North-South Divide: An Alternative Perspective on Conflict in Yemen

Stefan Ellender


Map of North and South Yemen prior to unification- via Wikimedia Commons

Yemen is a complex country and Yemeni politics are even more complex. However the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has led to Yemen being viewed primarily through the lens of The War on Terror by both the media and policy makers. With the rise of AQAP, and then the Yemeni Revolution of 2011, dominating news cycles international commentators were somewhat caught by surprise when Houthi forces swept into Sanna in late 2014. Both the media and policy makers appeared to find themselves searching for a framework to rationalise this apparently sudden political shift. The current conflict in Yemen has primarily been reported and analysed through an international and sectarian framework. Most reports talk of Shia Houthi rebels backed by Iran fighting against a Sunni government which is supported by the Gulf Monarchies. While this certainly a valid perspective it is only one dimension of a series of interlinked conflicts which are rooted in the deep divisions in Yemeni society.

To start to understand the divisions in Yemen we must remember that Yemen as a country is a recent, and to an extent, artificial creation and has spent most of the twentieth century divided into two rival states. The modern origins of the North Yemeni state date back to the re-establishment of the Imamate in 1918 following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WW1. A Nasserite inspired coup of 1962 and the subsequent civil war created the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and began North Yemen’s long period of pseudo military rule under a succession of Presidents. What became South Yemen won independence from British Colonial rule in 1967 following a short period of conflict. Further civil war in South Yemen led to the establishment of the Soviet aligned People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in 1969.

The two Yemens had a hostile relationship for most of their existence, although the political elites of both countries emphasised the need for eventual unification. The divisions between the two countries were sharpened by two brief border wars in 1972 and 1979 and by both governments policy of supporting and sheltering exiled dissidents from their neighbour. The eventual unification of Yemen came about rather suddenly in 1990 following high levels talks between President Saleh of the YAR and President Ali Salim al-Beidh of the PDRY. Despite formal political union tensions between the two halves of Yemen remained; Southern leaders felt the North was politically and economically marginalising the South. These tensions boiled over into a brief civil war between May and July 1994 which ended in Northern victory.

The sense in the South, that the government in Sanna is a ‘northern government’ which exploits and oppresses the South if anything has become stronger since the civil war. After the war southerners were effectively purged from positions of power and influence in both government and the army. Most of the machinery of government, and the associated jobs, were transferred from Aden to Sanna; while the jobs that remain often go to northern officials. Combined with the exploitation of the South’s oil resources, apparently to the North’s benefit, a situation of serious discontent has developed. This discontent manifested itself in the Hirak Movement, a broad organisation founded in 2007 that campaigns for ‘southern rights’ and was heavily involved in the Yemeni Revolution of 2011.While the Hirak Movement is divided between those demanding greater federal autonomy and those seeking full independence they nevertheless all show a strong sense of southern identity. The concept of ‘southern rights’ and a separate southern identity has become a major means through which Southern Yemeni have expressed their discontent with the current political and economic situation.

The idea of a separate south has manifested strongly in the reaction to the Houthi advance into historic South Yemen. While some of the forces resisting the Houthi advance south are loyal to President Hadi it is worth noting that the majority are locally raised volunteer militias and forces openly loyal to the Hirak Movement. Furthermore it appears from anecdotal evidence that a significant proportion of these forces are concerned primarily with defending their homes from the Houthi’s; as opposed to fighting to defend the government

Why does this matter? If the international community wants to try and find a resolution to the conflict in Yemen it must first understand the conflict. The conflict in Yemen is no longer really about the government. The Houthi have control of the government in Sanna and have forced President Hadi into exile, it is now the Houthi attempt to extend their government across the whole country which is being resisted. The conflict in Yemen shouldn’t be over internationalised. Saudi Arabia and Iran both have vested interests in the conflict and both have ‘picked sides’ but it is not their proxy war. If neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran were involved the South would still be resisting the Houthi advance. The conflict in Yemen should not be over-simplified. This article has only offered one perspective on what is motivating and sustaining the conflict, it has offered a partial picture. Individuals involved in the conflict have what I.M. Lewis in his work on Somalia has called “multiple political identities”. An individual fighting for one of the militias defending Aden may be a Sunni, a Yemeni, a Southern Yemeni, a resident of Aden, a member of a tribal confederation and a member of a particular sub-tribe as well as having a sense of personal loyalty to certain political or military leaders. All of these identities, some of them or none of them may be motivating fighters and until we can pick apart the complexities of conflict in Yemen the only solution to the conflict will be a military one.

One Response
  1. Yahia M. Aljifri Reply

    Thanks for the best article I’ve ever read from non Yemeni.
    Once again thanks
    Yahia Aljifri
    South Arabian League
    F. Relations officer

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