How Yemen Beat The British | Yemen Vs. Empire II | Avoiding the British Empire 20

This is exactly the sort of video I’ve always wanted to do. I believe history should have some passion behind it. That’s the best way to teach it. The point of this series should be becoming clear. My hope is to tell the modern history of Yemen, and do it in such a way that it sticks with people, by drawing firm connections between what’s happening now, and what has gone before. I’m pleased with how the series has gone so far, and I’m excited to complete it, and finally move on to other projects I’ve been delaying for too long. The hope is that now that I’ve done this once, I will be able to repeat the trick for other countries in the region more easily.

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Video Transcript after the jump…

For seven years now it’s been getting more and more obvious just how badly the Saudis and Emiratis misjudged their 2015 invasion of Yemen. If they had known the country’s history, they could have seen just how doomed their effort was from the very beginning. In part one of this series we covered Yemen’s two victories over the Ottoman Empire. Today we will look into the next 50 years of Yemen’s history, and cover the country’s humiliation of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, the British world system.

As with the destruction of Ottoman hopes, the conflict between rival empires was a crucial part of London’s defeat as well. The British built their Yemeni outposts as the Ottomans fell, and other empires tried their luck as the British were chased out. Even newly independent countries had a crack at it…

In the 1950s, while Saudi Arabia’s worldwide apparatus of fundamentalist subversion was still just being built, Egypt came roaring back onto the Yemeni scene. The 1952 overthrow of Egypt’s British owned monarch by Gamel Abdel Nasser inflamed nationalist feeling across the Arab world. His speeches were heard across both Yemens through newly available transistor radios. 1958 saw Syria and Egypt join together as the United Arab Republic, which seemed very significant at the time. In the 1950s the Imams that had ruled Northern Yemen since the first world war flirted with Nasser and Arab nationalism, something they would later come to regret. The British that controlled Southern Yemen of course saw Nasser as a great threat. They tried and failed to overthrow him with an invasion of Egypt in 1956.

This British failure to hold onto Egypt, highlights why they were so eager to hold on to Yemen. By the late 1950s the British had lost India, and were struggling mightily to hold on to what was left of their African and Asian empires. Yemen, and Aden specifically, was Britain’s last stronghold by the Bab El Mandeb strait, a trade route of massive importance that was getting more valuable by the year, as oil exports from the Middle East increased. If Britain could hold onto Aden, then they could still claim to be a major world power. This focus made Aden the world’s second busiest port in the British era, and the expansion of military facilities in Yemen made it clear that the British intended to stay.

In September 1962, Ahmad, the old Imam in the north died. His successor, Badr was targeted by a coup before the month was out. Badr survived, but he had to flee the capital. The newly declared Yemen Arab Republic did have some popular support, but it quickly became clear that it would need significant Egyptian help to take the country from Badr, his royalist forces, and their Saudi sponsors. The Egyptian troop presence quickly reached the tens of thousands. Nasser’s forces were initially welcomed by many, but the Egyptian’s contemptuous treatment of Yemenis, and their years long failure to end the war bred resentment.

This brings up a vital point. Some like to claim that today’s conflict in Yemen is about religion, but it’s really not. The Zaydi Shia practice prevalent in Northern Yemen is actually much closer to Sunni practice than it is to the Shia practice of Iran. In the 1930s, and today, when it works for propaganda and political alignments, religion is used to rally support in the fight between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But in the North Yemeni civil war of the 1960s, Saudi Arabia was directly aligned with, and heavily subsidized the Zaydi Shia elites who were trying to hold on to the country back then. Today’s politics dictate that Saudi Arabia fight Zaydi elites that are very similar to Saudi allies of the 1960s. These alignments have always been about political convenience, not religious commitment.

As North Yemen dissolved into invasion and civil war, British control of the South was falling apart as well. The passions of revolution and anti-imperialism were hard to confine on the Northern side of the Border. The Egyptians failing to control the North were the sworn enemies of the British trying to hold on in the South, but they had the same problems controlling Yemenis regardless. The British attempted to maintain control of the situation, and proposed a number of solutions that would allow them to hold on to the military base at Aden they had been expanding but it was all for naught.

The British found themselves retreating into their strongholds as they watched the petty sultanates they had nominally been protecting fall one by one, as rival groups of nationalists fought to see who would control the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, that was now emerging as a unified Southern Yemeni entity for the first time.

As the name implies, the British weren’t just chased out, they were replaced by the only explicitly Communist state that ever existed in the Arab World. It may have been British influence and education that made this bizarre result possible in the first place, but it was a pretty stunning humiliation nonetheless.

With the belated retreat of the British on November 29th, 1967, Yemen found itself more purely on the frontlines of the Cold War, and subject to the tender mercies of the Soviet and American empires. These empires often disagreed with their local clients, but by and large, the Saudis were on the US side and, as long as Nasser was alive, Egypt was more on the Soviet side.

Like the war of today, the 1960s civil war was a proxy war too. But its striking how Saudi Arabia has reversed its position, allowing Iran to take the smarter, easier role Saudi Arabia occupied in the 1960s war. Nasser’s Egypt spent billions of dollars, importing large numbers of troops, and staking Egypt’s prestige and vision for the region on the outcome. Saudi Arabia was far more involved in Yemen back then, than Iran is in today’s war, but the principle is similar. The Saudis supported the country’s traditional Zaydi leaders, but mostly with money and weapons, content to let Yemenis and Egyptians do the fighting and suffering. It was a good cheap way to bleed an enemy, a sensible strategy that Saudi Arabia apparently forgot about entirely by 2015, when they decided to step into the role of the Egyptian losers.

