The streets of Sanaa, the North Yemeni capital, appear to condense some of the most divergent elements of Third World economic change and political upheaval. Perhaps nowhere else in the Middle East, or indeed elsewhere in the Third World, do the antinomies of combined and uneven development come so dramatically to the surface. The city is full of consumer goods brought in on the emigrants’ remittances and foreign aid that make up nearly all of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Filipino workers in hardhats are digging up the roads to install sewerage systems. Aid agencies of many stripes are plying their wares and plans. Most men of commerce are indigenous to North Yemen, but their ranks are swollen by thousands of compatriots who have come from the People’s Democratic Republic (PDRY) in the south to escape state control, or from sections of the Yemeni diaspora in Ethiopia, Kenya, Vietnam or Britain. They push their goods onto the streets and sit on the floor inside their shops, eating and chewing qat.

Commercial capitalism is alive and well, at least as long as the monies from abroad pour in. For a country whose exports come to only 1 percent of its imports, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) is doing well indeed. The politics of the city are also vigorously displayed. Much in Sanaa is reminiscent of the period when Gamal Abdel Nasser dispatched Egyptian forces in the 1960s to save the new republic from the Saudi- and British-backed royalist rebels. The policemen direct traffic in Egyptian-style white uniforms. The slogans on the banners across the streets proclaim the YAR’s loyalty to Arab unity in tones of Nasserist enthusiasm now unheard in their country of origin. The majority of the 23,000 schoolteachers in the country are from Egypt, and these gallabiyya-clad men are numerous in the markets and squares of Sanaa and other cities.

Ta‘izz, the southern city, has a more drab, nondescript character, and its idiom is littered with the traces of Adeni vocabulary derived from the days of British rule. Sanaa, by contrast, retains much of its historic character: The old city remains as it was many hundreds of years ago, a spectacularly beautiful collection of stone houses with white limewash patterns, little walled gardens, narrow streets and white minarets. It is probably the most architecturally alluring and unified city of the whole Islamic world. Most men wear the fouta, or kilt. In the afternoon, the whole city slows down considerably for the chewing of qat: This practice is limited to Thursday afternoons and Fridays in the PDRY, but no constraints apply in the more riotous north. Here, as in the south, the stimulations of alcohol have now been added.

Sanaa is not North Yemen. The contrast between city and countryside, one that lay at the heart of the civil war in the 1960s, and which Sanaa experienced dramatically during the siege of 1967-1968, when it was saved only by a massive Soviet airlift, is still there. The majority of the country remains rural, and farming still accounts for some 85 percent of the labor force. The peasantry is dominated by tribal loyalties and is deeply suspicious of any government at the center. Adult illiteracy is extremely high — over 80 percent — and less than 40 percent of children are in school. Rural health schemes are slight. Many warn visitors against traveling outside the cities at night.

On the Chinese-built road north of Sanaa that runs to the spectacular mountain fortress town of Hajja, where the imam kept his opponents in dungeons, it does not take long to run into roadside vendors selling fruit, smuggled in from Saudi Arabia to circumvent a ban imposed in October 1983 to cut foreign exchange loss. On the road south from Sanaa, past a landscape of water towers (nuba) and hillside terraces, there were eight marakiz al-taftish (roadblocks), designed both to find smugglers and their wares and to check vehicles for arms belonging to the underground National Democratic Front. (One’s bags and books are also carefully scrutinized at the airport.) The war of the 1960s and the influx of emigrants’ monies in the 1970s have not decisively weakened tribal loyalties in the countryside: they have, rather, provided new ways in which people can amass local power, bending and adapting the traditional forms of control to take advantage of the new, plentiful supplies of guns and money. For a little while now, the government has banned tribesmen from bringing arms into the largest cities. But outside Sanaa and Ta‘izz most men carry them, and the government’s ability to control these areas directly remains limited. Such control as exists is mediated by tribal chiefs. The Saudis still give subsidies to the northern tribes, an estimated $60 to $80 million each year.

