A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 13: Yemen #1

yemen

This seems to be as good a juncture as any to look at Yemen, partly because we touched on it in the last post, and partly because it is so topical. One of the most shameful man-made humanitarian catastrophes is taking place right now (May 2018) in this country as a result of the civil war which has been raging since March 2015, in what was already the Arab world’s poorest country. Now, over 8 million people are facing the immediate threat of famine, 50,000 children alone died last year of starvation and a cholera outbreak, probably the worst the world has ever seen, has killed over 2000, with a million suspected cases up to the end of 2017. One of the world’s richest countries, Saudi Arabia, is bombing one of the world’s poorest, with the implicit approval of not only the United States, but also the United Kingdom, France and Canada, who all sell arms to them.

What’s going on right now does not, of course, take place in a vacuum but in the context of a power struggle between the Houthis and the government, which itself had taken power after a series of popular protests in 2011 had forced the president of 33 years to step down. In the spirit in which this blog is intended, therefore, it behooves us to examine the historical context in which all this took place, and to show that the tragic events that have taken place in Yemen over the last few years are not a bolt from the blue, nor are they the kind of incomprehensible, ‘tribal’ or religious war they are sometimes portrayed in the media, but the result of long-festering political tensions and power struggles between actors both inside and outside Yemen.

First of all, some basic facts about Yemen: it’s a country of 27 million people, a bit bigger than Spain, takes up most of the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. As can be seen from the map below, it consists of a highland area to the west (confusingly called the north, which we’ll get to in a minute) and a much less-densely populated desert lowlands in the eastern part of the country, a region called Hadhramaut.

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The frequent division of Yemen into North and South (they were separate countries until 1990) is because the west of the country is far more densely populated than the east. When people refer to ‘south’ Yemen therefore, they mean the bit around Aden, south of Sana’a, although as you can see from this map, parts (mostly empty parts though) of the former South Yemen were further north than parts of North Yemen.

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This western part of Yemen is (or at least has been historically) pretty fertile by Arabian standards, and the frequently-cited fact that Yemen is the poorest Arab country has not always been the case. Once upon a time, this was one of the richest corners of Arabia, and was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix (happy Arabia) as opposed to the rest of the peninsula, which is mostly inhospitable desert. The Yemenis (who seem to have thought of themselves as a distinct people since the seventh century at least) once had a monopoly (which they closely guarded) over coffee, although Europeans eventually succeeded in stealing the plant and began to grow it cheaper elsewhere with slave labour. Yemen’s wealth and geographically important location (at a vital point on the sea lanes between European and India) also meant Yemen was the subject of interest from several imperial powers. The Ottomans dominated a great deal of their history until the twentieth century.

It is the immediate aftermath of the First World War, and the collapse of the Ottoman empire, which we took as the chronological outset of this blog, and for good reason: so many modern Arab nations have their genesis at this moment when they escaped the dominion of the Turks only to fall into the clutches of the French and British, in the case of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria for example (see part one). Such was not the case of Yemen, however, at least not the northern part. The Ottomans had never really established a strong hold over the country, and when they abandoned any pretensions to doing so, neither the French nor British were in a position to move into their place. The south, around the port of Aden (one of the world’s greatest natural harbours) was a different story. The British had been there since the 1830s, when they purchased the port, recognising its massive potential as a refueling point for their steamships on the way from Europe to India. Aden was integrated as a Province of British India and remained so until 1937, when it became a crown colony.

What emerged from the Ottoman collapse in the north of Yemen was an independent kingdom, led by a dynasty of Imam-Kings from the northern highlands, a region which has historically produced formidable fighters and is home to a brand of Shia Islam more or less unique to Yemen: the Zaydi. The Zaydi are a group within Shia Islam whose followers, in the eighth century, recognised a younger son, Zayd, of the fourth Shia Imam as their leader instead of the eldest son, recognised by other Shia. Yemen is pretty much the only country with significant numbers, and the rulers who founded and ruled the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (1918-1962) were both political leaders and religious ones, who kept a tight rein on the country, jealously guarding absolute rule for themselves and, for the most part, attempting to keep their kingdom cut off from the threatening influence of the outside world.

