Yemen Crisis explained. Part I-Historical background
In our last post we learned of the dangers of oversimplification when we use highly abstract terms such as Iranian Proxy, Communism, Terrorist, and Free World. This week and next we shall examine the background to the explosive contemporary situation in Yemen. In our next post we shall attempt to clarify the current situation there. (and how the use of such abstract terms has oversimplified its problems and led to our failures there).
Yemen has about 24 million souls and occupies both the southwest and southern portions of the Arabian peninsula.. From this locale, Yemen borders the Red Sea to the west, the Arabian Sea, with the Gulf of Aden to the south and it has a shoreline of about 1200 miles. As one would expect, Yemen has a long history as a sea trading nation.
The tip of Yemen lies at the closest point to Ethiopia and Somalia of any of the other Red Sea bordered countries. Indeed, most scholars believe Yemen was the biblical Sheba, and the Sheban empire, at that time, included parts of modern day Ethiopia and Somalia. For several hundred years, from the fourth century onward, Yemen was ruled by the Jewish-converted Himyar Kingdom. The Muslims conquered Yemen by the mid-seventh century and Yemenite soldiers played a large role in the jihadist spread of Islam across the entire region.
Today, Yemen is almost entirely Islamic, replete with the internecine Sunni-Shia conflicts. The rather sizable Yemenite Jewish population, the Yehudei teiman, facing increased persecution fled to Israel, in the year following its independence. It is estimated that less than one-hundred Jews remain in Yemen, and they live under very difficult conditions
The Ottoman empire ruled Yemen, much as they did the entire Mideast, with a loose hand that acknowledged tribal fiefdoms in exchange for payments to Constantinople. A tradition of corruption has been endemic to Yemen (as well as throughout the former Ottoman empire).
The end of World War I, saw the dismantling of the Ottoman empire. The Port of Aden, which during the World War became the second busiest port in the world, was from 1839 until 1937 largely controlled by the British. The latter first coveted Aden as a coaling station, to provide for the ships to India among other destinations. Aden’s strategic value increased following the opening of the Suez Canal.
Yemen from early in the 20th century, for practical purposes was divided into two parts: North Yemen and South Yemen.
In North Yemen there were various groups who vied for control, but in the Highlands Mutawakkilite and his Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen ruled the north but with hopes for a Greater Yemen. This set off tribal wars with the Idrsids opposing Mutawakkilite. The Brits had a stake in limiting the ambitions of Mutawakkilite. Also sticking their claim for control of North Yemen, was Ibn Saud and the tribes of what was to later be called Saudi Arabia. Ibn Saud was to some extent a controlled client of the English. Inmam Yahya, who opposed the Idrssids, due to their asserted North African roots, established his own Kingdom of Yemen. Following the Italian recognition of Yahya’s Kingdom, which asserted sovereignty over Aden as well, the Brits sided with the Idrsids. This led to a civil war. Control over North Yemen went back and forth. Once Yahya died, in 1962, the military became split and yet another civil war was started.
In South Yemen, at this time, the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen was established as a socialist republic, and they proceeded to nationalize parts of South Yemen. Since they received arms from the Soviet Bloc (due to the West backing their opponents), the sobriquet “Communist” was thrown around quite loosely. A dangerous thing to do in those Cold War days. The result was a civil war, this time in South Yemen, with thousands of casualties. A temporary peace was brokered by the Arab League. In our next post, on Monday, we will bring this background to the Yemeni crisis up-to-date, and attempt to demonstrate how it is more than just another Middle East sectarian conflict.
End of Part I.