The city to which Sanaa bears greatest resemblance is Kabul. There is the same smell of eucalyptus trees, the same sense of altitude and dust, of harsh sunlight on the sharp bare mountains around the town, of hooting cars, of an atypical, often beleaguered urban setting threatened by a counterrevolutionary, tribal world beyond. There are times in North Yemen when one wonders how the republic ever survived the onslaughts of the 1960s. Nor does the comparison with Kabul end there, for in the main square of the city, the Midan al-Tahrir, named after its Egyptian counterpart and stretching away from the former palace of the imams, there stands, as in Kabul, a Soviet-built T-34 tank, on a pedestal, with a little garden and an “eternal flame.” The tank in Kabul reportedly had burst into what was the palace of President Daud in April 1978, beginning the Great Saur Revolution; the one in Sanaa was used to attack the imam’s palace on the night of September 26, 1962.

The Revolution and the State

Despite all its conservatism and social confusion, the YAR remains a country that has gone through a revolution. The old political order was destroyed: The imam lives in exile in Kent, England, and his many relatives are in Saudi Arabia. The old ruling caste of sada, who controlled much of the state and judicial processes in the pre-1962 period, and who presented themselves as direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, no longer hold power as a social group. Some, as individuals, are influential in the affairs of state, and others can be seen still walking the streets, with their janbias (daggers) in the sayyid position — in the middle, instead of on one side of their belts. But the monarchy and its associated caste have been destroyed. With this, North Yemen was wrenched into the capitalist market over the past two decades with a vengeance.

The legitimacy of the revolution is important in the regime of President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. The slogans around Sanaa proclaim his loyalty to the “glorious September 26 revolution.” Television programs for children show the old days of the imam’s tyranny, and then picture the coming of the revolution, the expansion of education and establishment of justice. The imam’s palaces, where Imam Yahya, under the influence of morphine, would play with his imported toys and a slave would crank up the lift with a winch, are now museums of the revolution or hotels. The main street in Sanaa is named after one of the organizers of the 1962 revolution, a man who died in the first days, ‘Abd al-Mughni. The three main streets in Ta‘izz are called September 26, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Liberation.

This proclamation of a revolutionary ideology has recently taken a new twist in the process of collaboration and rivalry with the South. Just as in the PDRY, where President ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad has three titles, dutifully repeated after every mention of his name (secretary-general of the party, chairman of the council of ministers, president of the Supreme People’s Council), so in the YAR, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih has acquired his ritual triplet — the brother president of the republic, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and secretary of the General People’s Congress, the 1,000-strong body equivalent of a government party.

In the competition for revolutionary legitimacy and loyalty to the values of Arab and Yemeni nationalism combined, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih leaves little to chance. His picture is everywhere. Yet a less likely champion of revolutionary and nationalist values could hardly be found. ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, born in 1943 of a minor sheikhly family in Sanhan, south of Sanaa, served as an artillery officer in the armed forces, and won his reputation fighting the leftwing opposition in the 1970s. In 1977, when the Saudis and their tribal allies accused President Ibrahim al-Hamdi of increasing relations with the South much too rapidly and overtly, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih was widely credited with personally having slain al-Hamdi. With the death in 1978 of al-Hamdi’s successor, the conservative Ahmad al-Ghashmi, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih became president. Few people here or outside the country expected him to survive for long. He is no orator: His first speeches were, in the words of one foreign observer, “extremely painful.” Several military uprisings and assassination attempts followed in 1978-9, but he survived them all; he routed his opponents and appears now to have consolidated his position. The Eighteenth Brumaire of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih has created a Yemeni Bonapartism. His tight security, epitomized in a sprawling and electronically fortified official residence on the hilly outskirts of Ta‘izz, leaves little to chance. His bodyguard numbers several hundred, mainly members of his own Sanhan tribe. Salih has grasped the reins of government and built a rudimentary state system below him.