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Flag of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom from 1927.

Imam Yahya had already been Imam of the Zaydi since 1904 when he became king in 1918. He proved himself a canny and ruthless ruler in the three decades he presided over the kingdom, recognising the importance of the clans and tribes in the highlands, whose frequent interventions in the politics of the region in the centuries of sporadic Ottoman rule had shown how they could make or break a ruler. Imam Yahya micromanaged Yemen to an extraordinary degree, trusting no-one to make any decision of consequence besides himself and running things according to a kind of medieval petitioning-system whereby people had to come and petition him personally if they wanted anything done. He was also notoriously jealous of foreign interest in his country’s resources and (probably wisely, as it happens) rebuffed attempts by oil companies to prospect there and by other western corporations to open up the country to their products by trying to give him lavish gifts. His rejection of such offers and the austere lifestyle he lived despite his great wealth won Yahya a great deal of respect among Yemenis as befitting a man who was their spiritual as well as temporal leader.

The same could not be said for his son, Ahmad, who took power after the assassination of the king in 1948. Yahya became more and more unpopular towards the end of his reign, as his heavy-handed repression of those who called for fairly modest reforms provoked a more radical opposition movement. Their killing of the king might have led to a toppling of the regime, but for the fact that Ahmad acted quickly when he heard of his father’s killing, heading north to the northern tribes loaded with as much gold as he could carry to win them over to his side in the coming struggle. Within a few months, he had wiped out his enemies and installed himself in power, a position he would hold onto for fourteen bizarre years of decadence of madness. Ahmad (below) is the kind of figure whose excesses presage the downfall of a monarchy. While his father had been ruthless but perceived as fair, Ahmad was ruthless but petty and unpredictable, gratuitously cruel at times, preoccupied with his own aggrandisement and the acquisition of technological marvels such as cars and telephones from abroad for his own personal enjoyment, while continuing the policy of keeping the country isolated from outside influence. A few vignettes from his reign that give some impression of the vibe: he had a gigantic portrait of himself erected in the public square outside his palace, he drowned his court jester dwarf, he collected hundreds of bottles of aftershave and liked to personally attend public beheadings and play with electric trains.

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Although clearly a conservative figure who would have liked to keep Yemen in a perpetual middle-ages with himself as the divinely-appointed ruler, Ahmad nevertheless made alliances and sought aid from whoever was willing to give it with the least strings attached. This made for some unlikely alliances with, for example, the Soviet Union and Maoist China. His foreign policy was largely dictated by fear of domination by Yemen’s large neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which was beginning to flex its muscles and exploit its oil wealth towards the end of his reign. While he and his father had been pretty successful in cutting Yemen off from the outside world, by the 1950s the cult of Nasser could not be kept out, the contagion of Arab nationalism, republicanism and secularism. It is no surprise that plots were laid against him, and yet, despite his eccentricities, Ahmad also seems to have had a cat’s nine lives, surviving an astonishing number of attempts to depose him. The most amazing was when he was sick in hospital in 1961 and some plotters shot him three times at point blank range; he survived by rolling onto the floor and pretending to be dead, although he was injured and lived only a year longer in a morphine-induced haze. He died in September 1962, against all the odds, peacefully.

His son was duly appointed but this was the end of the road for the Mutawakkilite monarchy. In many ways, it is amazing they soldiered on for as long as they did, and even the last king, Muhammad al-Badr, made a decent fist of fighting to take back the throne from the republican army officers who deposed him after only a week in power. Such a coup had been on the cards for some time, led by a cadre of officers who Imam Ahmad had taken the risk of sending to Iraq for training, risky because since 1958 that country had been a republic, having overthrown the Hashemite monarchy. The transfer of power from father to son was the window of opportunity these officers needed to seize control of Sana’a with little opposition and declare the Yemen Arab Republic, what is usually referred to as North Yemen. The republicans were led by Abdullah al-Salla, a forty-five year old colonel who was among those who had trained in Iraq. Here he is with his pals at a military display the year after taking power.

