War buries Yemen's fading dream of unity: States' rocky marriage founders on altered balance of oil power, writes Charles Richards

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The Independent Online
AS THE civil war in Yemen reached the outskirts of Aden yesterday, the hopes of the Yemenis both north and south to create a united, democratic country lay in ruins. The conflict has shattered the illusion that the dream of Arab unity could be achieved by the consent of the people, rather than by the whim of rulers or the tanks of a despot like Saddam Hussein.

Yemenis, north and south, have always declared themselves one people, although until four years ago the country was divided into two states: the Yemen Arab Republic in the north, with its capital in Sanaa, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south, with its capital in the old bunkering (coal-loading) port of Aden.

The marriage between the two in 1990 was a merger of unequals. Back in 1990, north Yemen, with a population of over 9.5 million and limited but useful oil reserves, was the bigger and richer partner. South Yemen, with a population of only 2.5 million, had few oil or gas reserves, and was recovering from the bloody civil strife which followed the 1986 attempt by the then president, Ali Nasser Muhammad, to wipe out his political rivals. He was swept from power, and languishes in exile in Syria.

Three developments upset the balance. First, Yemen's enthusiastic support for Iraq during the Gulf war prompted Saudi Arabia to expel about one million Yemeni workers.

This cut off the country's main source of revenue, the remittances of Yemeni workers abroad, and added a huge number of unemployed to the workforce.

The second development was economic. Exploration companies discovered oil and gas in southern Yemen, at Masila. At the same time, the north's production in the Marib field was running down. This meant that the south, previously the poor relation, found it suddenly had a windfall, which it was not willing to share.

The third element was more strictly political. On 27 April 1993, general elections were held.

The elections were widely seen as some of the fairest in the Arab world. Because the tribe is the main social unit, and the state has not acquired the apparatus of repression found in most Arab countries, Yemenis enjoy far greater freedom of expression. The press is lively and varied. At the same time, violence has been part of the political culture. Before and during the election campaign, southern politicians from the Yemen Socialist Party were targets of assassinations.

The elections increased the southerners sense of being the poor relations. In the 1990 merger, the two states were regarded as equal. The elections reflected more correctly the demographic weighting. Although the Yemeni Socialist Party won nearly all the seats in the south, a third force, that of the traditionalist Islamic Islah party, backed by Saudi Arabia, was brought into the governing coalition. The Islah party immediately demanded the repeal of progressive legislation introduced by the Yemen Socialist Party. In a huff, the Vice-President, Ali Salem al-Beidh, retreated to his stronghold in Aden. His northern counterpart, General Ali Abdullah Saleh, tried to govern from Sanaa in spite of obstruction from southern politicians.

The civil war which has broken out does not divide the country merely on a north-south axis, or along ideological grounds. Mr Al- Beidh enjoys support from some tribal confederations in the north. Although he cut his political teeth in the socialist paradise of South Yemen, the conflict is not about ideology. It is years since Marxist policies were followed. It is he, and not President Saleh, who can style himself sharif, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, conferring a legitimacy which not even the House of Saud can claim.

(Map omitted)