The YAR state, weak as it is, is considerably stronger than it was a decade ago. Salih has expanded and strengthened the army and other security forces, relying on personnel from his tribe and on military officers close to him. One brother, Muhammad ‘Abdallah Salih, is deputy minister of interior. A national army now exists for the first time in North Yemen. In 1982, it was allocated 1,810 million Yemeni riyals compared to 580 million for health and education. At the same time, the president has brought considerable numbers of civilians, including many southerners with no tribal loyalties, into the state, and he has won the grudging acceptance of many who fought for the republic in the 1960s. The prime minister, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ‘Abd al-Ghani, is a US-educated economist who has held the post for most of the years since 1975. The foreign minister, and former prime minister, ‘Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, comes from one of the most powerful republican families. The lower echelons of the apparatus are laced with kin networks and corruption. But for many people, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih at least offers one thing: peace, internally and with South Yemen. There is now the possibility for the YAR to catch its breath after the civil war of the 1960s, in which up to a quarter of a million people lost their lives, and the fighting and assassinations that punctuated the 1970s. Their calculation on government consolidation and a prudent Yemeni nationalism has led many Yemenis to support this hybrid regime of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, a fusion of tribal faction, military apparatus and civilian recruitment.

The Twenty Years’ War

The apparent consolidation of the YAR state underlines the degree to which the politics of this region, albeit greatly influenced by external forces in the Arab world and beyond, also have their own special character and dynamic. The Yemens as a whole are a rather special part of the Middle East, separate and distinct, even as they participate in and are influenced by the turmoils of the larger Arab world.

The two Yemens have been the site of some of the most momentous upheavals of the modern Arab world. But the outside world, including the rest of the Arab states, tends to take notice of the two Yemens only when these acquire, or are invested with, broader international significance. The Egyptian intervention in North Yemen from 1962 to 1967, the turmoil of the British withdrawal from South Yemen and the growth of Soviet influence there after 1967, and the strategic implications of conflict between the Yemens — these have provided focus for external concern and attention. In fact, though, the dynamic of regional politics in southwest Arabia has a lot more to do with local issues and changes than most observers realize. The rest of the world looks very different from Sanaa (and Aden) once this is taken into account.

Three general considerations can help to place the region in a more accurate focus. In the first place, the two Yemens form a natural and historical unity, a region of settled agriculture and civilization that has existed for over 2,000 years. Like the Nile Valley and the cities of Mesopotamia, they represent one of the historic cores around which the contemporary Middle East is built, long predating nationalism or the modern state. This is often obscured if we attend only to the divisions of recent history, especially those of colonial rule, which separated Aden from the Yemeni hinterland and later devolved into two separate, often hostile states disputing the claim to represent Yemeni legitimacy.

The degree of unity is, at the same time, overstated by contemporary nationalists. They not only underestimate the local and tribal divisions that still divide Yemeni society from within, but also the degree to which two separate and unassimilable states have now arisen in this single cultural historical region. The ratchet effects of post-colonial state formation cannot be easily reversed. The practical implications of this historic unity are still significant, though. There is, for one thing, a deep popular sense that the Yemenis are a people with a single history and identity who must seek cooperation as well as peace. There is also a popular sense of what they, as Yemenis, are not, a sense that the Arabian Peninsula has long been divided between the settled and the nomads, between the sons of ‘Adnan and those of Qahtan. In today’s political terms, this means in particular that the Yemenis sharply distinguish themselves from Saudi Arabia.

This historic division of the peninsula has been compounded by oil, the second general factor in evaluating the regional and international position of the two Yemens. Some oil deposits have been found recently in both states, but no oil in major quantities has yet been conclusively identified. Despite the great differences in the way the two Yemens are organized, both depend to a considerable extent on income from the oil states. Both are, in a certain sense, tributary of the other peninsula countries. This bond is maintained in two ways. One is via official aid, a vital factor in the economy and state finances of North Yemen, and a significant one in the budget of the South. In the YAR, foreign aid accounted for 17 percent of GNP in 1982. The other means by which oil wealth flows to these states is through the remittances of emigrants. More than one million Yemenis, out of a population of 7.5 million, live in the other peninsula states (mostly in Saudi Arabia), and their earnings make up much of the two Yemens’ foreign exchange income. (According to YAR statistics, in 1981, the nearly 1.4 million Yemeni workers outside the country actually outnumbered the active male labor force of 1.2 million inside the country.) YAR remittances, at some $1 billion a year, come to around 40 percent of GNP.

