Yemen: Sovereign South / Nervous North


May 20, 2020: Fighting continues but not in a very organized or intense fashion. In April there were about a thousand combat related casualties (dead and wounded) nationwide. Most of these were fighters, not civilians. The Saudis have reorganized their depleted (by the UAE and Sudan withdrawing troops this year) ground forces and used their air power mainly to keep the rebels from concentrating forces to carry out any major attacks. This month the violence is down a bit as all Yemenis try to cope with disease (cholera and covid19) as well as food shortages and worsening poverty. Then there is the political stalemate as Shia rebels grow weary after six years of fighting without much to show for it. Southern separatists are further complication matters.

Southern Discomfort

The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and has supported the formation of the STC (South Transitional Council). This group is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but claim they are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader, is seen as more popular in the south than Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, the last and current elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 2015 and spends most of his time in the Saudi capital. This is for Hadi’s safety given the number of assassinations going on in Aden, where the Hadi government was moved to in 2015. The Saudis and the UAE do not agree on dividing Yemen once more but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat the Iran backed Shia rebels. After that, who knows?

The basic problem is that too many Yemenis don’t want to be Yemenis. The country was a patchwork of independent tribes and cities when the English East India Company took control of some Yemeni ports in the 1830s and 40s to support ships going from Britain to India. The Ottoman Turks still controlled most of northern Yemen until 1918, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Britain took over from the Ottomans and established the borders of modern Yemen. But Yemen was still not a unified country. When the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, but a civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and within a decade the north and south were pulling apart again.

The corruption and lack of unity are related to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa (Northeast Africa) region, the normal form of government, until the last century or so, were wealthier coastal city-states, nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both). This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion throughout the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity as in kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship.

Yemen is still all about the tribes. The national government is a bunch of guys who deal with foreigners and try to maintain peace among the tribes. Controlling the national government is a source of much wealth, as officials can steal part of the foreign aid and taxes, mostly on imports or royalties from meager oil exports.

This lack of nationalism means a lack of cooperation or willingness to act in the public interest. Much of the Yemeni agricultural crisis is caused by the fact that Yemen's economic situation has been rapidly deteriorating since the late 20th century. This is largely because the government has done nothing to address the problems of overpopulation, water shortages and Khat. That last item is a narcotic plant that is chewed fresh, requires a lot of water to grow, and is worth a lot of money when smuggled into Saudi Arabia where it is illegal.

There is little willingness to cooperate. Feuding, fighting and blaming others for the mess are the preferred methods for dealing with the problems. Before oil was discovered in Arabia nearly a century ago. Yemen had long been the most powerful and populous part of Arabia because it was the only part of Arabia with regular rains, thanks to the annual monsoon. Most of the oil deposits were at the north end of the Persian Gulf and Yemen lost out there. Yemenis had long despised the less affluent Arabs to the north, but since oil arrived the Yemenis have become despised and they did not take it well. Resentment, envy and a sense of entitlement have combined with the lack of unity to produce Yemen that is a nation in name only. Few others in the region have much sympathy for the Yemenis who are seen as the main cause of their own problems and the main obstacle to solving them.  

The concept of a unified Yemen was largely created by Cold War politics and how Britain handled a threat to their seaborne trade in the early 19th century. That was when Britain took control of Aden. This was partly to shut down the many pirates operating out of there, and increasingly going after British ships traveling between Asia (India, Southeast Asia and China) and Britain. Only Aden was needed but the British made deals with the tribes that occupied most of the southern Yemen coast and had long depended on Aden and other southern ports for supplies and such. Britain made Aden and the smaller southern ports more prosperous with new trading opportunities and provided more benefits for the interior tribes. Most importantly the tribes still had their autonomy, as well as British protection from outsiders. The Suez Canal opened in 1869 and over the next few decades larger, more efficient, steam-powered metal vessels supplanted and replaced wooden sailing ships. That meant a lot more trade moving past and Aden and South Yemen became more prosperous.

