How’s Yemen’s Cold War-era revolution set the stage for today’s devastating Western-backed war
A conflict broke out in Yemen 60 years ago. It was bloody, protracted and ended with a massacre.
The date of September 26, 1962 was not only a significant event in Yemeni history but also in modern Middle Eastern affairs. It marks the beginning of what would become a civil war for some or an international proxy conflict for others.
This little-known period in Cold War history could tell us much about today’s Middle East, especially with the immense destruction and death that was caused by Yemen.
Setup of a bloody conflict
Today, Yemen is primarily known as home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, having suffered the loss of almost 400,000 people since the beginning of the nation’s latest war in 2015. However, in the spheres of global trade and big business, it represents a geographical location that can be exploited for international shipping and its largely untouched oil and gas reserves. The leadership in Yemen has always been of great importance, especially in the period of the Cold War, during which Western imperialist nations and their reactionary allies on the Arabian Peninsula feared the prospect of any peoples becoming allies with the Soviet Union.
To understand North Yemen’s revolution of 1962, which later morphed into a brutal civil/proxy war until 1970, we first must understand the divided nations which would later join together and become a united Yemen in 1990.
Yemen, meaning ‘south Arabia’ in Arabic, has historically been a geographically and culturally perspicuous territory. The Ottoman Empire had previously ruled the Yemen’s uppermost regions. In 1918 the Mutawakkilite Kingdom was declared independent. One monarch was responsible for the kingdom. He was Imam Yahya Mohammed. This ruler was originally known as North Yemen.
The British Empire ruled the east and south of Yemen for a while. Declared the ‘Aden Colony’ in 1937, the southernmost territory in Yemen was developed around the key port city of Aden, strategically located where the Red Sea meets the Arabian Sea. British East India Company first conquered Aden 1839. The colony was ruled with iron fist.
The North Yemeni revolution erupted on September 26, 1962, when a commander of Yemen’s Royal Guard, Abdullah al-Sallal, led a number of Egyptian and Iraqi-trained officers in a popular coup d’etat to overthrow Yemen’s monarchical leadership. Gamal Abudel Nasser was an Egyptian President who inspired Al-Sallal. He was the foremost voice advocating Arab nationalism in Egypt at that time. Al-Sallal’s army of revolutionary republicans deposed the newly crowned ruler, Mohammed al-Badr, quickly seizing Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa, declaring the newly formed Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).
At the time of the revolution in the north, the British governing the colony of Aden began to fear what this could mean for their then-top-secret plan to create the ‘Federation of South Arabia’, which they would later form in 1963. British officials also worried about the threat that a revolution would pose to their allied Persian Gulf regimes, such as Oman and Bahrain, which they wanted to secure oil supplies and stability for the autocratic leaders they supported to power. British leaders could not permit an ally to Nasser who had ties with the Soviet Union to prosper and further spread the idea of Arab nationalism on the Arabian Peninsula.
Imam Yahya Mohammed was assassinated in 1948. In the aftermath, Imam Ahmed, his son, emerged. Imam Ahmed, as he is often referred to, aspired to rule over a ‘Greater Yemen’, and his forces clashed on several occasions with the British to the south. He survived a coup attempt in March 1955 and was subject to increasing pressures against his autocratic leadership. In 1958, he decided to become a member of the United Arab States. It was a confederation that included Egypt and Syria.
Although the UAR had unification of Egypt and Syria, it quickly fell apart and Yemen had officially left the confederation by 1961. It has been argued that the confederation’s breakup was a significant factor in paving the way for the 1962 civil war, as it then gave way to al-Sallal’s republicanism, which would become popular in North Yemen. The former King of Yemen, Imam Mohammed al-Badr, did not decide to cede power to his republican opponents without a fight – fleeing to Saudi Arabia and from there rallying an army of royalists that were equipped and supplied by Riyadh.
I asked Rune Agerhus, the chief coordinator at the Organization of Solidarity with the Yemeni Struggle (OSYS), how the Mutawakkilite Kingdom’s leadership was able to suddenly change and ally itself with Saudi Arabia, after formerly being an ally of Nasser.
He declared: “Up until recently, to rule Yemen meant to balance yourself on the precipice of internal and external contradictions. Yemen boasted that it was an independent kingdom which lasted more than 1,000 years and had been in existence until 1962. This is despite having a lengthy anti-colonial history, as well as a strong resistance to the Ottoman Empires. Even though economic and political cooperation existed between the Soviet Union, the Mutawakkilite Kingdom and back to the 1920s. However, there was a multipolar world emerging with competing superpowers. Imam Al-Badr needed to make important choices in order to stay at the helm.