This proximity and link to the oil states also has negative consequences: Needed labor is attracted by the higher wages available abroad. Local wages have risen spectacularly, as have land prices, and sections of the economy have become dependent upon foreign income or foreign imports, to the detriment of other priorities and local production. The decline of food production in North Yemen has made this potentially rich agricultural country reliant on imports for 30 percent of food supplies. This is one example of the warping effect of the link to the oil-producing economies. The abandoned terraces that litter the mountains of the interior tell their own tale.

This link is also closely related to the third common and distinctive feature of the two Yemens: In a peninsula of six monarchies, these two states are republics, a result of the revolutions both countries went through in the 1960s. No revolution makes a clean sweep of the old order and its culture, but these continuities should not obscure the fact that very widespread political and social changes did occur, involving the mobilization and combativity of significant parts of the population in both states.

As nearly always happens, these Yemeni revolutions acquired an international character. For one thing, they sought to encourage like-minded political forces elsewhere in the peninisula. ‘Abdallah al-Sallal, the first North Yemeni president, opened an Office of the Arabian Peninsula in 1963 and called for the overthrow of the Saudi monarch and the creation of a united socialist Arabia. His republic also gave support to the guerrillas in South Yemen. The National Liberation Front in the south came to power committed to encouraging the guerrillas in neighboring Oman, and to supporting the radical republicans in the North opposed to compromise with the royalists and with Saudi Arabia.

The opponents of these revolutions were equally concerned to internationalize them, by aiding the opponents in North and South. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has sought to contain and, if possible, reverse the upheavals in the two Yemens. This internationalization of the Yemeni revolutions has had a powerful divisive effect as the two independent states differed more and more after 1967. They fought two border wars, in 1972 and 1979, and until 1982 each repeatedly gave support and encouragement to opponents of the other.

The North Yemeni revolution of September 1962 set off a process of political and social conflict in southwest Arabia that spread from the north to the south and then to the Dhofar region of Oman. It was only in 1982 that this 20-year war came to an end, with the cessation of the guerrilla war in North Yemen and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Oman and South Yemen. (The Omani guerrillas, active in Dhofar, had been effectively crushed in late 1975.) The policies of the two Yemens can therefore be regarded as located within this specific and in some ways novel environment — of consciousness of the Yemens as a distinct and regional entity, of a difficult and yet inescapable dependence on the oil-producing states, and of a revolutionary past that has, at least temporarily, given way to a new period of peace and consolidation.

The View from Sanaa

The end of North Yemen’s civil war in 1970 produced a coalition government in which elements from the royalist camp joined with the republicans. Conflict emerged within the republican camp, as some left-wing groups refused to accept the peace and others on the right thought that the government was going too far in enforcing central control of the tribes. President al-Iryani was ousted in June 1974; his successor Ibrahim al-Hamdi was assassinated in 1977; and al-Hamdi’s successor, Ahmad al-Ghashmi, was killed by a bomb apparently sent from South Yemen in 1978. The left-wing forces fought a guerrilla war from 1971 to 1973, and again, after the death of al-Hamdi, from 1978 to 1982. President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s consolidation of power with a more effective central state apparatus and a stronger central army, and the defeat of the left-wing National Democratic Front, has been offset by a serious economic problem. Foreign revenues have stagnated. The YAR budget deficit equals 30 percent of GDP. Its exports are minimal. Workers’ remittances have leveled off and are expected to decline in the period ahead. The crisis of October 1983, when a new cabinet was installed and stringent import controls imposed, signaled the end of North Yemen’s easy reliance on wealth from the oil states. The discovery of some oil in July 1984 by Hunt Oil may alleviate these problems, but the scale of the discovery is as yet unclear, and in any case would not be productive for at least half a decade more.

