How Yemen Beat The Cold War | Yemen vs. Empire 3

This one was a bit of an ordeal, honestly. A full 30 minutes of produced video, which is only part three of four, got a bit daunting. Every step of the way was a bit of a struggle. I hope it’s worth watching. Heading back to do more YouTube Drama before I attempt “Yemen vs. Empire” Part 4.

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Video Transcript after the jump…

For at least a century, Afghanistan has been renowned as the graveyard of empires, but the South Arabian country of Yemen might be even more worthy of that title. In this series so far, we have brought Yemen from the 1500s to the 1960s, covering its humiliation of the Ottomans, the Egyptians, and the British. Today we will discuss how Yemen survived, and even thrived during the Cold War battle between the US and Soviet Empires, only to squander that victory with poor choices at the Cold War’s end. The 1970s through the 1990s are essential to understanding Yemen’s current war. The two groups that have done the most to defeat the Saudi invasion over the past decade, the old Zaydi Shia elites, and the Southern Separatists, both started their battles for freedom during this era.

Maybe the most interesting thing about the period we are discussing today, is that it started out pretty well for Yemen’s people. The 1970s and the 1980s, more or less the second half of the cold war, were pretty universally horrible for the developing world, but Yemen had already taken some of the worst the Cold War could dish out, and had given both the Americans and the Soviets a bloody nose in the process.

In the 1960s, the West sort of won the Yemeni civil war in the North, and the Soviets had kind of won the Southern independence struggle, which had produced the Arab World’s only Communist State. But these Yemeni victories were deeply pyrrhic for the superpowers. Each superpower lost a useful ally to Yemen. After the British were driven out of South Yemen in 1967, they soon pulled out of the rest of the Middle East, completing the British transition from US cold war ally, to US cold war dependent. Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian dictator and Soviet friend didn’t just lose in North Yemen in 1967, he also lost to Israel that year in part because of the Yemeni distraction, and the Soviet plans for the Middle East never really recovered.

So by 1967, both superpowers had lost more than they had gained in Yemen, which gave the country a sort of immunity to the late cold war. Don’t get me wrong many, horrible, bloody things were encouraged by outside actors, but the superpowers were happier to bribe Yemenis than try to conquer them again. . Unfortunately, this weird immunity to or at least accomodation with outside influence evaporated suddenly in 1990, with disastrous results.

Both North and South Yemen ditched their outside occupiers in 1967. In both countries, the prospect of unification was popular, and a priority for most political factions. But it was difficult. Throughout the massive population gains and economic changes of the 19th and 20th centuries, the North and South developed as two very different countries. While the much more populous and usually more economically powerful North transitioned from a Zaydi Shia religious monarchy to a Republic, the geographically bigger but much less populated South spent over a century becoming a wealthy trading hub under the British, before spending a couple decades as a Communist dictatorship. The two countries did become one in the 1990s, but unification has been such a mess that the most powerful Southern factions in Yemen today are all working hard for independence.

Though there were left leaning elements in the revolution that formed the Northern Yemen Arab Republic, they were mercilessly crushed in the aftermath of the North’s civil war, as the Saudis switched their sponsorship from the defeated Northern Royalists to the Northern Republic. South Yemen was, at least at the beginning, run by doctrinaire Communists, leading to obvious conflict with the North. US and Soviet sponsorship was most important during two mercifully brief wars fought between the Yemens in 1972 and 1979.

There was always one big exception to the outside reluctance to deal with Yemen, and that was Saudi Arabia. The Saudis initially found the idea of Arab Communists absolutely unacceptable, and maneuvered feverishly against the South across the 1970s. As is typical for the Saudis, this military project ended in abject humiliation, that required a US bailout.

The South was not innocent in the creation of the 1979 war. During the 1970s they supported left leaning elements in a rebellion against the Northern government. But when open war between the Yemens finally broke out again in 1979, the much more populous and Saudi supported North Yemen, quickly found itself outclassed militarily. In just a few weeks, the South established air superiority, and besieged Taiz, an important northern City. The Carter administration in the United States had to spring into action, quickly supplying tanks, planes, and, incredibly, pilots from Taiwan to fly those planes.