When the British left in 1967, as part of the widespread abandonment of colonies by European nations, there was some unrest and fighting in the newly independent South Yemen. This was because Aden was much less religious and traditional with a better educated population, and it was no surprise that Aden and some other South Yemen cities were dominated by local communists. From 1970 until the fall of European communism in 1989, South Yemen was a communist state, subsidized by the Soviet Union, and the only such one in the Arab world.

Most of that enthusiasm for communism was centered in Aden and its suburbs. This is where most of the South Yemen population lived and where an even larger proportion of its GDP came from. A few other coastal cities had the same type of population and political attitudes, giving the urban population control of politics as well as the economy. The tribal minority out in the desert and semi-desert inland areas was much more religious and traditional. But over the centuries the urban and tribal populations had learned to get along and respect each other’s customs.

It was different in northern Yemen, where the urban population was not as dominant and the tribal population was economically better off and about as religious and conservative as their southern counterparts. The problem was the northern and southern tribes saw each other as “foreigners”. This is a common situation in tribal cultures, which includes the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet even then there was some enthusiasm for a united Yemen in the north and south.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union (and European communism) in 1991, the Russian subsidies for the south stopped and unification was suddenly much more appealing. After a few years of haggling, and occasional fighting, Yemen was united by 1994. At that point, there were still factions in the north and south who believed unity was overrated and two Yemens was the way to go. That is no longer the case, not with most of the population surviving on foreign food aid. Many of those hungry Yemenis have to pay Shia rebels for this “free food.” The foreign aid NGOs and the UN complain about this but the Shia rebels are armed and dangerous and the UN is not. Not armed that is.

There is resistance to admitting that Yemen is a failed state, one of those areas (like Somalia and Afghanistan) that were never united for long and are basically several smaller entities that are not really interested in unity with their neighbors who are supposed to be their countrymen. And then there is the corruption problem.

Foreign Irritations

Since mid-2019 the balance of combat power has shifted as the government coalition lost a lot of their ground troops. This was because the UAE (United Arab Emirates) withdrew most of its forces in late 2019 because of disagreements with Saudi Arabia over strategy and fears in the UAE that Iran might attack. The UAE is a smaller country and has fewer troops than Saudi Arabia. The UAE is also more vulnerable (geographically) to Iranian attacks. The Saudis also lost troop contributions from other Moslem states and have not been able to replace them. This stalled the long, slow, methodical and successful government offensive which had pushed the rebels back. The rebels, encouraged by the steadfast and effective support from Iran, held on. The major weapon the Shia rebels had was Saudi fear of an Iran dominated Yemen.

The Saudis have many reasons to fear Iran. Historically the Iranians have always been more effective militarily and that factor is still present. While the Iranians have a tradition of recruiting the most capable men to be officers, the Saudis, and Arabs in general are wary of professional military personnel, especially officers. It’s mostly about fear of a military takeover and the Saudis have crippled their own military by valuing loyalty over competence when it comes to officers, and many troops as well. As a result, the Saudis do not have a lot of troops they can trust to do well in a foreign war. Air Force pilots are another matter but you cannot win a ground war from the air. On the ground, the lack of more talented and experienced ground commanders in Yemen has hurt the Saudis in ways they won’t admit.

The Saudis have a bigger problem with the fact that the rebels are backed by Iran which continues to pay whatever it takes to smuggle in some weapons despite Saudi efforts to tighten the sea, air and ground blockade. Severe Iranian cash flow problems in 2020 have reduced the flow of military aid to the Shia rebels. Yemen is unique in that it is a nation with a disproportionate number of skilled smugglers, many of them willing to work for whoever will pay. If you can’t pay the smugglers they still have plenty of customers who can.