For reasons of economy, therefore, as well as because of  influence which it wields within North Yemen, Saudi Arabia remains the main point of reference for YAR foreign policy. The Saudis have in the past suspended payments to YAR governments when these have pursued policies of which they disapprove. Through their direct links to the northern tribes, and in particular to the Hashid group of Sheikh ‘Abdallah al-Ahmar, they have an alternative to direct financial pressure upon the government itself. The Saudis are aware that overt pressure will only antagonize the Yemenis, and so they have kept their influence steady but indirect. The Saudis’ primary aim is to keep a friendly government in power in Sanaa, and to prevent it from establishing too close relations with either the USSR or the PDRY. But Saudi Arabia has also to contend with other Arab influences in the YAR — Egypt in the past, and more recently Iraq and Libya have sought influence within the armed forces.

No political parties are permitted in the YAR. The official government political body is the 1,000-member General People’s Congress, 700 of whom are elected and 300 nominated by the president. It acts as a surrogate ruling party, channeling political action and patronage, and its charter is used for two-hourly political orientation classes in government offices every week. Censorship is extremely tight, and none of the major upheavals of recent years — even the 1979 war with South Yemen — was mentioned at all in the government press.

Shadowy political coalitions, involving the military, tribal and urban intellectual elements, have existed since before the days of the civil war. Many believe that the pro-Iraqi Baathists still have some influence. South Yemen has, until recently, supported the National Democratic Front. In recent years, a tendency close to the Muslim Brothers, known locally as the Islamic Front, has gained influence, to a considerable extent via the 23,000 Egyptian teachers in the country. The Islamic Front has gained ground in the university, and many women now wear the nun-like headdress pioneered by Egyptian fundamentalists. This constitutes a new political force friendly to the Saudis and hostile to the PDRY and its supporters in the north. Four of the ministers in the cabinet of October 1983 are believed to be members of the Islamic Front, and the Saudis must see in it a new channel of influence. The president’s brother and deputy minister of interior, Muhammed ‘Abdallah Salih, may be a potential candidate for the loyalties of this group.

North Yemen has been careful to cultivate relations with the various factions of the Arab world. It has been critical of the peace initiatives taken by Egypt, but has not fallen into the rejectionist camp that has severed all ties with Cairo. It has from the start supported Iraq in its war with Iran, and has supplied some of its Soviet equipment to the Iraqis in return for payment. It has received substantial aid from Kuwait and the Emirates, but it is not a candidate for membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the grouping of six Arab oil-producers of the peninsula set up in May 1981. As one high-ranking government official put it to me: “There are reasons why we will not be allowed to join. First, we are a republic. Secondly, we are poor. And thirdly, if they let us in, then they would have to let the Iraqis in as well.”

One of the most curious aspects of the YAR’s foreign policy is its enduring relationship with the USSR. Moscow first established diplomatic relations with Sanaa in 1923, and during the 1950s supplied arms to the imam. The republic received substantial supplies of arms, directly and via Egypt, and in 1964 signed a 20-year Treaty of Friendship. Although links weakened in the 1970s, the USSR and YAR never clashed publicly, and the YAR armed forces remained reliant upon Soviet weaponry. In 1979, the Soviet Union pulled off its greatest coup, offering $600 million worth of cheap weapons to the YAR just after the US had offered $380 million worth at much more expensive prices. Soviet arms deliveries in 1979 and 1980 helped the YAR army to reequip itself and launch the counteroffensive against the NDF guerrillas. In October 1981, President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih visited Moscow, where he declared support for a range of Soviet foreign policy positions on Camp David, the Red Sea, and the arms race. He visited Moscow again in October 1984, when the YAR and the USSR signed a Treaty of Friendship and Coooperation. Sanaa has evidently decided that this Soviet supply line assists it in keeping independent of the Saudis, while Moscow places greater value upon the maintenance of this historic tie, and the support of a counterweight to Saudi Arabia, than upon endorsement of the NDF’s revolutionary program.

