President Ali Abdullah Salih of Yemen deserves some respect. Critics may decry his rule as a scantily gloved kleptocracy, or fret that it has turned his spectacularly rugged and impoverished country into an incubator of jihadist terror. Some cite other ills swelling in Yemen, such as the malnutrition that now afflicts 58 percent of its children, or the festering war against northern rebels that has forced 350,000 people from their homes, or the growing secessionist movement in the south that threatens to split the nation in two. Yet Salih’s talent for survival is clearly formidable.
The sixty-eight-year-old former tank commander has ruled northern Yemen, a long-isolated land of terraced hillsides and misty peaks rising to 12,000 feet, since Jimmy Carter was in the Oval Office. For twenty of those years he has also presided over its union with the South, a bigger but more thinly peopled region that was a British protectorate until 1967, gained independence as a halfhearted Marxist state, and then, in the same year that East Germany reunited with West Germany but with less fanfare, opted to merge with the North. Together, the two Yemens had barely eight million people when Salih came to power in 1978. He now rules three times as many, spread over 150,000 tiny settlements in an area the size of Colorado and Wyoming combined.
As Victoria Clark shows in Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, her timely, incisive, deftly turned, and sympathetically bemused survey of Yemeni history and politics, Salih’s endurance is an achievement in itself. Rarely has a greater Yemen cohered within anything like its current borders. The land the ancients called Arabia Felix, contrasting its green and therefore “happy” part of the peninsula with the surrounding Arabia Deserta, was more often an amalgam of warring tribal territories. It tended to shake off would-be masters or reduce them to despair.
The Ottoman Turks, for instance, mounted successive efforts to subdue the country, beginning in the sixteenth century. They conquered its blistering Red Sea coast with ease. Pushing up steeply craggy gorges to the populous highlands, they captured its teetering stone-built cities too, and even held them for years at a stretch. But as the Turks vainly sought some taxable commodity to make their stay worthwhile, implacable tribesmen from the remoter hills would harass their supply lines and besiege their garrisons, inflicting such losses that the invaders inevitably retreated.
One can almost hear the sigh of the last Ottoman governor of Sanaa, the northern capital whose older quarters of gingerbread-like fortress-houses look much as they did in 1918 when the Turks departed for good, as he passed this verdict: “In my opinion, this is what happened, from the day we conquered it to the time we left we neither knew Yemen nor did we understand it or learn about it, nor were we, for that matter, able to administer it.”
A half-century later the Egyptians suffered a similar fate. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the pan-Arabist leader of the 1952 coup that toppled Egypt’s King Farouk, cultivated a group of like-minded army officers in Yemen. Their grievances were understandable. North Yemen in the 1950s was a backwater, run in medieval style by a hereditary leader of the Zaydi sect, a uniquely Yemeni branch of Shia Islam that had, for a thousand years, held out in the highlands against foreign incursions. Imam Ahmad, a grossly fat morphine addict who kept the national treasury in sacks of silver coins, was not the most glorious of the line. Eccentric and cruel, he was said, in Clark’s memorable words, “to have drowned his dwarf court jester for a joke and then, overcome with remorse, to have fasted, prayed and played with an electric train for a fortnight.”
Within a week of Imam Ahmad’s death in 1962, republican army officers shelled his palace and forced his son and heir to flee. But neither the beheading of dozens of the imam’s relatives, ministers, and counselors nor the nailing of their heads over Sanaa’s gates succeeded in cowing his tribal allies. Supported by mercenaries paid by royalist Saudi Arabia, they pursued a tenacious guerrilla war in the northern mountains against the new republican military regime.
By 1965 the Egyptians, supporting the republican officers, had committed some 55,000 troops bolstered by tanks, artillery, and Ilyushin bombers that showered remote hamlets with poison chemicals. Yet the republicans failed to subdue the tribesmen who hid in caves and sprang devastating ambushes. After losing more men than in the 1967 war with Israel, whose six-day victory owed much to Nasser’s preoccupation with Yemen, the Egyptians retreated. Their republican allies sued for peace with the royalists who had, fortuitously, been similarly abandoned by their Saudi patrons. The deal they reached in 1970, still a key underpinning of Yemeni politics, stripped the old ruling family of power but awarded other prominent clans a stake in the republic.
Egyptian chroniclers likened their debacle to America’s misadventure in Vietnam. Summing up the experience, Egypt’s then minister of defense, Abdul Hakim Amer, remarked that it was only in the end that they realized it had, all along, simply been a war between tribes. Egypt had stumbled into this “without knowing the nature of their land, their traditions and their ideas.”
It was not only foreign invaders who faced a rough time. Amin Rihani, a Lebanese-American reporter whose Arabian travel trilogy from the 1920s is both witty and acute, described northern Yemen as being in a permanent state of war, with short intervals of peace. Its ruler then, and until his assassination in 1948, was the Imam Yahya, Ahmad’s father. Capricious and fiercely conservative (he closed Yemen’s only girls’ school, which had been started by the Turks), Yahya sustained his grip by the effective expedient of forcing every tribal sheikh to surrender hostages. There were said to be four thousand in all, housed in comfort or chained in dungeons depending on the behavior of their kinsmen.