Abdullah_al-Sallal_in_a_military_display_March_1963

The seizure of power was initially fairly efficient. The usual massacre of ministers and royal allies took place in the main square. The monarchy might have fallen then and there if it wasn’t for two factors: firstly, Imam Badr escaped, fleeing north for the traditional rallying of northern tribes to fight for him (well, for money really) and secondly he received outside help. The second is probably by far the most important, as most accounts suggest that the Imam-king did not inspire a huge amount of loyalty or love from his subjects, but that they fought for him because he could pay them handsomely, and because he commanded the support of the Saudis. Here is Imam Badr with some of his fighters during the civil war which followed:

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It was really only over the border in Saudi Arabia that any prospect of a counter-attack against the new republic became realistic, but of course  the monarchists were not alone in receiving outside help. We alluded in the last post to Yemen, and this war, as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’, and indeed the North Yemen civil war (1962–1970), when it is remembered, is usually primarily remembered as a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians staked far more in North Yemen than the Saudis. By the time of the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967 (when they really could have done with extra troops) roughly half of Egypt’s forces were bogged down in North Yemen and the war consumed over 20,000 in casualties by the time they were finished. While they ultimately managed to prevent the king’s return to power, it would be hard to argue that the Egyptians ‘won’ the war in any meaningful way.

In many ways the country exasperated Nasser and his officers, who found Yemeni fighters (both their allies and enemies) untrustworthy and indifferent to ideology, simply fighting for whoever would pay them the most. A Soviet journalist reported on the shocking amiability between supposed enemy tribesmen when gathering for negotiations near the Saudi border: ‘They hugged each other like old friends, kissed each others’ hands, and, once the initial greetings were over, spent a good while strolling around the enclosure hand in hand, as is the local custom.’ (cited from Victoria Clark’s excellent Yemen : Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, Yale University Press, 2010). Nasser reportedly introduced al-Sallal to Nikita Khrushchev, remarking, ‘I just wanted you to see what I have to put up with.’ For all its fine republican rhetoric, the Egyptian campaign was distinctly unheroic and can be seen, along with the Six-Day war, as one of the turning-points at which Arab secular nationalism lost its way. Yemeni villages were bombed, chemical warfare was used, the kind of torture methods alluded to in part 2 as common in Egyptian prisoners were exported to Yemen. This is not the way to win converts to your cause, and in the end, the Egyptians were seen by many Yemenis as just another invader. Again, parallels with the United States (whose invasion of Vietnam was masked in rhetoric about not being like the old European colonial powers) abound.

Another foreign power that intervened in the North Yemen civil war was Britain, although they were not honest enough to do it openly and to this day, in all the coverage of the current Yemen crisis, it is hardly ever talked about. Of course, the British backed the fedual despotic monarchy but before we look at their clandestine intervention in North Yemen, lets get up to date with what was happening in the south, where there was nothing clandestine about the British presence whatsoever. As noted above, the British had obtained the port of Aden back in the nineteenth century and, while not entirely unwelcome to many of the Indian and Jewish merchants who lived in the port town, the Arabs and surrounding tribes put up sporadic resistance to the British presence. Aden was something of a backwater in the British colonies, hot and uninviting, it was perceived as one of the less desirable places you could be sent as a soldier or administrator. This changed somewhat when the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and Aden became more prosperous as a result of the increased importance of the Red Sea route to the east.

Although it became an economically more attractive location, and could be said to have thrived in some respects, the Yemenis continued to resent the British occupation of their best port and largest urban centre. In order to deal with the surrounding animosity, the British made more and more treaties with shiekhdoms in southern and eastern Yemen, seeking to buy off local rulers with arms and money, to convince them to leave them in peaceful possession of Aden in return for which they were largely left to their own devices. It was much cheaper than filling the country with soldiers and trying to pacify it, which the British were smart enough to realise (from looking at what had happened to the Turks, and would happen to the Egyptians) was pointless. Another cheap expedient was using the RAF to punish disobedient tribes and villages from the 1920s onwards, a technology to which the Yemeni tribesmen (like the Iraqis bombed by British aircraft in the revolt of 1920) had no answer.

