Tue, 16 Aug 1994

A different view of the civil war in Yemen (2)

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

By Mohamed H. Heikal

CAIRO: When the war ended eight years later in victory for Iraq, Baghdad invoked pan-Arabism to claim what it saw as its rightful due for saving its Gulf allies from the scourge of an Islamic Shiite revolution.

But the price it exacted was exorbitant: no less than an entire Gulf state, Kuwait. It was not only the countries in the peninsula's soft underbelly who refused to pay the price; they were joined by all those who had a stake, real or potential, in the region, from the powerful eagle and the old lion to the hopefuls, European and Middle Eastern alike hovering on the sidelines for tidbits to fall their way.

And so the second Gulf War broke out under the command of former U.S. President George Bush, who used the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates to demonstrate the power of new weapons designed initially for use against the Warsaw Pact.

But that was not the end of the story, for great wars are not limited to the movement of armies, whether victorious or vanquished, and it is a truism that war is the midwife of revolution. A struggle in which so many interests, factors and factions were intermeshed has opened the door to questions, ideas and aspirations, many of them legitimate, like: What is the role of the people under the suzerainty of sheiks, families and tribes? Where are human rights and the rule of law in these societies? What happened to the fabulous oil riches these rulers amassed? What is the use of the arms pouring into the region -- in the period 1980 - 1990, arms sales to the region reached a staggering US$1 trillion -- and who is the enemy they will be used against?

Thus no sooner had the cannons of the Gulf Wars fallen silent than voices began to be raised, first softly then more and stridently, in the soft underbelly of the Arabian Peninsula. At a time the countries on the spine, Iran and Iraq, seemed subdued following the devastation visited on them by war, the southernmost tip of the peninsula, Yemen, began to exert a growing influence on its environment, largely because unification was accompanied by freer elections than had ever before been seen in the region. Although this in itself was a healthy phenomenon, the problem is that in politics, health, like disease, can be contagious, especially when it is linked to the call for freedom.

But the realities on the ground were far more complex than a liberal moment which saw the voluntary unification of one people separated into two political entities in the 19th century, who had entered the 20th century totally unprepared and whose aspirations as they stood on the threshold of the 21st century were beyond their ability to fulfill them. The gap between the two is dangerous one, because dreams can collide with realities on the ground at many moment, especially if forces opposed to those dreams actively play on the contradiction between dreams and realities.

And so the dream of unity which the people of Yemen had nurtured for so long collided with reality practically at the moment of its realization. All too soon, the problems which were to plunge Yemen into a dangerous crisis began to emerge, some due to internal others to external, factors.

On the internal front, the leadership of North Yemen imagined that democracy in the new state of Yemen meant counting votes and allocating parliamentary seats accordingly. However, as South Yemen's population was only 2 million versus 12 million in the North, this understanding of democracy created a feeling in the South that the merger between the two was closer to annexation than it was to unification.

At the same time, the former Marxist leaders of South Yemen were severely shaken by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and believed their salvation lay in speeding up the process of unification. They hurriedly embarked on negotiations with the North, in the hope that unification would serve as a bulwark against the upheavals convulsing many other parts of the world following the collapse of socialism.

In a way, the unification of Yemen was like a shotgun wedding that was never properly consummated, not only because external parties were actively working against it, but also because of internal personal, tribal and financial factors. These manifested themselves in patterns of behavior that can only be explained in terms of nomadic desert communities constantly on the move in search of green pastures or water holes in a vast sea of sand. Some examples worth mentioning.

- The vice president of Yemen, who was the president of South Yemen before unification, left the capital, San'a, in a huff and returned to his old headquarters in Aden, where he was joined by the prime minister, also from the South. Meanwhile, their fellow southerner, the foreign minister of Yemen, remained in San'a to defend the constitutional legitimacy of the unification country.

- Some of the leaders of the former Marxist ruling regime in the South, who had carried out bloody purges in which hundreds of thousands perished, and who were more often than not motivated by tribal, rather than ideological considerations, began to employ the same tactics in the northern capital, San'a, which was now the capital of Yemen, sometimes killing off their own people in the ruling regime.

- The petroleum minister, who also hailed from the South, granted an oil concession to a company with Saudi connections, stipulating in the agreement that royalties were to be transferred to the place he designated by ministerial decree. When the time came for him to issue the decrees, the leadership of Yemen was already divided among itself, so he simply ordered the company to transfer tens of millions of dollars to the southern capital, Aden. But as there was no government in Aden after unification, the transfer was made to the Yemeni Socialist Party, headed by the former president of the South Yemen, the vice president of Yemen, who was then sulking in Aden.

- Some of the Arab leaders who tried to mediate in the crisis, including Sultan Qabus of Oman, President Mubarak of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, soon realized that the warring parties were driven by old vendettas and resentments and discontinued their efforts, which were, at any rate, often at cross-purposes.

- Some of the Gulf states intervened in the crisis for reasons of their own: Saudi Arabia because it saw the unification of Yemen as a threat, Kuwait because it wanted to punish Yemen for its pro-Iraqi stand in the second Gulf War.

Indeed, there are signs that the civil war was meant to end with the division of Yemen not only into two parts again, but into three: North, South and the central province of Hadramut, where most of the oil reserves are located and which over-look the Indian Ocean.

- In one of the more bizarre episodes of this strange war, the U.S. Fleet in the Red Sea intercepted two Egyptian ships carrying Saudi arms to the secessionist in Aden. Washington appealed to all Arab governments to refrain from intervening in the Yemen crisis, warning that the entire Arabian Peninsula was poised on the brink of a dangerous abyss.

Like the North in the American civil war, North Yemen managed to preserve unity by force of arms. But while unity could be sustained in the first case because the Atlantic served as a buffer against outside intervention. Yemen's newly restored unity does not enjoy that kind of geographical protection. Surrounded as it is by hostile forces, Yemen is probably aware that its victory on the battlefield marks only the end of one chapter in what promises to be along saga. For Saudi Arabia will not tolerate a strong, unified Yemen on its doorstep. Moreover, Riyadh is worried that victory might tempt San'a to reopen the files on its historical claims to Jizan and Najran, which Saudi Arabia annexed by war in the 1930s. As far as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikhdoms are concerned, the military victory scored by Northern forces in Yemen has opened a Pandora's box of troubles that must be slammed shut as quickly as possible.

As matters now stand, the entire Arabian Peninsula is caught in a limbo between a past that refuses to go away and a future that remains tantalizingly out of reach. Between the two is a present fraught with historical rivalries, inherited suspicions and seething resentments, a present that is trying to cling to an anachronistic status quo even has change, already long overdue, is knocking on the door.

The writer, Egyptian journalist and writer, was editor in chief of Al-Ahram newspaper for 18 years.