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The War Nerd November 13, 2002
Yemen: A Tough Zit to Pop
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 2 of 4
1838 AD: The British land and claim Aden and South Yemen for the Crown.

The British grabbed a piece of the Yemen coast on the off-chance it might come in handy someday. They weren't shy back then, before "Imperialism" was a dirty word. If they saw a shoreline that looked inhabitable, they rowed ashore and planted a Union Jack. They held onto Yemen for decades, but it wasn't until the Suez Canal was finished in 1870 that they finally realized what they'd wanted Yemen for. By God, it commanded the entry to the Red Sea!

Yemen: It

Yemen: It's God's country!

While the British were occupying South Yemen, the part facing the Indian Ocean, the Ottomans held onto Northern Yemen, the part that faces the Red Sea. Both empires settled for forts along the coasts. Nobody much wanted to explore inland, where the tribes still ruled themselves. Those tribes didn't take kindly to surprise visitors (and still don't). So the borders of Yemen start out at the coasts with big strong dark lines, then fade into nothing as they head inland. Nobody really knows where the borders are once you head inland. It's the Rub-al-Khali, "The Empty Quarter" -- the nastiest, driest and blankest part of the whole stinking Arabian peninsula. Until they found oil up there, nobody but the tribes gave a damn who owned it. (Since then, the Saudis, the big hogs, have started working up a nice little border war with the Yemenis.)

In 1918 the Ottoman Empire -- one of the biggest, oldest empires in the world -- just crumbled. Northern Yemen, which used to be Ottoman territory, was suddenly independent, whether it wanted to be or not. The British held onto South Yemen, though. The North tried forcing the British to pull out of the South so they could set up a united Yemeni state. The British sent more troops. Yemenis fought a small but deadly little guerrilla war against the British right through to 1967, when the British finally pulled out.

That's when Yemeni history gets REALLY confusing and messed-up. To oversimplify: the British withdrawal in 1967 left a power vacuum in South Yemen. It filled up fast with the "Pan-Arab" schemes which were all the rage among early-sixties towelheads. In 1962, North Yemen had joined the "United Arab Republic," a big pan-Arab scheme run out of Egypt. That was a disaster, but it gave the Egyptian intelligence services a foot in the Yemeni door. A coup against the Yemeni ruling family that year gave all the local powers a chance to interfere: the Saudis backed the Yemeni Royals, the Egyptians supported the rebels. But it wasn't really ideological. Nothing ever is in countries like Yemen. It was the old clan-vs-clan warfare, just gussied up with fancy foreign words about "democracy" and "socialism." That was exactly what happened in 1967, when South Yemen, newly independent, renamed itself "The People's Republic of South Yemen." That set the next, inevitable war: this time a civil war between the royalist North and the Communist South.

It was Vietnam reversed; alone among Third World conflicts, the South were the evil commies, and the North were the good anti-commies. Most freedom-loving folks were used to rooting on the South of any Third World civil war against the North: South Vietnam, South Korea... It was so confusing that it just never made the papers.

That war got off the ground in 1972 and ran, off and on, right up to 1990. In that time there were dozens of peace treaties, coups, unions, declarations, promises and commissions. It's impossible to say how bloody the war was - more like a long-running feud. As far as I can tell, none of the treaties and declarations made a damn bit of difference.

Weirdly enough, there was apparently something actually resembling peace in Yemen for a couple of years in the early '90s. Somebody tell Dan Akroyd! He should've put this on his Strange Impossible Paranormal Events series: peace in Yemen!

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Gary Brecher
Browse author
Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.


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