The wars, however, were brief, lasting less than a month each. And in both Yemens, the 1970s and 80s were a largely happy time, because of oil money. As I mentioned last time, across these two decades, Millions of Yemenis worked in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, and they were able to send money home in life changing amounts, building personal wealth, and infrastructure on a scale that must have seemed miraculous. The 70s and 80s are remembered as good times for the peoples of both Yemens. They were not good times for those foolish enough to try to govern the Yemens though. For politicians, these times were hellishly violent and unpredictable.

As the 70s moved into the 80s, South Yemen lost some of its revolutionary zeal, and backed off its support for leftist revolutionaries in the North. This was helped of course, by large Saudi bribes. But the Southern Yemeni politicians never lost their revolutionary passion for infighting. The political history of the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen is fascinating, but this video is long enough already, and the Southern history between 1967 and 1990 is so complicated that I don’t think I could do it justice. Also, the sad fact is that South Yemen’s 1980s politicians, with one humiliating exception, just aren’t that relevant to current Yemeni politics, because they quite literally killed themselves.

The South demonstrated clear military superiority to the North in the 1979 war, but the southern political class undermined the People’s Republic with their complete inability to get along. On January 13 1986, in one of the nastiest political events on record, a firefight broke out at a politburo meeting. That massacre, and the days of slaughter that followed in the streets of Aden, saw thousands killed, including most of the competent members of the South Yemeni government. The events of 1986 prompted an exasperated Fidel Castro to ask: “When are you people going to stop killing each other?” South Yemen ended up being swallowed by the North, first peacefully in 1990, and then quite violently in a 1994 civil war. It’s unlikely that either of those things would have happened, if South Yemen’s best and brightest hadn’t killed each other off in January of 1986.

Governing North Yemen in the 1970s looked just as dangerous as it did in South Yemen. The government that had won the civil war was kicked out by a coup in 1974, in part because it was seen as too pro-Saudi. Ibrahim al-Hamdi, Yemen’s only fondly remembered politician, who I discussed in part two of this series, was assassinated in October 1977. In June 1978, his successor, Ahmad Al-Ghashmi, a much more pro-Saudi figure, was also assassinated. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the 31 year old colonel who became North Yemen’s president in July of 1978 was not expected to last long. He did eventually die violently but before that happened, he spent 39 years as the most important figure in Yemeni politics, 12 years as the President of North Yemen, followed by 22 years as the President of a Yemen that he reunited.

Saleh was, by all accounts, a masterful politician. He must have been, considering that one of his first acts was overseeing that losing 1979 war with the South I discussed earlier. North Yemen’s humilation actually helped Saleh consolidate power. The Saudis wanted to prevent another loss, so they funded a massive expansion of Yemen’s military, that Saleh was able to shape and structure to his benefit. As was typical of Saleh, despite the fact that the US had saved his government, he spent a lot of that Saudi money on Communist bloc weapons. He was always trying to play all sides against each other. It worked for him for almost 40 years. It did not work for Yemen.

Across the 1980s, a governing troika began to form. It truly solidified with the triumphant catastrophes of the early 1990s, but these figures were important from the beginning of Saleh’s reign in 1978. Saleh’s powerful kinsman Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, had a growing power base in the military. I heard a rumor once that it was Ali Mohsen that put Saleh up for the dangerous position of president in 1978, because he believed it was too dangerous to take it on himself. That’s just a rumor, but if it’s true, I suspect Ali Mohsen has been regretting that decision for most of half a century now.

The third leg of power in Yemen was Abdullah Al-Ahmar, the leader of the Hashd Tribal confederation. Confusingly, Abdullah al-Ahmar and Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar are only distantly related. Ali Mohsen is not closely related to the prestigious Al-Ahmar family, so we will just call him Ali Mohsen going forward. Hashd wasn’t the biggest tribal confederation, but up until 2014, it was almost certainly the most powerful. For thirty-five years, first under Abdullah, and after his death in 2007 under his son Sadiq, the Al-Ahmar family leveraged their relationship with President Saleh to add to their portfolio of wealth and power. But they didn’t just have Saleh backing them up, they also had Saudi Arabia.

All three of these men are nominally Zaydi Shia, or were at least born that way, but all three of them, at different times acted as the main conduit of Saudi power and money in Yemen. At different times, different elements of this troika have been more or less favored by, or even outright opposed to Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis have always had at least one of these factions working for them directly. And since at least the early 80s, hardcore Sunni radicalization was a key part of the Saudi agenda. As I mentioned last time, this was Saudi Arabia’s great downfall in Yemen. If they had just left religion alone, it’s unlikely that anything in Yemen’s impoverished and corrupt political scene would have arisen to seriously oppose them. But the Saudis did not leave religion alone.