“The clashes that the Kingdom of Yemen had with Saudi Arabia and British forces to the south were not born out of any anti-colonial sentiment, but rather from the feeling that these two countries held territory that the Imam believed was his.
“It all changed in 1962 when the very superstructures of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom and the Imam’s rule were threatened. There is also the very crucial point to be made that Yemen’s tribes have always been influenced by Saudi rule and decree, a malignant practice that has helped shape Yemen as the poorest Arab country on the planet. Saudi Arabia in turn likely promised to support Imam Al-Badr to maintain this tribal influence, and the Imam sought refuge in an unlikely ally to maintain power.”
Although the US did end up supplying anti-air weapons to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in its fight against the republicans in Yemen, it fell short of playing the role, on the side of the KSA, that it does in today’s conflict against the Ansarallah government, which took over Sanaa in 2015. It was instead the British who played the prominent role in the conflict against the Saudi-backed royalists. The British SAS Special Forces, MI6 and British mercenaries all were used in the fight against the Arab-nationalist republican forces led by al-Sallal. The Hashemite Kingdom and Israel played an important role in supporting the Saudi-backed royalists with weapons and intelligence.
One of the primary reasons for the Saudi-led coalition’s backing of the royalists in the conflict was the direct involvement of Egypt on the side of the newly established Yemen Arab Republic. The USSR was the first nation to formally recognize the YAR, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev even wrote to the Yemeni Republican leader, al-Sallal, stating that “any act of aggression against Yemen will be considered an act of aggression against the Soviet Union.”
Nasser wanted to confront Saudi Arabia and encourage Arab nationalism. He also sought to drive the British from Yemen to allow the Arabs to take control of the Red Sea.
What was the impact of the external power on the civil war’s outcome? Agerhus says:
“Saudi Arabia is, by many, considered to have been Yemen’s sworn enemy ever since thousands of barefooted Yemeni pilgrims were murdered by clansmen led by Al-Saud [Saudi Arabia’s ruling family]The Tanomah valley, 1922. The beginning of the feud between these two nations was marked by this. After the establishment of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the early 1930s, the Western economic bloc got itself a new ally in the region that it could trust to thwart the emergence of what was then considered ‘radical thought.’ The build-up of global and regional alliances was already taking shape prior to the revolution of 1962.
“The Cold War affected the North Yemen civil war because the competing polars had vastly different viewpoints on the rights of people to self-determination and fundamentally different perceptions of the very practice of colonialism and feudalism.
“Egyptian and Soviet support for Abdullah Al-Sallal’s forces shaped the war to a large extent, which is evident even today as the prevailing superstructures of Yemeni society and the armed forces are and were modeled on Egyptian inspiration and armed with Soviet and Russian weaponry. I do believe the war would have been fought otherwise, but perhaps with different results without international support.”
In Yemen’s British-controlled south, 1962 was also the year that pan-Arab liberation movements began to grow in size and put up a fight against British colonial rule. In October 1963, a new revolution began in the south, or what the British would come to describe as the ‘Aden emergency,’ which involved revolutionary action from a unified front of Marxist and Arab nationalist forces from the Taiz and Aden areas. This revolution was aided by the YAR, as the leading revolutionary forces in British-occupied southern Yemen came together to form the unified ‘Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen,’ which was set up under the supervision of their revolutionary comrades in Yemen’s north.
“I don’t believe there is any evidence to suggest that international assistance to the anti-colonial struggle was crucial in shaping the inevitable result,” Agerhus says. “However, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, as an institution, likely would not have been established without Soviet political and advisory support.”
He continued to state that “the struggle in the south was centered on two competing but cooperating resistance factions, the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen, or FLOSY for short, and the National Liberation Front. FLOSY maintained a socialist Arab nationalist political line while the NLF ascribed to Marxist ideology.”
The September 26 Revolution: Consequences
At least 200 000 people were killed between 1962 and 1970 in conflict that eventually ended with the inevitable. The Yemen Arab Republic became a sovereign country and the royalists who had lost support from the majority of the population, the Yemen Arab Republic, was declared a sovereign state. Despite the fact that the republicans won the war in Yemen, Arab nationalism also died in the midst of the conflict in Yemen.