Despite US embarrassment at this Soviet advantage, the West appears content with recent developments in the YAR. The growth in central government strength, and President Salih’s skillful use of traditional political skills, have reassured them after the uncertain beginnings of his presidency in 1978 and 1979. The majority of the YAR’s trade is with the West. A significant number of aid programs are underway in the YAR, and US military personnel are active in training the air force, whose F-4s were earlier flown by Taiwanese pilots. But Western countries have proved less welcome to Sanaa’s increasingly insistent demand for increased economic aid from OECD states. Overall priorities, a sense that the Saudis must play a leading role in helping out, and some doubt as to the fate of funds provided to the YAR government, must all play a role in this.

Unity or Coexistence?

Both the YAR and the PDRY talk of unity at some time in the future. Both are too suspicious of each other, and have too great an investment in their separate state structures, to risk that.

The “unity process” does bring some concrete benefits to each side. It encourages a sense of non-belligerency between the two governments, and a reining in of the elements within their own states which seek to overthrow the government of the other. The NDF remains an organized force in South Yemen, and the National Coalition, a gathering of exiles from the South, maintains a position in the North. But after 20 years of conflict, a more durable coexistence between the two Yemens does seem to have emerged.

Unity involves certain forms of cooperation — in joint companies for tourism, shipping and insurance, and in collaboration between the educational ministries and writers of the two countries. A Yemeni Council, composed of the presidents of the two states and selected ministers, meets every six months to discuss “unity,” and a 136-article draft constitution has been prepared: but the meetings of the council so far have yielded no specific decisions, and the unpublished text of the constitution is being “studied” by the two presidents. Unity in the sense of a merger of the two states is almost inconceivable. Like all neighbors, the two Yemeni revolutions are condemned to living with each other.

The problem of unity between the two Yemens is nevertheless posed as sharply by the impossibility of a real unification as it would be by any prospect of a fusion of the two states. The YAR and the PDRY are locked into a relationship that is both close and conflictual, because of their shared characteristics and because of the divergent and competitive outcomes of their two revolutions and the two state structures that resulted from them. Each needs the other, and needs to sustain a politics of Yemeni nationalism, to balance their international alignments and maintain domestic legitimacy. Yet, albeit now in a more peaceful form, the competition between them continues. “Peaceful coexistence” in Southwest Arabia has all the contradictory interaction of its more global East-West version, since it is the coexistence of the two social and political systems that must continue while both have to avoid an outright war.

For the YAR, this third post-revolutionary decade contains important opportunities and difficulties. The 1960s were marked by the civil war and the intervention into Yemeni politics of the broader monarchical-republican divisions of the Arab world. The 1970s were a decade in which instability at the governmental level and the recurrent challenge of the radical republican left were overlain by Soviet-American competition in the Arabian Peninsula. The decade of the 1980s is dominated by the still unresolved questions of how far the old institutions of Yemeni society will shape and dominate the new state structure and the economy, and how far the discovery of indigenous oil reserves will lessen the YAR’s reliance on Saudi Arabia. At the end of each of the first two decades, a certain resolution of the major problems occurred: The survival of the republic, albeit in a warped form, after the 1960s, and the defeat of the radical republicans, combined with the evolution of the curiously balanced and active relationship with both Moscow and Washington, after the second decade. An ultimate assessment of the results of the 1962 revolution must, however, await the resolutions of the open questions of the third decade, in terms of the pattern of socioeconomic development within the YAR, the evolution of the competitive coalition with the South, and the broader place of the two republican post-revolutionary Yemens within the pattern of Arabian Peninsula politics as a whole.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "North Yemen Today," Middle East Report 130 (February 1985).
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