On May 22, 1990, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (the PDRY, or South Yemen) and the Yemen Arab Republic (the YAR, or North Yemen) joined to become the Republic of Yemen. “A Tale of Two Families” reflects the malaise in North Yemen on the eve of unification; the situation in the south, since the 1986 street battles in Aden, was even worse. [1]

Unity offered beneficial economies of scale in oil, power, administrative apparatus and tourism. It made political sense, too, reflecting the view of most Yemenis that the division into separate countries was artificial and imposed.

Formal unification heralded unprecedented pluralism and political opening. Televised debates in Parliament, dominated by the former ruling parties of the YAR and the PDRY, the General People’s Congress and the Yemeni Socialist Party, exposed bureaucratic corruption. Some three dozen new parties, of Nasserist, Baathist, liberal and religious orientations, began publishing newspapers and organizing for May 1992 elections. Sanaa University students demonstrated to replace national security police with student workers as campus guards. Military checkpoints virtually disappeared from Sanaa, Aden, and the highway between them. In June and July of 1990, the mood was like that in Prague.

The sudden suspension of Saudi, Kuwaiti and Iraqi aid, the embargo of Iraqi oil shipments, the collapse of tourism and the decline in regional commerce cost Yemen nearly $2 billion in 1990, although a sudden infusion of migrants’ remittances cushioned the blow. While ministries struggled to pay faculty and health workers’ salaries previously financed from the Gulf, investment plans were scaled back, the riyal’s value dropped, prices rose sharply, and a half-million returnees camped outside Sanaa.

Yemen’s refusal to join the coalition caused the deepest rift in Washington-Sanaa relations since June 1967, but it also captured US attention. Secretary of State James Baker visited Sanaa but failed to persuade the government to join the US-Saudi axis. President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih repeated Yemen’s condemnation of Iraq’s invasion but observed that intervention by a massive multinational force was liable to “destabilize the entire region.”

American dependents, the Peace Corps, USAID, the US Information Agency, their European counterparts and business people gradually evacuated Yemen. Once the war began, the remaining 20 US diplomats and Marines moved into the embassy, and oil industry employees stayed off the streets. Yemeni media now carried Baghdad’s war coverage, along with denunciations of Voice of America and the BBC. After some demonstrations, and then a calm, someone threw grenades at the Sanaa International School, there were small explosions at several embassies, and the heavily fortified US compound came under machine-gun fire from a passing car.

For all its popularity, Yemeni unification is anathema to Saudi Arabia. Although the YAR’s more conservative social, economic and political system appeared to dominate the new union, a unified Yemen of 13 or 14 million people posed a potential military threat, the Saudis felt, and its relative freedom of press, assembly and participation, including women’s participation, could set a dangerous example. Riyadh tersely congratulated the new republic, but covertly subsidized an opposition “reform” party of conservative tribes and fundamentalists.

Washington has traditionally dealt with North Yemen through Riyadh. [2] Sanaa got a modest $30 million or so annually in US development assistance, but the PDRY was on the State Department’s list of “terrorist states.” Economic plans of the unified state called for freer trade and investment, and Soviet influence seemed on the wane. When ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih became the first Yemeni president to visit Washington in January 1990, two months after being designated to lead the future unified state, the Bush administration approved $50 million in trade credits. YAR ambassador Muhsin al-‘Ayni stayed on in Washington, while the PDRY’s ‘Abdallah al-Ashtal remained as the new country’s UN delegate.

It was against the backdrop of this most important event in its recent history that Yemen responded to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Initially opinion was divided, but the balance shifted after Saddam Hussein, in his first major speech of the crisis, declared that Iraq had been inspired by the Yemeni example to pursue Arab unity by erasing colonial boundaries, and Saudi commentators lambasted Sanaa for refusing to commit troops to the kingdom’s defense. The Saudi request for US troops to confront Iraq prompted extraordinary protest demonstrations, and the consensus at many qat chews shifted decisively against Saudi Arabia. At the same time, pro-Saudi elements formed a Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Kuwait.

Mindful of both the public mood and longer term interest in maintaining ties with the West and the Gulf, the government declared and held to a policy of neutrality. The Salih regime condemned the invasion, hostage taking and annexation, but did not support sanctions or use of force resolutions. UN representative al-Ashtal became the Security Council’s most prominent, consistent advocate for diplomacy.

The Al Saud took this neutrality as an affront. They cut aid in August. Next, they summarily revoked special residence and working privileges for over a million of the Yemenis in the kingdom, life-long residents as well as short-term sojourners, forcing the majority to sell what they could at distressed prices and head south.

News of the US bombing of a Baghdad shelter full of civilians and of the ground assault politicized Sanaa as never before. While the Arab League’s minority anti-war faction met at the Hadda Ramada, Tahrir Square overflowed with tens of thousands of enraged students and expelled migrants.

In the confluence of these events — a new nationalism, sudden lifting of political constraints, a war jeopardizing national and individual wellbeing, and a leading role at the UN — Yemenis and their government feel they have found a political voice. Popular slogans against the war and the Gulf monarchies have helped legitimize a regime which, in turn, tried to play a mediating role in the Arab League and the Security Council. Saudi and US “punishment” has so far only heightened a sense of nationalist self-righteousness. This will deepen if Yemen and other poor Arab states that declined to back the war are forced to pay.


[1] For one account, see Fred Halliday, “Moscow’s Crisis Management: The Case of South Yemen,” Middle East Report 151 (March-April 1988).
[2] After the fall of the Shah, the US rushed $100 million in arms to Sanaa when Saudi Arabia requested weapons to protect the YAR from the PDRY. See New York Times, February 12 and 13, 1979; New York Times, February 13, 1979; and Washington Post, December 4, 1986, for articles describing the quid pro quo for Saudi involvement in Iran-contra dealings. The context for these events is discussed by Nadav Safran, Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1985), especially pp. 282-294 and 387-397; and Anthony Cordesman, The Gulf and the Search for Strategic Stability: Saudi Arabia, the Military Balance in the Gulf and Trends in the Arab-Israeli Military Balance (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986). The case for Saudi hegemony is made in Saeed Badeeb, The Saudi-Egyptian Conflict Over Yemen 1962-70 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986).

How to cite this article:

Sheila Carapico "Yemen: Unification and the Gulf War," Middle East Report 170 (May/June 1991).

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