A Note on the Geopolitics of South Yemeni Separatism.

Now in its third year, the British co-ordinated Saudi Arabian led war on Yemen shows no sign of abating. Thousands of people have been indiscriminately killed and the northern part of Yemen is literally laid to waste as British made weaponry is tested on Yemenis. Last year there were reports of famines and now there are reports of hundreds of thousands of cases of cholera. The country which was already one of the poorest in the world is now further pulverised, impoverished and devastated.

The Saudis have been enthusiastically supported, primarily by the British establishment, from the very beginning of this attack on Yemen. Surreally and cruelly, one of the richest countries in the world is bombing the poorest country in the peninsula.

One of the most daunting aspects of the Saudi-British war on Yemen is the support it has received from most of the population of South Yemen. By South Yemen I mean the area that was formally known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. This support compels one to ask why have Southerners welcomed the Saudi-British led military campaign?

What became known as South Yemen had been colonised by the British Empire since 1839. The Empire needed this southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula as a coaling port en-route to and from their “imperial possession” India.  After a successful revolutionary struggle, Yemenis in the South won independence in 1967. Atrocities committed by the Empire during this struggle continue to be kept under lock and key.

In 1970 South Yemen officially became a communist state allied with the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the South Yemeni leadership looked for refuge elsewhere and in desperation initiated a gun-shot unity proposal with North Yemen ruled by Ali Abdulla Saleh.

Whereas the South was communist, the North was hitherto a pro-Western, pro-Saudi state, ruled along tribal lines by Saleh with a heavy input from the al-Ahmar clan. Saleh had been the leader of the North since the late 1970s and it is said he literally had an actual hand in the assassination the previous Northern ruler Ibrahim al-Hamdi. Hamdi’s crime was that he tried to establish North Yemen as a truly modern and independent state. Modern in the sense that he challenged the traditional and hierarchal tribal structures, and independent of its more affluent neighbour, Saudi Arabia.

The high point of unity was when a united Yemen withstood the pressure of the Americans, British and Saudis and remained loyal to Saddam’s Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991. But the Islamists of Yemen, the Islah (Reform) Party continued their fealty to the Saudis and Americans and sided with the Saudi facilitated, American attack on Iraq. Regardless of the economic consequences suffered by the newly united country, it was a popular decision to refuse to succumb to American pressure during this war and reflected the will of the majority of the people of Yemen, northerners and southerners.

However, fractures began to appear in the early 1990s with Southerners complaining of marginalisation and even targeted assassinations of leading Southern military and political personnel. Affairs were to finally come to a head with the outbreak of civil war 1994 between the Southern secessionists and the North. The war began in May and ended in July with Aden subdued by Northern forces. One of the reasons Saleh won was because he used veterans of the Afghan jihad, (the so-called Arab-Afghans as they were called back then and now called al-Qaeda) to spearhead his attack on the South.

Many in the South were not supporters of Saleh but acquiesced in his continued rule largely because of their economic, social and cultural distaste for the old communist Southern Yemeni elite. But there always remained resistance to Saleh’s rule since 1994, but it was largely limited to Dhalea province and areas of Aden.

The indigenous Adeni population never accepted Northern rule and simply saw them as occupiers. But as a militarily defeated people, they had very little choice but watch as the old Southern capital’s resources and wealth was divvied out to Saleh’s Northern allies, namely the Ahmar clan and Sheikh Abd al-Majeed Zindani, the al-Qaeda linked religious preacher. More so, many individual Northerners began economically migrating to the South and achieved some success at the expense of dispossessed Southerners. In effect, a sort of sub-colonialism began to emerge in the South as it provided an outlet for Northern surplus labour.

As can be imagined this produced an immense amount of resentment amongst many Southerners. Saleh further rubbed a heavy dose of poisonous salt on Southern grievances when he continually implied that Southerners who opposed unity were ‘dishonourable’ people.

Eventually, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ ousted Saleh on Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) terms, but not after an assassination attempt was made on his life that left him badly burned, whereby he was transferred to Saudi Arabia for surgery. The Yemeni people were then allowed to vote for Saleh’s right-hand man, AbduRubuh Mansour Hadi, (a Southerner who had sided with the North and the Islamists during the 1994 civil war) in a single candidate election in early 2012.

Before the ‘Arab Spring’ the Northern rebels, the Houthis, had fought six wars against Saleh’s regime. The Houthis mostly tended to belong to the Zaidi branch of Islam. Like Southerners, they had complained of economic neglect, corruption and also, cultural marginalisation. However, in 2014 with the connivance of the Yemeni army, which was said to be still under Saleh’s control, they captured the capital, Sana’a.

Suicide bombings outside mosques rocked the capital in early 2015 which eventually compelled Houthi forces to travel south in pursuit of the alleged culprits. Hadi and his cronies had already resigned the government and fled south to Aden. The Southerners had not stopped Hadi settling in Aden but resisted Houthi expansion into the South. So, when Saudi Arabia began its bombing campaign in late March 2015, it was welcomed by the Southerners as assisting Southern resistance to another Northern encroachment, this time lead by the Houthis. This series of events is a point of contention between Northerners and Southerners. For Northerners, the current war began when Saudi-British military bombing campaign began, but for Southerners the war began with the Houthis moving their forces to the South.

