The end of a unified Yemen

The unity and separation of Yemen are two issues that concern everyone in the region

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Abdulrahman al-Rashed
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Popular, political and military activity calling for the separation of southern Yemen from the republic of Yemen picked up its pace this week in the areas of Aden and Hadramout. The possibility of the south becoming an independent state is closer than at any other point in Yemen’s history.

Unity and separation are two issues that concern everyone in the region. They mainly concern Yemen’s major neighbor, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

When southern and northern Yemen united, it was backed by people from both sides but it was not the product of popular demands or activity. It was the result of a struggle over governance in the south among communist powers. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh seized the chance to expand his authority when the South’s political leader Ali Salem al-Beidh - who almost lost his rule - called for unification. Saleh and Beidh signed the unification agreement in 1989 and instead of achieving unity and power sharing, Saleh dominated authority in both northern and southern Yemen. The promises of unification were not fulfilled and it became a burden on northern Yemen, leading to the neglect and appropriation of southern Yemen. Saleh was thus the only winner and ruled over the country alone.

New developments now raise the decisive question: Is separation the solution?

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Prior to this unification, I sat with late Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz who was also an official in the joint Saudi-Yemeni committee. I asked him about Ali Abdullah Saleh’s media allegations that Saudi Arabia had objected to unity and see it as a threat. He summarized the nature of the relationship and its historical roots since the 1950s.

Saudi concerns

He said that a united Yemen is best for Saudi Arabia as we suffer when we have to deal with two governments, one in Sanaa and one in Aden, because satisfying one means angering the other. This is especially so when there are tensions between the two. In this case, either of these governments will ally with the Saudi kingdom’s rival. This happened during the Cold War as rebels in the north allied with the Nasserites and later on the south allied with the Soviet Union. It’s easier for us to manage relations with a unified country that has one government while maintaining good relationships with the different domestic powers who’ve had historical ties with Saudi Arabia.

Truth be told, Saudi Arabia has also suffered politically even during the period when Yemen was united; however, the suffering was the result of mere disputes. Former President Saleh, whose period in power coincided with that of three Saudi kings, was known for his attempts to glorify himself, even if it came at the expense of Yemen and its people. When former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Saleh sided with him against Saudi Arabia. Saleh then allied with the Qataris when they disagreed with Saudi Arabia over the period of a few years. He also allowed former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to fund Yemeni tribes against Saudi Arabia. Last but not least, Saleh invented the Houthis, he turned them into a dangerous political and religious group when originally they were simply a tribal group. He resorted to the excuse of having to religiously educate the Houthis and sent some of them to Iran to be recruited to work against his neighbor, Saudi Arabia. They also worked against the opposing northern Yemeni tribes in an attempt to subjugate them in an-ever changing balancing act.

New developments now raise the decisive question, not for the Saudis but mainly for the Yemenis of the north and the south: Is separation the solution?

Exacerbating problems

I think that the separation will exacerbate problems for people in both sides because there are no dominating powers that can end this rivalry and end the fighting and there’s no real electoral system the Yemenis can resort to and count upon. Therefore, separation will foment chaos in both the north and south. Despite this, separation is a very possible scenario as a result of the rapid collapse of the ruling institution in northern Yemen and of the frustration at the failure of the unification agreement. Yemenis are now aware that the unification agreement was merely part of the personal agenda of ousted President Saleh. Northern Yemenis have truly tried to compensate for Saleh’s sins towards their people in the south and they displayed a lot of flexibility and concern regarding unity. Proof is that the posts of the presidency and premiership are now occupied by southerners although the northerners constitute the sweeping majority of the population. Despite that, southern political powers compete with one another and call for separation as they are aware that declaring an independent state has become the southerners’ favorite tune and that unity has become a hated idea due to Saleh’s policies which inflicted further poverty and marginalization in the south.

As a result of the weakness of the central authority, the north currently faces a political vacuum as the three major powers are fighting each other. The first party is that of Saleh who still actively sabotages political plans by inciting strife and buying loyalties so as to return to power. The second party is that of the Houthis who are linked to Iran and whose militias have seized some major state institutions. The third party is that of the state and the government which is sick in bed and which only has one card up its sleeve, that of international legitimacy based upon the recognition of the U.N. Security Council and the Gulf countries.

In the case of announcing the death of the current Yemeni government, or if it dies within the next few months but no announcement is made, we would witness the inevitable end of a unified Yemen as well as the South’s declaration of a separate state. Yemen would thus begin a new chapter in its history. Its first chapter will most probably be full of further domestic disputes and foreign interferences and the victims will be the Yemenis who have not been asked to express their opinions yet.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on October 17, 2014.


Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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