Yemen’s ongoing civil war is often represented as being purely about control over the country. However, due to historical grievances, much of the South would prefer outright secession. As the war drags on, these secessionists are likely to gain influence, and could cause a return to the pre-1990 world of two Yemens.
Given the failure of this summer’s ceasefire, it seems likely that the current conflict in Yemen will continue for the foreseeable future.
Analysis of this conflict frequently treats it as a war for control over the state.
It is assumed that whichever side should win — be it the Houthis or the loose coalition surrounding President Hadi — will control the same land and people who made up the pre-war state of Yemen.
However, this insistence on viewing Yemen as a single, indivisible entity overlooks the fact that modern-day Yemen is a very recent creation, and not an extremely popular creation at that. As the civil war continues to destroy the national infrastructure, a return to the pre-1990 world of two Yemens becomes increasingly likely.
A brief history
The territory which makes up modern-day Yemen was not politically united in the modern era until the very end of the Cold War. Instead, it was divided into two states, one in the western portion of modern Yemen, and one in the east. Despite being at approximately the same latitude, these states were referred to as North and South Yemen, respectively.
North Yemen was composed of territory which had been controlled by the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, and thereafter obtained independence. As first a monarchy and then a presidential dictatorship centered around the city of Sana’a, it got involved in regional politics (aligning itself variously with Nasser’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia), but remained largely uninvolved in global politics.
South Yemen took a very different route. Originally a British colony based around the strategically important port of Aden, South Yemen won independence from the UK in 1967, and shortly thereafter became an orthodox Marxist state. As the only Marxist nation in the Middle East, it found a natural sponsor in the USSR, which sent significant amounts of aid to South Yemen.
An unhappy union?
Throughout the 70s and 80s, there were various proposals for a unification of the two Yemens that were stymied by mutual distrust. South Yemen, with its large size but sparse population, feared that North Yemen would quickly come to dominate any potential union. However, as the Cold War wound down, the Soviet Union could no longer afford to subsidize South Yemen. As a result, the South Yemeni leaders became increasingly concerned that their position was unsustainable, and saw unification with the North as a solution to this problem.
During the early years of the union, it quickly became clear that the South’s fears regarding Northern domination were well founded. The parliament was overwhelmingly Northern, while the Yemeni Socialist Party – which had previously governed South Yemen – became a minor member of the governing coalition. This imbalance caused tensions to rise, until the Southern leaders eventually tried to secede in 1994, only to be decisively defeated in a short civil war.
Modern Yemen thus only came about due to the South’s loss of the USSR as a sponsor, and was only maintained by military force. Unlike the unification of East and West Germany, it was not motivated by deep-seated grassroots nationalism, as the populace in both North and South Yemen had been fairly apolitical. However, since the 1994 civil war, many Southerners have consistently resented the government in Sana’a, as they feel that the government does not represent them and takes what few resources the South has without providing anything in return. In recent years, this anger has led to the formation of the loosely organized “Southern Movement,” which agitates for Southern independence from the North through a variety of rallies and protests.
The Southern Movement and the current conflict
With the collapse of much of the Yemeni army, and defection of much of the remainder due to former President Saleh’s declaration of support for the Houthis, Southern Movement fighters have become a key part of President Hadi’s Aden-based coalition. Inspired by the destruction which occurred during the fight over Aden in early 2015, thousands have joined anti-Houthi militias which now play an important role in controlling the port city.
Both Hadi – himself an Aden native – and his supporters in the Saudi coalition have insisted that Yemen should remain country. However, due to the South’s previous experience with union, it is unlikely that many Southerners will accept this. Further, there is no guarantee that Hadi or his foreign backers will actually have a say in peace negotiations. The Houthis’ goals of better governance and accountability are not inherently opposed to the Southern Movement’s goal of freedom from the North. The primary obstacle preventing these two sides from partitioning the country between them is the Southern Movement’s lack of organization.
Consequences of a divided Yemen
The secession of the South from the North is no panacea which will fix either states’ many problems. Modern Yemen is a state with many endemic issues; secession would only address one long-standing grievance. Both states would thus face a variety of problems and opportunities.
For instance, North Yemen has always had a stronger government presence; one which has been largely unaffected by the war, and as such could be expected to remain fairly politically cohesive post-war. However, without access to the South’s natural resources, it would be likely to face even worse economic problems than Yemen has historically endured.
An independent South Yemen would be far less cohesive, as it lacks the same level of governmental presence and faces current armed rebellion by Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the East. However, it should be noted that this sort of political fragmentation is not especially different from what has happened in this region in the recent past, and it is unlikely that a united Yemen would fare significantly better against these challenges.
Additionally, if South Yemen could achieve some level of stability, it would have several opportunities. Stability could encourage tourism to the remote island of Socotra, which is famed for its extremely unusual ecology and pristine beaches. Having domestic control of its oil would provide a source of wealth and growth, while the city of Aden – which remains Yemen’s premier port – would provide another source of economic inflows.