The fight for Yemen, then and now

This is the first installment of a two-part series by Arabist regular Paul Mutter on the history of conflict in Yemen. With some great quotes from the reporting of the day. 

“Order,” the New-York Tribune opined of Yemen in 1898, “will be supplied from outside,” and with the coming of foreign rule “there will be peace, and the Yemen will no more be the Yemen it has been for forty centuries.” Of course, this proved not to be the case even in the Tribune’s day, as Yemenis successfully threw off Turkish rule during the Arab Revolt (1916-18), pushing aside local collaborators in favor of a reinvigorated monarchy that soon found itself hard-pressed to impose central authority.

That has never been an easy task in Yemen. The 1962-70 civil war was fought between and among all of the tribes of “North Yemen” in large part to decide who would be allowed to wield such authority. The contest between the Houthis and the central government began in 2004 after decades of putsches and protests among the ruling Zaydi Shia clans against the Saleh family, whose patriarch, the 73-year old Ali Abdullah, held the presidency until 2011 and now conspires with his former Houthi enemies to return to power.

Alongside these long-running internal struggles to consolidate power or gain autonomy runs an intersecting line of outsiders’ efforts to impose their will upon Arabia Felix -- “Arabia the Lucky,” a name from antiquity that now seems cruelly ironic in light of Yemen’s perennial humanitarian and environmental crises. Saudi Arabia, the UK, Egypt, Russia, and most recently, the United States and Iran: all have done battle over southern Arabia. Yemen’s political history has been shaped by such interventions, though outsiders rarely got what they wanted. None have brought the sort of “order” the Tribune predicted would follow a benevolent foreign occupation.

The most recent conflict – featuring a coalition of ten Arab states, Iran, the “southern movement” for succession, the Houthis and the Salehs, al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Sunni-led government-in-exile among others – is proof enough of the challenges that lie ahead. But two earlier conflicts also illustrate the pitfalls and failures of interventions.

The first of these conflicts took place in 1934, when the armies of King Ibn Saud of the House of Saud and Imam Yahya of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, or “Imamate,” met one last time to decide who would control what had been the Ottoman Vilayet of Yemen. The territory that Imam Yahya, leader of the Zaydi Shia, had wrested from the Ottomans during the Arab Revolt originally included much of the present-day Saudi provinces of Jizan, Najran, Asir, and Al Bahah. When WWI ended, these were semi-independent emirates trying to avoid getting drawn into either Yahya or Ibn Saud’s spheres of influence. And they were, as now, among the most fertile in the Arabian Peninsula. The terrain, the ports, and the peoples of the region constituted a great prize, especially for the Mutawakkilite Kingdom’s agrarian economy. As an Australian newspaper asked, “Who shall be the Lord of Arabia?”

Yahya was determined it would be him. He envisioned a “Greater Yemen” that included the fertile coastal provinces the Saudis desired and the rest of southern Arabia, then under British colonial rule. The Imam sponsored raiding parties and incited revolt wherever he could from 1918 to 1934: against the House of Saud, against the British, and against any emirs he chose to make an enemy of in the region. The distinction between “Yemenis” and “Saudis” was blurry at that time, so changes in allegiance were common and calculated for maximum personal gain by local leaders. Control of the major cities in the southern Hejaz went back-and-forth as alliances were made and broken over the course of a decade. Yahya had far less success against the British in these endeavors. But for a time, it seemed that the Imam might prevail in his proxy war with the Saudis at least. Defections from the Saudi camp in 1932 emboldened the Imam to take more direct measures, sending his forces into Saudi Arabia proper in 1933. The Christian Science Monitor reported at the outbreak of full-scale hostilities in 1934 that while Ibn Saud “depends mostly on his tribal warriors” and was “poor,” the “immensely rich” Yahya had “10,000 well-trained troops” experienced in desert and mountain warfare. When the Yemenis besieged the city of Najran, which had sided with the Saudis, they expected a quick victory: Yahya had allegedly dismissed Ibn Saud as a “Bedouin” upstart.

