Yemen, the United States, and Al-Qaida
By Stephen Zunes
December 19, 2001
There has been increasing attention on Yemen as the possible next major focus in the U.S. campaign against terrorism. Yemeni government forces have begun a crackdown against suspected Al-Qaida members and supporters, and a number of armed clashes have ensued. This comes just weeks after the November 26th meeting in Washington between President George W. Bush and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in which the Yemeni leader promised cooperation in the struggle against terrorism and President Bush promised additional security assistance to support that effort.
Yemen has almost as large a population as Saudi Arabia, yet lacks much in the way of natural resources. Indeed, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite this, the Saudis have attacked Yemen on several occasions along their disputed border, seizing one of the very few small oil fields under Yemeni control. Despite this rather brazen act of greed by the world's largest oil producer and the widespread discrimination and repression against Yemeni migrant workers within Saudi Arabia, Washington has generally sided with the Saudis in their ongoing disputes with this poor republic on the southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula.
The country was divided into North and South Yemen until 1990. South Yemen received its independence from Great Britain in 1967 after years of armed anti-colonial resistance, joining the British colony of Aden and the British protectorate of South Arabia. Declaring itself the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, it became the Arab world's only Marxist-Leninist state and developed close ties with the Soviet Union. As many as 300,000 South Yemenis fled to the north in the years following independence.
North Yemen, independent since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, became embroiled in a bloody civil war during the 1960s between Saudi-backed royalist forces and Egyptian-backed republican forces. The republican forces eventually triumphed, though political instability, military coups, assassinations, and periodic armed uprisings continued. In both countries, ancient tribal and modern ideological divisions made control of the armed forces virtually impossible. Major segments of the armies would periodically disintegrate, with soldiers bringing their weapons home with them. Lawlessness and chaos have been common for decades, with tribes regularly shifting loyalties in both their internal feuds and their alliances with their governments. Many tribes have been in a permanent state of war for years and almost every male adolescent and adult routinely carries a rifle.