It is often suggested that the downfall of Arab nationalism stemmed from the shocking defeat of Nasser’s Egypt during the June 1967 war, when Israel launched its offensive known as ‘Operation Focus’ and went on to defeat its Arab neighbors in only six days. However, without Egypt’s over-commitment to the war in Yemen, which had reached a deadly stalemate during the mid-1960s, Tel Aviv may not have possessed the confidence to have launched the Six-Day War, or at the very least Egypt would have been more prepared for the confrontation. The war in Yemen cost the Egyptians so dearly that it is often referred to as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam,’ a war in which Nasser’s army was so heavily bogged down that his home turf ended up occupied by Israel.
In 1967, as Nasser’s Arab nationalism was dealt a death blow, an alternative ideology emerged which the Arab world would harness to continue its fight against imperialist powers and autocratic Middle Eastern rulers. The obvious answer was Marxist ideology in all its forms. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in Yemen; in November 1967, the Yemeni revolution in the nation’s south proved successful in forcing out the British colonialists and the revolutionary forces declared the sovereignty of South Yemen. The defeat of Egypt earlier that June had seen the Israelis seize the Sinai Peninsula, resulting in the closure of the Suez Canal supply route for the next eight years. The closure of this strategic supply route to Europe, combined with the pressure of the ongoing revolutionary war, forced the British to leave and, only two years later, after the liberation of South Yemen, the Arab world’s first communist state was declared in 1969, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).
“I do believe that the Cold War ended up having a positive effect on Yemen’s domestic political trends,” Agerhus said when asked about the era’s impact. He stated that “the majority of Yemen’s population are peasantry, and the country has a rich and diverse political landscape with left-leaning and Islamically progressive tendencies dominating the scene. The general population also remains vocally anti-colonialist in both tone, theory and practice, which is undoubtedly a relic that persists from the Cold War.”
The Cold War was a source of inspiration for Yemenis, providing them with an atmosphere in which to revolt against British colonial rule to their south and an autocratic government to their north. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no solid alternative to Western hegemony. Initially, the unification of Yemen was hoped to bring a better future to all Yemenis, with both South and North Yemeni leaders co-existing. The unification of the PDRY in South Yemen with the YAR in North Yemen, which gave rise to the Republic of Yemen, in 1990, did not lead to a brighter future for the country. Ali Abdullah Saleh would be the dictator of the Republic of Yemen and advocated and implemented neoliberal economic policies that severely crippled public services in order satisfy international monetary institutions.
There has been speculation that the loss of Soviet support to the PDRY, as well as the weakening economies in South Yemen and North Yemen made this a major factor in unification. However, I asked Agerhus the same question and he replied with this:
“I don’t believe it was a significant factor, considering that unification was already under consideration by the late 1960s. Yemen never intended to be split. In the Civil War period, South Yemeni trade unionists held seats in North Yemen’s government. Although unification was always the goal, it wasn’t easy to realize that. Yemen was close to unification in 1990, but it had been there before that. The socialist military dictator Ibrahim Al-Hamdi ruled North Yemen in the 1970s. He sought to reform and rebuild society without external intervention. Although an Arab nationalist by heart, he was still left-leaning enough to find large common ground with South Yemen’s president, Salim Rubai Ali, to such an extent that by 1977, a shared elementary school curriculum had been enacted to be taught in both Yemeni nation states, and with plans to reunify the two states’ diplomatic corps. A planned 1977 visit to Aden would have likely strengthened the path towards real reunification. However, Al-Hamdi was killed during luncheon. by his right-hand man, Al-Ghashmi, on October 11, a murder many consider Saudi Arabia to have orchestrated in order to regain control of the tribes, whose influence Hamdi had made great effort to curb and limit.”
The Yemen we see today is a nation that was under the thumb of an autocratic ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, for 33 years, a country that’s direction was left in the hands of Western powers following the Cold War. Agerhus comments on the 1962-1970 war.
“The civil war and consequential atrophy of the public administration meant that Yemen was beyond vulnerable and even poorer than it had ever been. In theory, the September 26 revolution was a milestone achievement for Yemeni society, seeing the establishment of the Peninsula’s only Republic. Although the revolution was supposed to have created an Arab nationist democracy state, it turned out that reality was very different. Saudi Arabia maintained its influence on the tribes, and at one point even decided on the appointment of the country’s prime minister. This level of influence only grew stronger with Judge Al-Eriyani’s presidential term from 1967 until 1974, which saw the establishment of a special ministry of tribal affairs acting as a gateway for further Saudi entrenchment into Yemen’s public administration and society.”