The application of this in Yemen is described by a retired colonial official in this 1985 episode of a TV series, End of Empire, around 7m24s in:

What the old dude is describing in the clip sounds a lot like terrorism but the narrator of the programme seems to accept the whole thing as perfectly acceptable, referring to it without the bat of an eyelid as ‘air policing’!

The political arrangements of the British with southern Yemeni tribes evolved into the Aden protectorate, subdivided for administrative purposes into eastern and western divisions. When an independent kingdom emerged in northern Yemen, the Imams there claimed to be rightful rulers of the whole land, providing weapons to anyone within the British areas who would back up their claims. The British, for their part, filled the region with weapons given to anyone who would support their claims, which became more and more important to defend as Britain’s empire began to fragment and disintegrate in the period after the Second World War. This corresponded with the growing importance of Aden as both a maritime (it was the third-busiest port in the world) and aviation hub (the busiest RAF base in the world) at this time, not to mention the fact that BP had built a huge oil refinery there. Retention of Aden, especially after the Suez crisis, therefore became the concern to which everything else was subordinated in British planning.

The port’s success, however, was linked to growing hostility towards British rule in that the increasingly-powerful merchant community and the growing number of industrial port workers began to demand rights associated with an urban bourgeoisie and proletariat. In the post-war period, a kind of legislative assembly for Aden was granted (for which few could vote), and workers began to organise trade unions. Political astute Arabs were almost inevitably influenced by the Arab nationalism that was proving an inspiration all over the Middle East in the 1950s, and the inevitability of independence was recognised by the early 1960s by everyone, including the British, who hoped to manage this ‘independence’ in their own interests by creating a state called the Federation of South Arabia, which was to consist of sixteen of the more westerly sultanates over which the British had exercised a protectorate, wedded (somewhat reluctantly) to Aden. The remaining territories in the east (see the .gif above) would remain outside the federation as the ‘Protectorate of South Arabia’.

But history had run ahead of the British, and the offer represented by the federation was too little, too late for Yemenis, who now wanted full independence like their northern counterparts, and were prepared to fight for it. The proposed state would exclude most Yemenis from participation in political life and in any case offered them no real self-determination, especially not over Aden. The fact that the British designated the place the ‘permanent’ headquarters of their Middle East Command in 1962 would suggest they were not planning on giving it up any time soon. The federation also gave undue power to the rulers of the various small states at the expense of Aden, against which the British had long been playing the rural hinterland as a means of divide-and-rule, and which now wanted no part of this proposed puppet state. It did have quite a nice flag though:

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The opposition to British rule had, by the time the monarchy fell in North Yemen, morphed into an effective movement for full independence in the south, which received assistance from the republicans in Sana’a and Egypt. The National Liberation Front (NLF) was the name of this group and attracted broad support because it recruited not only among port workers but also among rural tribesmen. Led by Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi (below), a British-trained agricultural officer who had come under the influence of Nasserist ideas in Egyptian exile, the NLF perceived nothing less than direct armed action would induce the British to leave, and initially waged a guerilla war in the Radfan area north of Aden. The British, whose intelligence on the freedom fighters appears to have been dreadful, dismissed the NLF as primitive tribal forces, seemingly missing the fact that these were being armed and trained by professional Egyptian soldiers from just over the border in North Yemen. Failing to take them seriously at first, it was far too late by the time they realised they commanded widespread support from the population and collaboration from the British-trained Arab police and military that carried out much of the day-to-day policing in the protectorate. Aden and the surrounding area drifted into all-out war towards the end of 1963.

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The NLF’s instruction manual encouraged its activists to engage in relatively-innocuous actions like breaking the colonists’ air-conditioning and pouring sugar in their petrol tanks, but it wasn’t long before the things turned distinctly ugly: hand grenades were hurled at parties of British soldiers and their families (whom they persisted in bringing over with them as if nothing was amiss) and the British in turn responded with the torture of civilians in custody and summary collective punishment in the streets.