This new situation puts Saudi Arabia in a difficult position. Efforts to negotiate an end of the Yemen war proved unsuccessful as Iranian control over the Shia rebels could not be significantly reduced, at least not yet. The Iranians are determined to maintain their presence in Yemen and on the Saudi border. From there the Iranians can continue to launch attacks on the Saudis, who do not want to commit the ground forces necessary to take control of the adjacent Yemeni provinces that are the homeland of the Shia rebels. The Saudis also have to maintain sufficient forces in northeast Saudi Arabia, where most of the oil is and the Iranian threat has been a problem for decades. At this point, the best thing the Saudis can hope for is that the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran for decades will collapse and be replaced by friendlier and less threatening rulers.

May 18, 2020: In the south (Abyan Province) government troops fought back when STC forces once more sought to drive all government troops out of the province. There were some casualties on both sides.

May 17, 2020: In the south (125 kilometers off the coast) two pirate speed boats tried to seize a British chemical tanker. The armed guards on the tanker fired on the approaching speedboats and the pirates fired back. There was some bullet damage to the tanker, including some glass that was shattered on the bridge. The armed guard on the tanker was more accurate and disabled one of the speedboats and the other one also stopped to deal with that. It was unclear if the pirates were from Somalia or Yemen. Some of the Islamic terror groups in Yemen has tried to rob or seize ships off the coast.

May 15, 2020: In central Yemen (Baida province) Shia rebels staged several attacks on government positions but were repulsed. The army counterattacked and pushed some Shia forces back. The government believes the Shia forces are weakened by the recent deaths of some senior combat leaders as well as diseases (cholera and covid19.) The rebels deny they have medical problems but the reports coming out of rebel-held territory says otherwise. Many supporters of the rebels are getting fed up with the war that seems to be a stalemate made worse by increasing economic problems.

Further south (Taiz and Dhalea provinces) Shia rebels fired on government and STC forces but did not attempt to advance. This fighting has been going on for about a week but to no effect.

In the north (near the Red Sea port of Hodeida) government forces seized a shipment of ammunition intended for the rebels. Smuggling has become more difficult for the rebels because Iran is short of cash and there are more factions seeking to find and seize smuggler goods headed for rebel territory.

May 7, 2020: In central Yemen (Marib province) a senior rebel combat commander, Mohammad al-Hamran, was killed while leading his Hezbollah trained brigade in battle. Iran recognized Hamran as an exceptional commander and provided him with additional equipment and advisors. The Hamran led brigade was considered the elite unit of the Shia forces.

May 5, 2020: In the north, outside Saana, the Shia rebels fired two ballistic missiles towards Saudi Arabia but both missiles failed and landed inside Yemen, far short of their targets. There has been a notable decline in quality control for the Iran supplied ballistic missiles the rebels continue to use. Iranian arms smuggling efforts have also been less energetic, and effective, in 2020.

May 2, 2020: So far this year there have been more than 100,000 new cases of cholera in the south, where there have also been unusually heavy rains and flooding. Southern Yemen is the only part of the Arabian Peninsula to get adequate (for widespread agriculture) rainfall and that’s largely because of the annual monsoon rains. Some years the monsoon delivers too much water and there is a lot of flooding. There have also been a growing number of covid19 deaths in Aden, the largest city in the south.

April 25, 2020: The UAE declared that it would not support self-rule by the southern separatists (the STC). The UAE is the chief financial supporter of the STC and going against the openly declared UAE policy would leave the STC broke and more vulnerable. The UAE wants the STC to comply with the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement that was supposed to bring peace to the separatist south and between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The separatist south would be recognized and have autonomy. But the south would also remain part of united Yemen. Saudi troops would be stationed in the south to handle operations against the Shia rebels and to monitor compliance of the agreement. Much of the agreement was not implemented. The STC complained that the UAE was not providing enough cash and other aid. The STC played down the fact that there were STC factions demanding independence for the south.

April 23, 2020: A two week Saudi-sponsored ceasefire ended without the Shia rebels participating. The Saudis had proposed the ceasefire so more attention could be directed at covid19 and other health and welfare problems. The rebels insisted they had no such problems.


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