The old religious Zaydi Shia elite still existed in North Yemen. After finally losing the civil war in 1970, the sayyid class lost all political power, but they retained respect, because their lineage is traced back to the family of the Prophet Mohammed, and they had run Yemen for a thousand years. The tribal power structure that in part replaced the Sayyid class as rulers still saw the protection of the old ruling class as a religious duty. One might think that billions of dollars of Saudi money to promote Wahhabi fanaticism might have crushed this old Zaydi elite but instead it did the exact opposite. It eventually brought them roaring back, as the force behind the Houthis.

But before they came roaring back in the 2000s the Zaydi Sayyid class endured decades of humiliation. The lack of serious day to day differences between Zaydi Shia and Sunni practice enabled this. The ruling troika was presumably all born Zaydi Shia, but these men were primarily interested in using religion for power, and almost all the money and power in the Islam of the North Yemen Republic was Saudi. The Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood, which were much more closely linked in the 1970s and 80s, took over many Yemeni educational institutions, and built whole new systems of mosques and educational centers. Most Zaydis were fairly tolerant. But the fanatical Sunni money that was pouring in was not similarly tolerant of Zaydi practice & traditions. Most institutional protections for Zaydi Shi’ism in North Yemen disappeared with the Imams in 1970. Many Zaydis didn’t care, but those who did care were appalled by the multi-front Sunni attack throughout Yemen, and especially in the traditional Zaydi highlands.

Yemen’s biggest international role in the 1980s was as one of Saudi Arabia’s main recruiting grounds for the Arab Jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Most Yemenis who went to Afghanistan, Zaydi Shia and Sunni, came back to Yemen believing that historic Zaydi Shia traditions were heresy. This was true of many of the millions of Yemenis who did migrant work in fundamentalist Sunni Gulf countries as well.

The coastal parts of Yemen had been traditionally Sunni, while the Highlands had been Zaydi Shia for a thousand years. This historic identity was systematically stripped away during the cold war. Sanaa, still a mostly Zaydi Shia city at the outset of the 1970s more than tripled in size in these decades. Many of the newcomers were Sunni, and those that weren’t were likely to be exposed to Saudi funded Sunni fundamentalist mosques in the growing city.

Further North, in Sadah province, the Saudis bankrolled fundamentalist Sunni centers like the Dar-al Hadith in Dammaj. Saddah was and is the heartland of the thousand year old Zaydi Shia practice, and even there it was under siege. Like many other Salafists movements, the relationship between the Dar-al-Hadith center and the Saudi Royal family was often officially strained, but that didn’t mean they weren’t missionaries for Saudi Islam, and it didn’t stop Saudi Arabia from being their main funders. There is a name for what the Saudis and their happily bribed Yemeni allies have been doing to the Zaydi Shia over the past 50 years. That name is cultural genocide. The Zaydi Shia weren’t quite as intensively persecuted as the Uighur Muslims in China today, but their situation was in some ways worse, because nobody, other than the international pariahs in Iran, cared at all about what was happening. The brand new Islamic Republic of Iran was hated by pretty much everyone in the 1980s. Both superpowers were against it, and its 1979 founding created a more unified Arab world than had existed since the fight against the Ottomans. Arab nationalists and Arab Royal families that had fought each other for decades United in an attempt to crush Iran, in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Yemen’s Zaydi Shia couldn’t expect much more from Iran in this era than distant moral support.

One distinguishing characteristic of North Yemen in the 1980s and the 1990s is that they actually had elections that mattered. It would be a massive exaggeration to say that they were free and fair though. President Saleh’s General People’s Congress won every single election after he set it up in the early 1980s. There were always other parties, but the GPC was interweaved with the state in ways that made it hard to take Yemen’s elections seriously.

In the late 80s, Yemenis got another sign of hope. They had long been frustrated by the fact that they seemed to be the only country on Arab peninsula without oil riches. In 1984, an American company struck oil in Marib, close to the border with the South. The development of these resources provided more encouragement to Northern and Southern unification in 1990. The hopes for this resource were initially very high.

The years 1989 and 1990 were a momentous turning point internationally, and in Yemen as well. It all started out so well. Unfortunately it ended quite disastrously.