With the outbreak of the war, historical regional alibis were turned on their head. During most of the Cold War the North was closely aligned with the West and the GCC, while South Yemen considered itself a revolutionary secular state which identified more with the secular states of Libya, Iraq and Syria. The current war has allowed the North (Saleh-Houthi alliance) to portray itself as resisting Western-GCC hegemony, while Southerners, the former communists are identifying with the GCC states, no doubt in the hope of becoming another GCC country. Ironically, Saleh spent most of his political career being the West’s man in Yemen and now risibly portrays himself as some kind of resistance hero.

The main economic reason Southern separatists are now culturally and politically identifying with the GCC countries is because with a relatively small population and reputed generous resources within its old borders, they hope to imitate the GCC way of development and supposed progress. On the other hand, Saleh is not known to possess any principles besides personal economic interest and self-preservation.

For Southerners, regional cultural, political and economic legitimacy clearly now resides with the Western supported GCC vassal states and yet they continue to wave the old communist PDRY flag – something that will have to give, most likely the flag. The Western led destruction of the secular states over the last fifteen years further consolidated to southerners where a secure and peaceful political legitimacy resides. The British-American wars on the region have sent a simple message to the people of the region – kowtow to us or we’ll destroy you. Actually, if the end game for Southerners is to be another GCC, British client state, what was the point of revolting against the British Empire in the 1960s?

More so, Southerners do not see themselves as mercenaries for Saudi Arabia or the GCC, as their independence movement preceded the Saudi-British military campaign. However there are reports that some Southerners have travelled to Ta’iz (North Yemen’s second city) and to the Saudi southern border to fight Houthi resistance to any Saudi incursions into Yemen. On the other hand, there is no evidence or substance to the belief that the Houthis are actually supported by Iran, besides the latter offering some hot air support on its satellite TV channels.

Ultimately the Saudi intervention is really nothing about Yemen, as strange at that may sound, but about building up Saudi military power and specifically the Saudi air force. The Yemen is the laboratory rat for the Saudi military and its British advisors to practise on. This is reminiscent of when British imperialism trained Zionist settlers during the late 1930s on how to crush Palestinian uprisings. By the early 1940s, Zionist were boasting that they no longer needed British support and they could do the job by themselves. However, because of the outbreak of WW2, the Zionist (with British connivance) had to wait for the end of the war before they could finish the job of ethnically cleansing Palestine. The Saudis have not yet declared they can solely maintain the bombing of Yemen.

There is no doubt the Saudi ruling clan has spent billions of dollars on this cruel and inhuman adventure. All this money, showcasing British armoury could have been better spent squaring up to its own economic challenges or even bringing Yemenis together peacefully.

The Saudi-British war on Yemen has heaped death, disease and destruction on mostly the Northern part of Yemen. This gruesome outcome is perfectly in line with the history of British imperialism. In its heyday, the British Empire visited enslavement, genocide, famine, disease and destruction on planet Earth’s inhabitants – most (in)famously in Africa, Ireland and India where millions, if not tens of millions perished, so the Empire could loot their countries in favour of its own metropolis.

Obviously, many South Yemenis think that once independence is attained they’ll become stable and prosperous like similar countries in the peninsula. However, logic determines other scenarios, namely why would the nepotistic statelets on the Gulf coast want another competitor state vying for shipping ports and finance? Secondly, the British will not forgive South Yemen for waging a successful liberation struggle in the 1960s which saw them withdraw from the country after more than 150 years of occupation. It is in British interests to see the South in a perpetual state chaos and mayhem as a retributory lesson to anyone else in the region who may consider total independence from British imperialism, i.e. Oman.

Of all the GCC states bombing Yemen, the UAE seems to be the most enthusiastic in indulging the Southern separatists. This is largely because Hadi is Saudi’s man and the separatists provide the UAE leverage with the Saudi backed forces in both south Yemen and elsewhere. However, if (and once) the two GCC states settle their differences, the UAE will drop the southerners like a hot potato…or worse.

Politically speaking the Houthi position is nothing short of next to tragic. During Saleh’s rule the Houthis, as already mentioned, had waged SIX wars against the Yemeni army after years of economic, political and cultural marginalisation, whereas the southerners put up a fight once against his corrupt rule in 1994. Now, the Houthis seem to have reduced themselves to a Northern militia at Saleh’s disposal.

Saleh having used the Houthis against his old allies (Hadi, al-Ahmar & Zindani) then cleverly pitched them against the Southerners. The Saudis-British, realising that their man, Hadi could no longer hold onto central power, purportedly intervened on behalf of Hadi, who had fled the capital to Aden in the south. The Southerners welcomed Hadi on the basis that Saleh opposed him, although he spent the last 20 years opposing separatism. When Saudi-British bombing campaign began, Southern separatists gullibly read this as supporting their aspirations. 

In conclusion, the only true winners in this war are Saudi Arabia, Britain and their allies as it has not only allowed them to train their air forces on Yemen and also allowed them to use Yemen as a springboard to project regional military power. As the current British Secretary of Trade for International Trade and former Defence Minister, Liam Fox said in Parliament in July 2017:

“As a former Defence Secretary, I say to him that the MOD [Ministry of Defense] has gone to the nth degree to improve the ability of the Saudis to target more effectively, including through training by UK personnel. That is one of the biggest advances we have helped the Saudis to make in this.”

Whether the Saudis will then transfer the experience obtained from bombing and obliterating Yemen to other perceived regional theatres such as Iran, Syria or even Egypt remains to be seen. But the ultimate losers are the people of Yemen, both North and South who now face an immediate future of warring balkanisation.

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