Mon, 15 Aug 1994

A different view of civil war in Yemen

By Mohamed H. Heikal

This is the first of two articles examining the civil war in Yemen.

CAIRO: The recent internecine battles that raged in Yemen were depicted as scenes from a civil war between the northern and southern sides of Yemen. But if we look at what happened from a broader perspective, a different picture emerges, one with ramifications extending beyond the borders of Yemen.

In fact, the war was a chapter in a continuing struggle over the future of the Arabian Peninsula. Involving powerful forces representing global and regional interests, the struggle is rendered still more complex by nationalistic, sectarian and tribal factors. It did not begin with the outbreak of fighting in Yemen; rather, the fighting was a sign that the struggle had reached a critical point.

To understand the issues at stake, it is necessary to look at a map of the Arabian Peninsula, for the best explanation of political motives and dynamics can usually be provided by geography. The map shows it to be a large land mass forming the underbelly of the Gulf, important both in terms of its strategic location and its considerable oil resources.

Politically, the peninsula is made up of a group of states which, despite their enormous wealth, are fragile and vulnerable to external threats. This is due to two factors, one related to demography, the other to legitimacy. All are sparsely populated; all governed by regimes whose legitimacy is still at the early stages of development, being either dynastic or, at best, tribal. This is true of all six Gulf states in the peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

But the Arabian Peninsula is also home to another state, Yemen, which was, until the 1960s, a marginal, not to say absent, player. At that time, the British occupied the south, whose hospitable terrain made it easy to control, and left the mountainous and rugged north under the rule of one of the cruelest and most despotic dynasties in the annals of history.

Founded by Hamid el-Din, it came to an end in 1962 with the death of Imam Ahmed, who had ruled his people with a mixture of sorcery, poison and imprisonment in dank highland caves. After his death, a revolution broke out, whose leaders embarked on a drive to modernize the country. This proved to be no easy task, especially as the process of modernization was accompanied by calls for the reunification of the two Yemens and an end to British rule in the south.

The revolution in Yemen provoked deep unease among the rulers of the other Arabian Peninsula states, who feared that it set a dangerous precedent for their own subjects. But even more worrying than the risk of contamination from new ideas and sociopolitical structures inspired by different ideological models, however, was the fact that, at approximately 14 million, Yemen's population stands at roughly double the combined populations of all the other countries in the peninsula.

Moreover, its strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea, with a southern Ocean, gives it a strong geopolitical advantage.

Ironically, Yemen's high population density worried not only the rulers of neighboring countries, but also its own prerevolution rulers, albeit for different reasons. The last Imam adamantly refused to conduct a census on the grounds that he did not want to invite the envy of other countries and provoke the evil eye! On the other hand, the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia did permit a census to be taken in his kingdom, but found the population count to be so low that he locked the results up in his desk for fear they would detract from his aura of majesty.

The census, taken in 1965, showed the population of Saudi Arabia to be 5 million, of whom 1 million were Yemeni migrant workers. But the Saudi king's decision not to go public with the results was promoted not only by considerations of prestige and image; he must have realized that disclosing results which showed the population of his kingdom, together with those of all the other Gulf states, to be just half the population of Yemen was tantamount to inviting Yemen to live up to its potential as a leading player in the Arabian Peninsula.

That is probably why Saudi Arabia has always been opposed to the unification of North and South Yemen. One of King Fahd's brothers once told me that when their father, the legendary King Ibn Saud, who founded the kingdom and gave it his name, was on his deathbed, he summoned his children (he had 102, of whom 64 were sons) and enjoyed them to "beware of a united Yemen, for it will be a menace for you and for the kingdom you are inheriting." But for a long time after this warning, Ibn Saud's sons and heirs had no reason to worry that Yemen represented any real threat; after all, it was not only dived, but very poor. Their father's advice acquired new relevance, however, following the unification of Yemen in 1990 and the discovery of oil in both the north and the south.

The political temperature in the underbelly of the peninsula was driven still higher by what was happening along its spine, where Iran and Iraq, each with claims toward the peninsula, were pursuing their own regional agendas. The revolution which erupted in Iran in 1979 gave it a new weapon with which to extend its influence far beyond its borders, namely, Islam. Iraq, for its part, sought to consolidate its position with the counter-weapon of pan-Arabism. Thus the spine of the Arabian Peninsula exerted growing pressure on its soft underbelly. To realize how heavy the pressure was, it is necessary only to remember that the population of Iraq is 20 million and of Iran 60 million. Moreover, both countries are rich oil producers with solid industrial and agricultural bases and strong armies equipped with the latest in military technology, Soviet in the case of Iraq, American in the case of Iran, especially in the days of the shah.

As though all this were not enough, powerful global interests have vital stakes in the peninsula, notably, of course, the United States, whose influence is predominant in this complex region today. However, the United States is not averse to allowing Britain, the former colonial power, to play a role, especially in arms sales. And, after the U.S. eagle has had its fill, and the old British lion has fed on the remains, there might even be some scraps left over for France. Finally, Egypt and Syria, who would also like to see any morsel, however small, fall their way.

The rulers of the states occupying the soft underbelly of the Arabian Peninsula, in collaboration with other powers, subtly played on the contradictions between the two regional powers on the peninsula's spine, and succeeded in deepening the rift between them. This led to the first Gulf war, which bled the two countries dry. The Gulf states sided with Iraq in the war because they saw pan-Arabism as a lesser evil than the siren song of militant Shiite Islamism coming out of Iran, which they feared could galvanize the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Iranian Shiites in their countries -- a particularly alarming prospect for Saudi Arabia, whose oil producing Eastern Province is predominantly Shiite.

-- The Daily Yomiuri