The result of the 1960s civil war is confusing. Egypt’s side, the modern Yemeni Republic, won, but Egypt definitely lost. The Yemeni distraction contributed to Nasser’s loss in the six day war with Israel, and the end of the Arab nationalist cause Saudi Arabia had found so threatening. What has since become known as Egypt’s Vietnam, also soured Egypt on foreign intervention. So even though Saudi Arabia’ side lost the civil war, they ended up as the outside power with the most influence in Yemen.

Despite joining Saudi Arabia’s Yemen invasion coalition on paper in 2015, Egypt has largely kept its troops out. They have had enough of trying to conquer Yemen, thank you very much. Egypt learned to fear Yemen just as the Ottomans and the British did.

When the Egyptian troops retreated in shame in 1967, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Yemen Arab Republic would have fallen to the Saudis and the Royalists as quickly as the Afghan government fell in 2021. The Royalists quickly beseiged Sana’a. But once the Republic lost its 10s of thousands of imperialist Egyptian protectors, the Yemenis decided they preferred it to the Royalist side that was still fully funded by the Saudis. Sana’a withstood the siege, and the Saudis eventually gave up on the last of the Zaydi Imams, who lived out his days in London. This is a key lesson for those who oppose Houthi power in Yemen. Most Yemenis would prefer not to be governed by Houthis. But like the Yemenis of the 1960s, most Yemenis prefer these old school Zaydi fanatics to outside invaders and their proxies. If the Saudi invasion ends, the Houthis could see their support evaporate just as quickly as the last Imam’s did after the Egyptians left in 1967.

The end of the civil war brought new power relations to North Yemen. The traditional Zaydi Shia religious elite was out. Though the new Republic was on the surface run by political parties based in the cities , power in the country side was held by a balance of territorial tribal coalitions, who were vastly strengthened by the unseating of Yemen’s old religious elite. This new, supposedly modern system was just as open to Saudi influence as the old religious system was, if not more so. Money is the universal solvent, and Saudi Arabia, even with the past decade’s low oil prices, has infinitely more money than any actor in Yemen. Saudi Arabia knew how to make the newly empowered tribal system work for them. Yemen’s resistance to this influence has been a constant as well.

The first peacetime Republican government was seen by Yemenis as becoming too pro-Saudi, so it was ousted in a coup in 1974. Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, the coup winner, is probably the only Yemeni leader of the 20th century that is remembered fondly. He was popular, and seen as working towards the unification of North Yemen after its civil war and towards unification with the South as well. But he was anti-Saudi, which few doubt was a big part of his being assassinated just three years into his time in power.

Saudi Arabia may have made Hamdi’s career as well as ended it. The 1973 oil crisis was a tragedy for most of the developing world, but not for Yemen. Saudi Arabia went from ridiculously rich to absurdly rich, and they needed workers to build their country. They hadn’t sorted out their slave labor deals with South Asia yet, and the Yemenis were massive beneficiaries. The 1970s and 1980s seem to have been a sort of golden age in Yemen. Only a few migrants got seriously wealthy, but hundreds of thousands of Yemenis were able to send money back to their villages, for cars, houses, schools and other infrastructure. Government in both Yemens was a mess, but times were good. Of course all this money helped Saudi influence grow further.

Ironically it’s religion that ended up tripping up the Saudi domination of Yemen. If they had stuck to bribing government heads, and dominating tribal gift exchange networks, then Today’s Yemen would probably be almost as reliable a Saudi client as Bahrain is. But the Saudi religious establishment, with a lot of US encouragement, got greedy. It wasn’t enough for Yemen to be a majority Sunni, Saudi client, it had to be Wahhabi too.

While the CIA and Saudi Arabia were creating the Jihadi networks that kicked the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, radicalized the whole Muslim world, and eventually did 9-11, Yemen was one of their happiest hunting grounds. Yemen was close to Saudi Arabia, culturally similar in a tribal sense, and much poorer. Saudi imperialism was never just about creating fighters for Wahhabi Islam, it was also about changing the societies those fighters came from. Zaydi Shia and Sunni Islam are very similar, but Saudi Arabia’s extreme Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam has no tolerance for other forms of Sunni practice, let alone a Shia one that can be tied to Iran, no matter how loosely. Saudi Arabia spent billions trying to stamp out North Yemen’s traditional religion, which created the Huthi reaction that eventually destroyed Saudi Arabia’s Imperial plans.

But that’s a tale that will have to wait for part 3 of this series, How Yemen Beat the Cold War, coming sometime soon. Until then, I would ask you to consider the ending of the civil war that ripped up North Yemen in the 1960s. The Egyptians, like the Saudis today, miserably failed to defeat Yemen’s old Zaydi shia elite. But in the end, it turned out that all Egypt had to do to undermine that old elite’s power was leave. Could Saudi Arabia use the same trick against the Houthis today?

Thanks for watching, please subscribe and check out my book, Avoiding the British Empire, if you want to learn more about the rise and fall of of the first world system.