Ibn saud

Ibn saud

He underestimated Ibn Saud. This “Bedouin” had many battle-hardened veterans, too. And they were often carrying modern, British-made arms: the Saudis deployed both camelback cavalry and modern armor in Yemen during the conflict. The Saudi king’s logistics were not as primitive as his poor finances suggested, and his ranks had been purged of dissenters following the failure of the Ikwahn Revolt. Finally, a number of local tribes who had at first shown hospitality to Yahya’s men sided with Ibn Saud or refused to take part in the fighting at all. They had come to resent the Imam’s controlling presence at least as much or more than the Saudis’.

Sectarianism did not influence these decisions as much as local leaders’ sense that the Saudis would give them better terms in exchange for allegiance. Yahya was very generous to those he wished to win over (less so to his subjects, many of whom lived in hideous poverty). Such calculations helped decide the Imam’s defeat, just as they have shaped the current fighting in Yemen among the Houthis and other factions. TIME portrayed the conflict as a clash of personalities as much as of territorial ambitions, suggesting that the appeal of the leaders had much to do with the success of their war effort. “[Imam Yahya] is as crafty and penny pinching as strapping Ibn Saud is brave and generous,” the magazine’s correspondent covering the war wrote.[1]

By May 1934, the turning point had come for the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. Ibn Saud’s forces spent the better part of that month driving down towards Sana’a in three columns, which rapidly captured the Imam’s main port and claimed to seize many “European” weapons there. It is unclear just who supplied them. Perhaps they were sent in by the Italians, smuggled in from British Aden, or bought on the black market somewhere. This ambiguity of supply would become another enduring theme of Yemen’s wars in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1962-70 conflict and the current war, rebels and “government” troops alike carry a motley array of arms seized from one another, supplied by their officially declared foreign allies, silent partners abroad, and opportunistic smugglers.

The twenty-something Prince Faisal, later King Faisal, of Saudi Arabia led the advance down the hill-country, and assured foreign correspondents he would rule all of Yemen on behalf of his father (Prince Saud, later King Saud and Faisal’s predecessor, also fought in the war). But the prince found some Yemenis resented the Saudi Wahhabis’ intrusion deep into their lands. They found fewer willing collaborators the closer they got to the capital. And opportunistic deserters began preying on all parties to the conflict, waging a guerilla war against the invaders (while also resorting to banditry against their countermen). The British in Aden and the Italians in Eritrea began to talk of dispatching troops to protect their interests. The Imam meanwhile overruled his son and successor to sue for peace, fearing that he was about to lose his throne to the Saudis like the Hashemite Sharifs of Mecca had in 1925.

But the Saudis, fearing outside intervention by European powers and the costs of a long war in the Zaydis’ heartland, decided they did not want to take the whole of the kingdom after all. Prince Faisal was not allowed to raise the king’s banner over the royal palace. His forces withdrew from the gates of Sana’a and Riyadh concluded the Treaty of Taif on May 20th. Both sides claimed victory , but the Saudis were the ones who took and kept all of Jizan, Najran, Asir, and Al Bahah. The Imam had at least avoided the Sharifs’ fate and was allowed to reoccupy the ports the Saudis had taken over. Yet he was now clearly subordinate to Riyadh. None of his successors ever challenged this state of affairs. The much-reduced kingdom, still ruled by Yahya until his murder in in 1948 at the hands of a rival Zaydi Shia faction, turned inward to consolidate its power. Though much bitterness remained, the House of Saud managed to patch up most of its differences with the Imamate. Some Yemeni tribes who had used the war to restart their separatist agendas fought on until 1939, but found no Saudi support after the Treaty of Taif was signed. The House of Saud strongly backed Yahya’s unstable son Ahmed in the brief civil war that followed Yahya’s assassination, the same Ahmed who in 1934 wanted to fight the Saudis to the bitter end. And in 1962, when Yahya’s grandson, Imam al-Badr, was deposed by a Nasserist “free officers” coup, the House of Saud and the British in Aden resolved to restore the dynasty and drive out the Egyptians and Soviets. That too, did not go as planned, though it went much worse for the Egyptians than it did for the Saudis.

[1] Lest it be said TIME was simply Orientalizing, Yahya had a reputation as a miser among Yemenis, even before the extent of his personal fortune was discovered upon his death in 1948. His “crafty” custom of taking royal hostages to ensure the loyalty of his governors was indeed unpopular, though it did much to head off coups.