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You might think it would improve things, but the coming to power of the Labour Party in October 1964 if anything only made things worse. As centre-left governments often come under suspicion of not being tough enough militarily, they often feel compelled to dispel these doubts about their resolve by being even more pigheaded and aggressive than their right-wing counteparts. Harold Wilson’s party in opposition had criticised the federation plan for not giving any representation in power to the people of Yemen, but merely handing some power over to autocratic sultans. Once in power, however, they came under American pressure behind the scenes to dig their heels in and stick to the Conservatives plan. The Americans were concerned (rightly, as it happened) about southern Yemen falling into the Soviet sphere of influence if the British lost it. They, therefore, continued the policy of imposing the British settlement by force. They also lost the support of the Arab contingent associated with the labour movement in Aden, led by Abdullah al Asnag (below) which up until now had been campaigning peacefully for democratic rights for the inhabitants of Aden, and felt deeply betrayed by the Labour Party when they failed to support them.

Abdullah al Asnag.jpg

Coming to the conclusion that full independence and a military campaign to achieve this was now the only option, they formed the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) in early 1966. It was less Marxist in its outlook than the NLF and would soon be fighting them for control over the independent state which was to emerge in South Yemen. By this juncture, Wilson’s government had decided to throw in the towel and declared their intention to depart by 1968. What with the speed of political developments in the Middle East (the Six-Day War) and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Aden, they were compelled to leave even earlier, in November 1967, leaving their erstwhile allies, the sultans and shiekhs whom they had tried to install as rulers of the federation, completely high and dry and without protection after independence.

The period between announcing their intention of leaving and actually leaving saw, oddly enough, an escalation of violence, as embittered British troops and Arabs engaged in tit-for-tat killings which escalated as the British-trained local army and police forces came out openly on the side of the freedom fighters. June 1967 saw the occupation of the Crater district of Aden by these forces, who killed twenty-two British soldiers in one day. The area was reoccupied the following month by a force (they marched back in playing bagpipes) led by one Colin Mitchell, nicknamed ‘Mad Mitch’ in the British media which, smarting from the injury to their imperial pride, built him up into a folk hero, who would later be elected an MP on the basis of his celebrity. Dubbed ‘the last battle of the British empire’, in reality, Mitchell’s forces engaged in looting, sniping at civilians from the rooftops and pointless gratuitous violence in the final few months of British occupation.

The fact that this episode was perceived by sections of the British public as a victory of some kind says a great deal about the continuing emotional draw of empire and the reluctance (which continues to this day) to see it for what it was. Episodes like Aden were the bully’s last petulant punch before withdrawing in a huff, and (like Cyprus, Kenya, Northern Ireland) are far more representative of the vicious way in which the empire was relinquished than the much better-remembered and celebrated withdrawal from India. It’s also telling that the British to this day refuse to refer to it as a ‘war’, persisting in calling it the Aden ’emergency’ (just like Kenya, Cyprus, Malaysia, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland), they seem reluctant to describe them as wars. I wonder why.

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The NLF meanwhile was moving more and more to the left and under Soviet influence. The Egyptians switched support to the more centrist (and more malleable) FLOSY and it may well have been Nasser’s support that induced the departing British to recognise the rival NLF as its successors to power as they were leaving. The latter crushed the former more or less at the same time as the British left and the People’s Republic of South Yemen was declared on the 30 November 1967 with Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi as its first president. This would quickly become an avowedly-Marxist state, renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen three years later, when al-Shaabi was removed from power by the more hardline communists, and we will look at its history up to unification with the north (1990) in the next post.

