Welcome to the second installment of contributor Paul Mutter's fascinating history of conflict in Yemen. Here he focuses on Egypt's 1960s intervention, when Nasser and his generals sent thousands of troops to support a coup against the Saudi-backed ruling monarchy there.
In 1962, shortly before their own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen began, Egyptian advisors who had been stationed there to reform the ruling Imam’s army spoke respectfully of how the locals had managed to defeat all of the Ottoman forces sent to the region in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, this respect was absent at the highest levels of command back in Cairo when it launched its own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen. The Nasserists by and large regarded Yemen as a backwater led by a medieval despot and populated by superstitious primitives, much as Western publications did during the 1934 Saudi invasion.
Major General Saladin al-Hadidi, as recounted by Jesse Ferris in Nasser’s Gamble, was so dismissive of the Yemenis he told a colleague who had just returned from North Yemen that given enough whizz-bangs and smoke machines, he could put on such a display as to freeze royalists guerillas in their tracks. Mr. al-Hadidi’s military intelligence directorate could not supply the Egyptian armed forces with accurate maps of the countryside immediately outside of Sana’a. Cairo quite literally did not bother painting an accurate picture of the place it went to war over.
Believing that North Yemen was the weakest link of the Arab monarchies, Egypt’s leaders enthusiastically greeted a September 1962 coup against the country’s hereditary Zaydi leader, Imam al-Badr, by a military faction led by a lower class Zaydi named Abdullah al-Sallal (later “President-Field Marshal” Sallal). Sallal’s co-conspirators styled themselves as “free officers” like those who had deposed Egypt’s King Farouk in 1952, proclaiming an end to slavery and a reign of terror against the Imam’s supporters. As soon as they took over the capital, Gamal Abdel Nasser rushed in arms, advisors, money, and “Free Yemeni” émigrés (one of whom was married to Anwar Sadat’s sister) that had been on standby for just such an occasion. Never mind that al-Badr had been more favorably inclined towards the Egyptians and Soviet bloc than his mentally ill father Ahmed (d. 1962) had been. Or that Nasser himself had let this weakest link, “medieval” monarchy and all, join Cairo in a defense pact in 1958 to spite the Saudis.
If Egypt did not set the precise date for the coup, it had at least approved the concept of a putsch by Nasserist sympathizers in advance. It is clear that Cairo was well prepared for such a scenario, having been buying up Soviet airplanes to allow them to intervene in Yemen on short notice, broadcasting venomous propaganda, and grooming the “Free Yemenis” to return in triumph.
Nasser was frustrated by failures elsewhere in the Arab world, failures he had come to blame on Saudi Arabia and Britain. Two years earlier, his beloved United Arab Republic had collapsed as the result of a Syrian Army coup that he had been powerless to reverse. So Nasser decided to bring Yemen into his fold and, for good measure, incite a revolt on the Saudi border. The Army, convinced of its superiority despite its poor showing during the 1956 Suez Crisis and embroiled in an internal power struggle among the “Free Officers,” marched alongside the president with blinders on.
Cairo first deployed 100 soldiers, mainly to protect the Soviet and Egyptian advisors already present in the new “Yemen Arab Republic” (YAR). That number soon mushroomed to 5,000 and kept climbing as the counterinsurgency intensified. 55,000 men were deployed in North Yemen by the middle of the decade, possibly upwards of 70,000. Even though the Egyptians, backed by Soviet equipment and pilots, claimed victory after victory, Nasser apparently began looking for an “out” as early as 1963 due to the effects of the war on Egypt’s international image and domestic stability.
Many Yemenis fought against the republicans not to restore the unpopular monarchy, but out of resentment of the Egyptians and to resist the YAR’s efforts to centralize power. When peace eventually did come about – an uneasy one to be sure, punctuated in years to come by coups and small revolts – it was because enough Sunni and Shia tribes felt secure in the new republican system to lay down (but not turn over) their arms.
The weakest link in North Yemen at first proved to be the Egyptian and YAR armed forces: the former performed poorly against the Imam’s mountain guerillas, while the latter’s formations would often dissolve in mass desertions. “Without scruple but [also] without much skill” was the late Patrick Seale’s assessment of how the air force performed in a 1963 report for the The New Republic. What was supposed to be a showcase for a new Soviet-supplied and trained force turned into a series of costly defeats in the first few years of the conflict, with Seale noting that a little over a year into their intervention, the Egyptians had lost about 10% of the forces committed. Though the army’s performance gradually improved after 1964, the cost of the war adversely affected Nasser’s socialist economic agenda at home. Growing domestic dissent and the humiliating loss of the Sinai to the Israelis made Egypt focus on peace talks and a “Yemenization” of the conflict after 1967. Humiliatingly, Nasser had to ask the Saudis for financial aid at the Khartoum Conference following the Six Days War, even as the conflict in Yemen went on. Though, like President Sisi today, he continued to mock and rant against his Gulf benefactors in private while professing friendship in public.
For one participant, the war never officially began or ended: Britain. For part of the war, a mercenary company composed of British nationals operated among the royalists with “a nod and a wink” from the Prime Minister’s Office back in London and the support of British Aden, which was facing a pro-YAR insurgency during the same period. At one point, this small group organized a rebel maneuver that pinned down thousands of Egyptian troops, and even spirited out an autopsy of a chemical weapons casualty in order to show the world that the Egyptians were using phosgene and mustard gas against civilians, an effort that would be paralleled again in Halabja, Iraq (1988) and Ghouta, Syria (2013) by other parties. Britain also provided the royalists with more direct aid, from help carrying out sabotage to supplies.
