Yemen is not well known in the United States, although recently the American press has focused on the humanitarian tragedy that is taking place there. Our media have reported that the conflict between government forces and the Houthi rebels has caused more than ten thousand deaths and forty thousand wounded, mostly from Saudi air raids. Graphic photographs of dying Yemeni children have appeared in our newspapers alongside reports that 60% of the country's 28 million population are in an emergency food situation, that 13 million have no clean water or proper sanitation, and that a serious cholera epidemic has affected over 200,000 and led to 1,300 deaths. In December the U.S. Senate reacted to the Yemeni humanitarian situation by passing a resolution calling for an end to support for the Saudis in Yemen, but the Trump administration has resisted that.
Despite the focus on the results of the Yemeni conflict, its underlying causes have not been very well understood. It is a complicated story but this essay seeks to highlight three important factors behind the current turmoil in Yemen that are often overlooked. First, the country has major domestic divisions that are the primary reasons for the conflict in the first place. Second, Saudi direct intervention in Yemen is nothing new and is motivated by Saudi leadership's strong views about the country. Third, American policy toward Yemen has more to do with Saudi Arabia and the region than with Yemen itself.
Yemen has always been plagued with divisions. For twenty-two of its fifty years as a republic (1968-2019), it was divided into two sovereign states, and the country is now in its third civil war, splitting north from south.
The modern era of Yemen's history can be dated to 1967-1968. In September 1962, with the death of Imam Ahmad, who ruled the northern part of Yemen as its king, a group of military officers led an uprising against his son Muhammad and the monarchy. That led to a civil war in the north. The Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) that was established formally in February 1968 controlled the northern part of the country and its two largest cities, Sanaa and Taiz. Meanwhile the political scene was also changing in the south, where the British had been in control since 1839 as Aden and the Protectorate of South Arabia. On November 30, 1967, local anti-colonial rebels evicted the British and created an independent south Yemeni state, later named the People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen.
For the next 22 years, North Yemen (the YAR with its capital in Sanaa), and South Yemen (PDRY with its capital in Aden) remained separate sovereign states.
The north-south division of Yemen was made clearer by the completely divergent foreign policies of the two countries. The Aden government in the south secured strong political and material support from the Soviet Union, and was considered one of Moscow's strongest allies in the Arab world during the Cold War. It refused to have any diplomatic relations with the United States or any West European countries.
In the north, the Sanaa government maintained excellent relations with the United States, Western Europe and the conservative monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The United States provided Sanaa with an array of military equipment and various types of economic assistance. Washington saw its relationship with North Yemen as a way to demonstrate benefits to Yemen of Western cooperation, in contrast to South Yemen. The Sanaa government, however, also had cordial relations with the Soviet Union that provided it with military equipment as a kind of balance to Sanaa's very extensive relations with the West. But the north-south border was to some extent a cold war divide.
In 1990, the President of North Yemen, Ali Abdullah Salih, managed to bring about the unification of north and south. It was advertised as an equal partnership, as Salih enlisted a southerner, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, as his vice president. But soon the southerners complained about being disadvantaged economically and otherwise in the union, and a rebellion began that became a north-south civil war in 1994. Because of North Yemen's superior military capabilities, Sanaa was able to win the war over Aden in a few months. But southern resentments remained.
After the turn of the century, tensions arose between the government in Sanaa and Yemenis in the north, who had unanswered grievances with the government. Low-level armed clashes took place sporadically during the first decade of the 21st century, but they were inconclusive. This was a precursor for today's civil war.
Then in 2011, as the Arab Spring reached Yemen, public discontent with the economic situation and criticism of corruption in President Salih's government broke out nationwide into large street demonstrations by thousands of citizens. Although Salih...