sponsors , started trying to retake North Yemen in the late 1840s, in opposition to the growing British presence in the South.

At the beginning the Ottoman path back seemed easy. The Imam invited them back into the Yemeni highlands to take control. In response the people of Yemen chose a new Imam, who pushed both the Ottomans and the traitorous Imam right back out of the highlands. This pattern continues over and over in Yemeni history. Those who attempt to govern Yemen by inviting in outsiders lose all legitimacy, and often their lives. This is just as true today as it was in the 1840s.

The series of wars the Ottomans then began to fight against Zaydi Shia resistance look strikingly similar to the six wars Yemen’s old government fought against Zaydi Shia Houthis in the first decade of this century. Mostly over the same territory too. The Ottomans did manage to establish fairly consistent control over the coast and after 1873 over Sana’a, which remains the capital city today. But Yemen became the killing fields of the late Ottoman Empire, costing tens of thousands of soldiers, and prompting the writing of mournful songs that still resonate in Turkish culture to this day.

Over the 70 years the Ottomans fought to establish and reestablish control of the North, the British slowly deepened their control of the port City of Aden, as the Suez Canal made the Red Sea and Bab El Mandeb strait more and more strategically important.

The British mostly just wanted the port of Aden, and a quiet hinterland to support it. Like the Ottomans, the British were both frustrated by and took advantage of Yemen’s extreme fragmentation. This fragmentation was of course very different in the 1800s, but it continues today, as I laid out in this clip from five years ago…

“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.”

The British controlled most of the territory of what eventually became South Yemen through a series of deals with local rulers. The British didn’t even attempt to group Aden and their various protectorates together under a single system until 1962, a mere five years before they were chased out of the country entirely. But the British did more or less control these Yemeni territories for 128 years. Economically vibrant Aden became a destination for migrants from every section of today’s Yemen and from all over the world. British control of Southern Yemen proved to be ephemeral, but it had a long lasting impact, adding a layer of cosmopolitanism and modernity to Southern Yemeni culture that still has political impacts today.

By 1911, after a new round of violence, the Ottomans mostly capitulated. Yemen was only one of the places where the sick man of Europe had been bleeding for decades, and an Italian attack on Libya created a desperate need to transfer troops out of Yemen. So the Ottomans signed a treaty conceding most of what the Zaydi Shia Imams wanted. It might have provided a new basis for Ottoman presence in Yemen, but then World War One put the seven century empire out of commission permanently, opening up a vast new space for competition.

The Zaydi Imams that established the Yemeni state after World War One had spent centuries battling against the Ottomans, and had a strong if debatable claim to be descended from the class that had ruled Yemen for 1000 years. The Saudis had no local legitimacy in the 1920s, but they did have a ton of British money and British weapons, so they were able to replace ancient ruling dynasties with their religious fanaticism from Mecca and Medina, and down the coast of the Red Sea. The new Saudi state and the ancient Yemeni one fought a war over three historically Yemeni provinces, Asir, Jizan and Najran, and Yemen lost. The territory was added to Saudi Arabia by the 1934 treaty of Taif. The border split a lot of traditional territory, but guaranteed cross border access to the affected tribes. As a side note, there are folks in Yemen today who would very much like to take these territories back. Those people should be ignored. The truth is that both countries were corrupt medieval monarchies back in 1934 and neither had a particularly good claim to this territory. The border has stood for almost 90 years. The next decade is going to be complicated enough for Yemen and Saudi Arabia. We really don’t need to reopen this issue.

Though the fact that the border is even a plausible topic of discussion should give you an indication of how badly Saudi Arabia has screwed up their Yemen policy.

From 1918 to 1970 the north was governed by the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, which was kind of an odd thing for the traditionally anti-monarchical Imams to claim to be in charge of, but maybe they thought it would help them negotiate with European leaders. Amusingly they outlived most of the European monarchies they might have been trying to impress. The kingdom’s domains, the North Yemen of the 1970s and 1980s, and more or less the territory that the Houthis control today, have always had the majority of the Yemeni population and most of the country’s agricultural land. The Imam/Kings that ruled this territory faced similar challenges to the British however. The Yemeni state was a constant negotiation between different power bases, sheikhs, urbanites, and various other elites, military and religious. The multiple empires competing to dominate Yemen in some sense became just another interest group that had to be placated.

In 1934, Yemen’s monarchy looked a lot more economically viable than its Saudi neighbors to the North, though militarily less successful because it lacked British support. All of that changed in 1938, when Standard Oil of California discovered oil in Saudi Arabia, changing regional and world politics forever. As the oil revenue grew and grew, Saudi Arabia began to meddle in Yemen more and more.

But that’s a story that will come in the second part of our three part series, how Yemen beat the British, coming sometime soon. Until then, I’d ask you to consider the deep roots of Saudi and Emirati failure in Yemen. It’s not about the Iranians or the corruption of individual figures. It’s quite simply that Yemen wants to be free. Throughout history, many have tried to take the country, and everyone has eventually failed.

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