The Saudis soon stepped in to help fund these operations, something fiscally depressed Britain was grateful for as it turned its full attention to the pro-YAR insurgents in Aden, who outlasted the British and set up a Marxist government that lasted until 1990 (fortunately for the Saudis, this new “South Yemen” was often on poor terms with Sana’a despite their wartime alliance).
The Saudis did not intervene for love of the Imamate, which they had seriously contemplated dismantling in 1934. During a peace summit, Faisal told the Egyptian president that North Yemen was “a hive of wasps” and admitted he did not much care for Imam al-Badr, grandson of the man he had personally led the Saudi forces against in 1934. But although Ibn Saud had taken a good chunk out of the Imamate at that time, his successors King Saud (d. 1964) and King Faisal (d. 1975), both of whom had served in the 1934 campaign, did not want to see what was left of it go over to Nasser. Not longer after the 1962 coup, Saud set up guerilla training camps in the territories they had won in the 1930s from Imam Yahya for Yemeni royalists.
Even though a republican victory greatly worried the Saudis, they were able to pursue the war without making anything near the commitment Egypt made and benefitted from the fact that the YAR had no coherent ideological program despite its Nasserist bromides. And they achieved more of the political objectives in the end. The fractured royalist camp was a spent force by 1970. After they failed to take Sana’a, the YAR was able to declare victory on the battlefield. The Imams never returned, but as Fred Halliday notes in Arabia Without Sultans, after 1964 the YAR government was filled with old allies of the Imams, and dominated by certain Zaydi tribes who disliked the Egyptians as much the Saudis. Regarded as fence sitters or royalist collaborators, they overthrew Sallal while he was travelling abroad in November 1967.
“The paradox of the Egyptian intervention is that it at once saved and destroyed the YAR,” Halliday noted of the political process in Sana’a after 1964, which he unflatteringly compared to Bonapartism in 19th century France. Saudi Arabia recognized the YAR in 1970, infuriating al-Badr, who decamped from the Kingdom for a life of European exile. He actually outlived every other major figure in the conflict – Saudi, Yemeni, British, Soviet, and Egyptian – dying in London in 1996.
The YAR that came into being as the Egyptians pulled out empowered the sort of corrupt opportunist best exemplified today in the form of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was president of North Yemen from 1978 to 1990, then president of present-day Yemen from 1990 to 2011. Serving as a mere second lieutenant in the YAR armed forces in 1963, his political ascendancy began on the backs of those aforementioned fence sitters and royalist collaborators (and not a little luck, as he has to date avoided countless assassination attempts despite betraying all of his nominal allies and foreign backers on multiple occasions).
Cairo ultimately suffered between 10,000 and 26,000 KIA to “save” the YAR from the Saudis. Many of the dead were never repatriated to Egypt and still lie in cemeteries in Yemen: a large arch erected by the YAR in 1965 to commemorate the casualties still stands in Sana’a.
At least 200,000 Yemenis also lost their lives during the civil war.
The defeated royalists’ Saudi backers, meanwhile, remained safe from the train wreck unfolding on their southern border for eight years, the YAR’s existence failing to incite revolt inside the Kingdom itself and Egypt taking only the most limited direct action against the Kingdom itself. Indeed, the reformist “Free Princes” of Saudi Arabia who had welcomed the formation of the YAR came to oppose its existence right alongside their more conservative siblings because of the dismissive and insulting way Nasser responded to their overtures.
The Yemen conflict is often referred to as Egypt’s Vietnam, a quagmire that sapped its military force and undermined its leadership in the region. Patrick Seale wrote in The Washington Post in 1964 that the war led to the “the systematic destruction of villages, crops, and waterholes and of a starving and diseased crazed population, crazed by incessant air attacks.” The Red Cross mission to North Yemen at the time corroborated these accounts. The German war correspondent Harold Vocke bitterly observed that “the Egyptian Air Force pursues herdsmen and herds as if they were wild game.” The Egyptian occupiers and YAR forces also resorted to the use of poison gas on civilians. Such incidents help explain why the exact size of the Egyptian deployment (and the casualties it suffered) is still a matter of some dispute among historians. Relevant reports and meeting minutes from the 1960s remain under lock and key in Heliopolis.
After the war ended, a conspiracy of silence emerged among the surviving decision makers. A memoir by Mr. al-Hadidi, the Egyptian major general, is one notable exception.
The major general, who originally dismissed the Yemenis as primitives, changed his views. He became a critic of the war’s conduct. In his retirement, he wrote a scathing account of the conflict, Witness to the Yemen War (1984). To show how just far he felt Egypt had fallen from its “anti-imperialist” mission, he recorded in that book that the YAR’s “Administration of Tribal Affairs” was deliberately modeled on Britain’s similarly minded imperial administrations in the region, to the point that his officers were leafing through T. E. Lawrence for insights on “managing” the “natives.” He also spoke poorly of the army’s morale, and the misuse of the air force to smuggle goods brought in illegally from British Aden back to Egypt.
“Nasser’s Road to Oil Runs Through Yemen,” The New York Times proclaimed in 1966. In fact, it had reached a dead end sometime before then. Though, as was the case with Egypt’s early wartime maps, no one in Cairo could say where, exactly.
 Among his many excesses, Fred Halliday writes, Ahmed sacked Sana’a after Yahya’s death, executed the slaves who moved the palace treasury, always kept the army’s best weapons partially disassembled so they could not be turned on him, and shelled British Aden during a 1957 press conference. He suffered from vivid “hallucinations” as well, to the point he had to be isolated in special recovery rooms.