Yemen Divided: The Story of a Failed State in South Arabia
by Noel Brehony
I.B. Tauris, 2011. Pp. xxii 257. Preface. Maps. Chronology. Abbreviations. Illus. Notes. Select Bibliog. Index. Hb. £25. ISBN 978-184885-635-6.
South Yemen, as a distinctive political entity separate from the remainder of Yemen in modern times, lasted roughly for one and a quarter centuries. For most of this period, it fell under British control, although the extent of that control varied between Aden and the hinterland, and from one part of the protectorate to another. Few countries could have been worse prepared for emergence as an independent state with a revolutionary leftist regime. Independence lasted for only twenty-two-and-a-half years when it merged with, or, more accurately, was absorbed into North Yemen.
Noel Brehony, in this thorough and engaging account of that period of less than a quarter of a century, poses the intriguing question, 'could an independent South Yemen return?' The answer of course lies in present developments as much as in the past. But a useful response to that question requires delving deeply into the circumstances that led to the birth and the fall of the South Yemeni experiment. This Dr Brehony does admirably. In connection with his diplomatic career, he served in Aden in the early years of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) and kept in close touch with developments there until unity in 1990.
Thus, one of the major strengths of the book is his long familiarity with his subject. This familiarity has enabled him to conduct extensive interviews with members of the former PDRY government and other principal players. In addition, the value of his story is enhanced considerably by reliance on a thorough examination of published sources in Arabic, in addition to materials published in Western languages.
Dr Brehony begins by describing the circumstances that led to the fall of the British-inspired Federation of South Arabia, the emergence of the National Liberation Front as the dominant opposition movement, and the uneasy coalition of leaders that established the People's Republic of Southern Yemen in late1 967. The right wing (but only in relative terms) were forced out by 1969 and the new alliance between centrists and leftists (or should it be said, leftists and far leftists?) restyled the country the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) This change in nomenclature signified two things. First, the 'Democratic' (as in, for example, Democratic Republic of Germany) displayed the growing ideological tilt of the regime. Second, Aden began to assert itself as the rightful government of all Yemen, particularly as the North Yemeni state expunged itself of its leftist wing and reconciled with the royalists from its just-concluded civil war.
But even this new PDRY order was marked by tension between two wings of the party, one led by the president, Salim Rubayya Ali (aka Salmin) and the other by the head of the party, Abd al-Fattah Isma'il. The friction was based on clashes in personalities but also in a struggle for control between party and state, reliance on regional or tribal affiliations and origins, and, to some extent, differences over whether primary collaboration should be with Moscow or Beijing. The far left seemed to have won when Salmin was accused of involvement with the bizarre assassination of the North Yemeni president and was executed. But the game was proven to be far from over even though Abd al-Fattah was forced subsequently to go into exile. His return a few years later sparked new tensions that culminated in the bloody shootout between rival factions in January 1986. At a stroke, many of the historic leaders of the National Front/Socialist Party "including Abd al-Fattah "were dead, the head of the centrist/leftist faction was forced into permanent exile, and a new leadership "less radical, less experienced "took over.
The experiment, however, was on its last legs. The crisis in leadership and ideological direction was underscored by the continuing poverty of the country. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the country's principal backer by far, spelled economic catastrophe. This spurred the impetus for unity at all costs. 'The PDRY's decision to end its existence was a voluntary act by its leaders, who did not view their move as a form of state suicide but as the achievement of a long-desired unified Yemen, in which they would play a leading role' (p. 203). But in fact the southern leadership soon discovered that it had surrendered to the power of the North Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Salih (who may well find his reign ended by the time of publication of this review).
As of May 1990, independent South Yemen was no more. But its former ruling party, the Yemeni Socialist Party, soon became the voice of the south in its subjection to rule by the north. An attempt at secession in 1994 was crushed by force, and a renewed Southern Movement in recent years has been resisted harshly by Sana'a. Nevertheless, the southern sense of injustice is real and not about to diminish. As Dr Brehony puts it, 'There is a southern identity based on the shared experiences of the PDRY, and a feeling that the grievances that all Yemenis suffer are particularly severe in the south' (p. 203).
The PDRY experiment generally is considered a failure today. But as Dr Brehony points out, it suffered from serendipitously negative factors beyond its control. The new state would have enjoyed a far more prosperous economy if the closure of the Suez Canal in 1967 hadn't robbed the port of Aden of its key role. At the same time, if the PDRY had survived beyond 1990, the economy would have been buoyed by subsequent oil discoveries within South Yemeni territory.
In answer to the question posted above – 'could an independent South Yemen return?' – Dr Brehony points out that leadership of the Southern Movement remains fragmented, most southerners fear a return to the old PDRY state (a product of the extreme ideology of the time), and North Yemeni rule has strengthened regionalism and tribalism. The Southern Movement, he contends, conforms broadly to the reformed PDRY model that some activists were advocating in the 1980s. In conclusion, he feels that the 'majority [of southerners] believe that the 'southern personality' should have expression in a new south, though they disagree on what form it should take: decentralized southern provinces, confederation, federation or secession' (p. 212).
The book contains two maps, one of the old 'South Arabia's' chequered existence in 1965 and the other of the PDRY in 1985, both well drawn and clear. There are also four photographs of the South Yemeni leadership, which leaves the reviewer wishing more had been included. Another useful addition is a three-page list of prominent personalities, essential for keeping track with the many historical figures with confusingly similar names (which is often compounded by their reluctance to use tribal names). There have been a few other studies on the old PDRY but none were as comprehensive or – of course – as up to date as this one.