Returning to North Yemen, Britain’s intervention there was far more hush-hush and not widely acknowledged to this day. After the takeover by the republican government backed by Egypt, the British were keen to see the Imams regain their kingdom, being against whatever was Nasser was for and for the same reason they backed the tribal rulers in the south. One of their more well-informed officials in the country, Christopher Gandy, described what they were defending as ‘an arbitrary autocracy’ and recommended recognising the republic who were ‘much more open to contact and reasoned argument’. He was overruled by British leaders, however, who at the same time recognised the embarrassing inconvenience of standing up for reactionary despotic regimes, but for whom Britain’s imperial interests (fading as they were) were always prioritised over everything else.

The spread of modern republicanism and democracy was perceived as a direct threat to these interests, and so had to be combated, not only in Yemen, but everywhere in the Middle East where Britain continued to have a finger in the imperial pie. Indeed, some of the more die-hard imperialists saw no shame in what they were doing and again, we have the bigotry of one of their number for a fairly frank account of what was going on here. Aviation minister Julian Amery commented in 1963:

The prosperity of Britain rests on the oil of the Persian Gulf, the rubber and tin of Malaya, and the precious metals of south and central Africa. As long as we have access to these, as long as we can realize the assets we have there, as long as we can trade with this part of the world, we [the people of the United Kingdom] will be prosperous. If the communists were to take them over we would lose the lot. Governments like Colonel Nasser’s in Egypt are just as dangerous.

This can be seen around 11:50 in a documentary made by the wonderful Adam Curtis back in 1999.

The obvious contradiction between all of this reactionary conniving and the progressive, democracy-loving image the British wished to convey was becoming obvious to the more intelligent of their own population, so they had to do it all covertly. The man for the job was the subject of the above documentary, David Stirling (below), who had founded the SAS during the Second World War and, in the 1960s, was among those active in the corridors of power (Amery was a personal friend) resentful of Britain’s declining imperial role in the world and looking for ways to exert it again. He agreed with Amery and another Conservative MP, Billy McLean, to recruit mercenaries from among his SAS comrades and in France for a clandestine operation in North Yemen, funded largely by the Saudis and Jordan. The SAS couldn’t be committed officially (but were in all but name) but enough plausible deniability was created to distance the government from their actions.

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The purpose of Britain’s covert operation was less to win the war than make life hard for the Egyptians and in the (as we have seen, ultimately vain) hope of preventing the war in North Yemen from upsetting their rule over Aden. As Mark Curtis has noted (see Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses) the British recognised in private that their clients had no chance of winning the war but, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told President Kennedy ‘it would not suit us too badly if the new Yemeni regime were occupied with their own internal affairs during the next few years’. An internal memo at the time noted that ‘the present stalemate in the Yemen, with the Republicans and Royalists fighting each other and therefore having no time or energy left over to make trouble for us in Aden, suits our own interests very well’. Mines were lain, railways blown up. Again, it’s hard to avoid the impression that, if all of this had been orchestrated by Colonel Gaddafi or Iran, they would call it terrorism, but there you go.

The British operation in North Yemen no doubt made a contribution to Egypt’s military disaster there, and although they pulled out in 1967, the royalists did not retake power (the Saudis had also withdrawn their far-less extensive military presence). Once the foreign armies left them to it, the Yemenis eventually came to realise that neither side was likely to achieve outright victory and, when al-Sallal was removed and replaced by a civilian leader, Abdul Rahman Al-Iryani, things began to move towards a compromise. By 1970 it was agreed that the republic would stay, but many of the royalist figures would be offered influential roles in government, with the exception of the royal family itself. Muhammad al-Badr went into exile in Britain and died in London in 1996.

In the next post, we will follow the paths of these two Yemens, North and South, from the early 1970s on to unification in 1990 and beyond. While the south pursued a doctrinaire Marxist line until the collapse of their Soviet sponsor, the north occupied an ambiguous position in the late Cold War years, dominated by president (1978-2011) Ali Abdullah Saleh and preferring to take help from whoever would give it with least strings attached. While the northern Zaydis had failed to restore their Imam to the throne, they remained an important factor in the north’s politics, re-emerging in another form and another name, the Houthis, in the mid 1990s.

Featured image above: Sana’a skyline.

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A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 13: Yemen #1

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