Even so, Rihani gives a picture of constant threat to Yahya’s rule:
He is at war openly with the Idrisi, at war secretly with the Shawafe; at war periodically with the Hashid and Bakil; at war politically with the Englishâ€”also with those Arabs around Aden who enjoy English protectionâ€”to say nothing of the Saiyeds, his cousins, who aspire to his high place. Not at all soft is the royal couch.
This litany of dangers deserves explaining in detail since, oddly enough, nearly all of them remain serious to this day.
The Idrisi family was a powerful clan from the far north, in what is now the Saudi Arabian province of Asir, that harassed Yahya’s territory until 1934. A brief war that year between the imam’s forces and the expanding new Saudi kingdom ended in a treaty. The Idrisis faded away as vassals of the al- Sauds, but the oil-rich and conservatively Sunni kingdom to the North has continued to intervene in Yemen. As Clark reports, Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Abdul Aziz, is said to have croaked a deathbed warning never to let Yemen be united.
The term “Shawafe” refers to the Sunni Muslims who predominate on the peripheries of Yemen’s highlands.1 Strife between the Shia Zaydis and the Sunnis, who form a slight majority overall, has been rare, but extremists on both sides have often stoked trouble. The Zaydi rebels who have fought a six-year insurrection in Yemen’s northernmost province, Saada, accuse President Salih of turning a blind eye to the expansion of Saudi-influenced Sunni radicalism. He in turn charges the rebels with being a fifth column for Shia Iran.
The Hashid and Bakil are the two main tribal groups in Yemen’s mountain heartland, each comprising both Sunnis and Zaydis. No would-be ruler can hope to maintain control without their assent; the Bakil, as well as some Hashid clans, fought on the royalist side in the civil war between 1962 and 1970, and the Bakil are also prominent among today’s northern rebels. President Salih, himself from a subclan of the Hashid, has survived largely due to a consummate skill at flattering, bribing, and privileging tribal sheikhs, or playing them off against each other.
The Saiyeds (more properly spelled Sayyids) are aristocratic descendants of the Prophet Muhammad’s family. The main leaders of the ongoing Saada rebellion, the Houthis, are Sayyids. They contest Salih’s rule partly on the grounds that although he too is nominally a Zaydi, he is a mere commoner. Unhelpfully, the right to depose unjust rulers forms a central part of Zaydi teaching.
As for the English, their star has clearly faded since Imam Yahya’s time. Others, however, still fill the role of the powerful and potentially dangerous foreign meddler, as we shall see. But first a further digression into history.
The British arrived on Yemen’s southern littoral in 1834 seeking access to the deepwater harbor at Aden, conveniently placed on the route to India. This they captured in 1839, after hostile local sheikhs refused to lease it. To protect the port, Britain signed some ninety separate treaties with neighboring tribal potentates. In exchange for British stipends and “protection,” these local rulers left Aden alone. They enjoyed near-total autonomy in their own fiefdoms, stretching eastward through the string of oases known as the Hadramut, as far as Oman.
This arrangement, enforced by the dispatch of biplanes to bomb recalcitrant sheikhs, was cheap, sparing the British much need to invest in schools or dams or roads. It was only in 1963 that Britain, ignoring resistance from the now-polyglot citizens of Aden, incorporated the port and the tribal lands within a single federation. Victoria Clark, who was born in Aden and later covered Yemen as a reporter, describes a continuing disconnect: “The tribes distrusted and scorned the cosmopolitan bazaar cum army camp that was modern Aden while Adenis, for their part, both feared and despised the archaic and xenophobic tribesmen who encircled them.”
Just four years later, in 1967, Britain abandoned South Yemen, leaving a messy wake as rival leftist guerrillas struggled for control. The new government eventually declared the southern federation a people’s republic, banned all parties but the Yemen Socialist Party, and tried to enforce secularism. An anti-feudalist campaign ousted “collaborationist” aristocrats in the interior, sending many into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Aden’s fortunes declined, too. The blockage of the Suez Canal by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war diverted shipping for a decade, while “scientific” socialism put capital to flight. The people’s republic enjoyed free public schools and hospitals staffed by Cuban doctors, as well as women’s rights and jobs for life. But by 1989 South Yemen was exhausted, having endured two border conflicts with the North and a series of bloody coups that were ostensibly inspired by ideological sparring but looked more like gang wars. Without patrons any longer in the crumbled Soviet bloc, its leaders grabbed for the lifeline of union with the North.
The Shafi'i school is one of four accepted Sunni interpretations of sharia law, the others being Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali. Differences between them are minor. The Shafi'is (or "Shawafe" in Rihani's spelling) predominate in Yemen and Egypt, while Saudi Arabia follows the stricter Hanbali school.↩
The Shafi’i school is one of four accepted Sunni interpretations of sharia law, the others being Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali. Differences between them are minor. The Shafi’is (or “Shawafe” in Rihani’s spelling) predominate in Yemen and Egypt, while Saudi Arabia follows the stricter Hanbali school.↩