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 communist South Yemen became much less viable. Communist support fell precipitously as the Soviet Union began to break apart. South Yemen’s elite, weakened by its own infighting, and wooed by the prospect of new oil riches, agreed to unification with the North, with stunning speed. A longer process was announced in November 1989, but then it was accelerated to full unification in May of 1990.

Initially the prospects seemed very hopeful. Everybody in Yemen had claimed to want unification for decades, and now it had happened. Briefly it seemed to bring real freedom and a multi-party system. The North’s GPC, and the Southern Yemeni Socialist Party had been the power holders in one party states. With unification they divvied up government roles and agreed to compete politically going forward. New space opened up for free speech and other sorts of political activity. And then international politics intervened in a disastrous way. Under the late cold war system, the competing sides had more or less agreed to leave the Yemens alone, seeking to bribe it with competitive aid packages. All of that ended very quickly in the unipolar moment.

In the 1980s the Arab world had achieved a strange sort of unity. The war machine of anti-monarchical Baathist Iraq was heavily funded by the Gulf monarchies to fight Iran. Over the course of the 80s Yemen had benefited from both Iraqi and Saudi largesse. They got a lot more money from the Saudis, but because North Yemen was a Republic, nominally Arab nationalist, and had a nasty history with the Saudis, Saleh may have felt closer to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This led to a catastrophic mistake.

The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. Saddam Hussein’s US and Gulf funders all of a sudden remembered that he was a genocidal maniac, and got a lot less generous. On August 2,1990 Hussein decided to take what was no longer being given so freely and invaded Kuwait. Yemen had the extreme misfortune of occupying one of the rotating seats on the UN security Council at the time. Saleh made the mistake of thinking it was still 1988. Surely he could take a profitable middle path. Yemen was a strategically important place, and if he voted no on the UN’s condemnation of Iraq, perhaps he could set himself up as a mediator. But it wasn’t 1988. It was 1990, the cold war was ending and a new US world order was being born.

The reaction from Saudi Arabia was swift and devastating. As many as a million Yemeni guest workers, many of whom had converted to Wahhabism, were instantly deported back to Yemen. According to the New York Times, US diplomats informed Yemen that their vote was the most expensive ever cast at the United Nations. We instantly cut 70 million dollars in aid, and forced the IMF and World Bank to slash their funding as well. In an instant,in November 1990, all the hope of the May 1990 unification evaporated. Yemen now had to deal with roughly 7% of its population showing up all at once, jobless, and angry. I think you can argue that Yemen has never recovered.

To increase the injustice, both of the authors of this catastrophe profited mightily. The oil wealth that was supposed to be an added bonus to Yemen’s prosperity, all of a sudden became the main source of foreign currency, and it was under the control of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen instantly transitioned from a corrupt state trying to figure out how to get more of the people’s wealth, into a corrupt state that was the only source of wealth. Saleh’s power increased dramatically. In the second half of the 1990s Yemenis began to be welcomed back to the Gulf as guest workers, but now they had much more competition from South Asian workers, and fewer privileges. Remittances picked up a little bit, but the balance of power between the Yemeni government and people had changed forever in the government’s favor. The good old days of the 70s and 80s were truly over.

In the short term, Saudi Arabia profited as well. They had felt threatened by Yemeni unity, and relished the chance to hurt it. Saleh learned his lesson in November 1990, and did not oppose Saudi Arabia or the United States again for another 22 years. The South’s incorporation into Yemen was another opportunity for the Saudis. Under all the layers of cosmopolitanism and communism, the majority of South Yemenis were Sunni, just like the Saudis. North Yemen had a small majority of Zaydi Shia, but United Yemen is majority Sunni. In November 1990 almost a million Yemenis, many with Wahhabi indoctrination, were unceremoniously dumped back into Yemen, also changing the the demographic and political picture in Saudi Arabia’s favor. In the short term. In the long term it’s created a disaster for Saudi Arabia as well.

The Saudi Deportation experiment provides an important lesson to US policy makers. This instant destruction of Yemen’s 1970s and 1980s golden age arguably sent Yemen into a cycle of turmoil and poverty that the country has never come back from. The chaos that Saudi Arabia was drawn more and more deeply into has culminated three decades later in a humiliating lost war, and a border that is infinitely more unstable and dangerous than it was before the mass deportation. There are many US political figures who dream of sending 10 million undocumented workers back to Mexico and Central America. This action, if it was ever taken, would unleash Middle East level chaos in this hemisphere, and probably result in a series of cataclysmic wars that would make Yemen’s suffering look tame by comparison. So we should probably not do that.

