DURING the Cold War, a few countries were famously divided along pro and anti-Communist lines. Three are celebrated cases and I am happy to have visited a reunited Germany and Vietnam in recent years, although one can hardly say North and South Korean relations are at their warmest. By far the least known case is that of North and South Yemen.
Yemen has always been under the radar and perhaps that’s part of the reason the war in Yemen has been raging so quietly. In fact, I was going to call this particular article the hidden war until I realised while doing research that roughly half the articles I read about it were called just that!
Just look at the news reports in the last few days. Conflict in the airstrike-damaged Red Sea port of Hodeidah prevents unloading of crucial food and fuel supplies. Civilians in the southwestern city of Taiz trapped by intense fighting, with bodies lying in the streets and 200 people wounded. The two-day ceasefire ends as residents in the capital Sanaa report Saudi-led coalition jets bombing rebel army bases on a mountain overlooking the city. Reports abound of child soldiers, hospital bombings and a starving population.
The most important thing to note is that Yemen is facing a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions and not much is being done to stop it.
Essentially, Yemen is embroiled in a high-stakes, low-profile conflict, that has claimed at least 8,000 lives and displaced an estimated three million of its population. There is no end in sight to a dispute which sees the tribal Houthis, backed by government troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh pitted against the Saudi-backed Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is now a president in exile. Basically though,it boils down to the seemingly inescapable conflict between Syiah and Sunni with Al-Qaeda and IS also part of the mix. The victims as usual are largely the common people.
My college friend Bassem is a Jordanian who is irate at the situation. “As Arabs and Muslims, we are all caught up in the emotional issue of Israel versus Palestine, but if we could settle peace among ourselves the Palestinian problem would disappear soon after. The Sunni-Syiah divide takes many more lives and causes much more damage,” he said.
Bassem was a fervent advocate of Arab unity. He appreciated the efforts of Nasser and Gaddafi to unite the Arab people, whom he felt had succumbed far too easily to divide and conquer tactics. He used to argue that it should begin with the Arab peninsular, on which Yemen sits.
“There is Saudi Arabia and so many other smaller nations there. If they could integrate and unite over a period of time, it would set an example,’ said the pan-Arabist. “The Gulf nations are so reliant on foreign labour, whereas they can actually offer jobs and living space to a stateless people like the Palestinians.”
A brief study of Realpolitik and the sphere of influence will show us Yemen is being neglected. For better or worse, it’s being seen as part of the Saudi’s area of dominance and no one’s messing with that.
Sadly this is far from the first time Yemen has faced internal demons that threaten to tear it apart. When compared to the prosperity of other oil-rich countries on the Arabian peninsula, Yemen lags decades behind.
Unlike the other divided countries, Yemen didn’t have a “straight-forward” history. North Yemen was formed in 1918 as the Ottoman Empire dissolved amidst the dying embers of World War I, while South Yemen was a British protectorate until 1967. From 1962 to 1970, North Yemen was engaged in a civil war between monarchists supporting the Mutawakkilite Kingdom and republicans who attempted a coup. Eventually with a turning point of 1967’s siege of Sanaa, the republicans emerged triumphant forming the Yemen Arab Republic. Saleh assumed its presidency in 1978.
Not to be outdone, the South “enjoyed” its own civil war when violence erupted between factions of the Yemeni Socialist Party in 1986. The one-time Marxist state (officially the People’ Democratic Republic of Yemen) crumbled as a result but it was still a surprise when the two Yemens united in 1990, in those heady days in which the Cold War came to a close. Saleh was President of the unified Republic and his South Yemeni leftist counterpart Ali Salim al-Beidh became Vice-President. This happy state of affairs lasted all of three years before the latter left the government and tried to extract South Yemen from the unification. This escalated into the Yemeni Civil War of 1994, in which Saleh prevailed.
So how much longer is this going to go on? As long as weapons are provided, men will fight. As long as blockades are enforced, civilians will die. As long as silence is maintained, the quiet war will rage.
Star Online news editor Martin Vengadesan is often left questioning the political will of major nations.
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