Much like every independence movement, every unification has it’s losers. Folks who were powerful in the smaller units lose out in the bigger one. But in most cases, benefits of unification eventually accrue, and people begin to move on. The almost unique accomplishment of Saleh’s extraordinary mismanagement, is that no such benefits have ever accrued. I am not in favor of South Yemen’s independence, it’s likely to end in tears if tried, but I am hard pressed to think of a single benefit that the Southerners have received from unification.

Yemen’s attempt at a just unification was mortally wounded by the catastrophe of 1990. Both Yemens we’re thrust into a refugee crisis, and the outside actors that had celebrated and promised to support unification in May were all gone by November. Political assassination proliferated, and members of the Southern Yemeni Socialist Party were a large portion of the victims. But the South still had high hopes for a political solution. Elections were coming in 1993, surely the Yemeni people would punish Saleh for the mess he had made of things?

The elections of 1993 are largely seen as legitimate, but they did not unseat Saleh. It was a new political force, Islah, that benefitted from the people’s anger North and South. Islah was and is an Islamist party, but that can mean a number of things, and incorporate a number of different forces. It included lighter forms of Islamism as well as the Wahhabi veterans of Afghanistan fighting. Islah was certainly helped by a great deal of Saudi influence and money. The old parties of the North and South didn’t have the resources to help the people deported from the Gulf. But Islah, and other Islamist factions were still getting Gulf money, so they were able to help the deported population, and win many of their votes. In the end, Saleh’s General People’s Congress did lose its majority, but Islah took more votes than the Southern YSP, and Saleh’s GPC remained the biggest party. Islah succeeded in 1993 because of protest votes against Saleh, but in practice it was just another part of the Northern power structure, even endorsing Saleh for President in later elections.

By 1994, the Southern politicians were desperate. Unification had provided zero rewards, and now they were almost forced out of political power as well. So they tried to get their independence back mitarily. This proved to be a terrible mistake.

Probably the worst sign for the South in the 1994 civil war was the fact that the Saudis decided to support them militarily. The kingdom still didn’t trust Saleh after the Gulf war, and they didn’t want a unified Yemen, so they armed the socialists.

Saudi Arabia intentionally keeps its military weak, to avoid any potential coups. The Kingdom has tremendous wealth, and the political savvy necessary to manipulate Yemen in many ways. But when politics turn violent, Saudi Arabia has proven to be useless, over and over again. Saudi military support is almost always the kiss of death for any Yemeni faction, and it proved to be the case here.

President Saleh didn’t have the support of Saudi Arabia in the 1994 war, but he found it easy to gain the support of their proxies. The Yemeni veterans of the Afghan war saw fighting the Southern Yemeni socialists as a natural extension of their 1980s war against the Soviet Union. Saleh his Northern power structure, and their new Jihadist allies won a swift and vicious victory over the South. Aden was sacked. 140 years of independence was crushed, and South Yemen’s industries were handed over to Saleh’s patronage networks through privatization. President Saleh had once again turned Yemen’s catastrophe to his advantage, and further consolidated his power. There’s one more effect of the 1994 civil war I have to mention.

Remember how I said there was one himilating exception to the irrelevance of South Yemens’s 1980s political figures? Well that would be Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the guy who just acted as Saudi Arabia’s fake Yemen President for the past ten years. The 1994 civil war made his career.

Hadi had been on the losing side of the 1986 massacres in the South. He fled to North Yemen. In the 1990s Saleh wanted some sort of political legitimacy for his pillaging of the south, and Hadi became his willing tool. As Yemeni minister of defense he oversaw the Crushing of his southern home. In 1994 He was rewarded for this betrayal with the position of Yemeni Vice President. He held this position as Saleh’s puppet until 2012, when he turned on Saleh and became Saudi Arabia’s puppet president.

But that’s a story for part four of this series, how Yemen Beat Saudi Arabia, coming sometime soon. Until then, I would ask you to consider how massive Saudi Arabia’s influence in Yemen has been throughout the past century. Saudi wealth and religious imperialism have successfully warped Yemen into a weak and unstable shape that Saudi Arabia prefers. It’s only when that influence escalates towards violence that Saudi Arabia fails in Yemen. Kind of makes you wonder why they keep doing it right?

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