On May 22, 1990, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR)—North Yemen—and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY)—South Yemen—merged into a single Republic of Yemen (ROY).
Achieving unity was never an easy mission. One of the obstacles was the northern tribes’ opposition to the unification. Since South Yemen was ruled by a Marxist regime, the YAR northern tribes did not want to come together with what they perceived as an alien neighbor.
In the 1970s, the north YAR and south PDRY fought two wars: one in 1972 and the other in 1979, reflecting the hostility between the two countries. Despite the agreements to unite the two Yemeni states reached after each war, they were quickly shelved both times.
The scene drastically changed in the 1980s. The government gradually extended its control in tribal areas. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Charles Dunbar, “The keys to success were the construction of schools and hospitals in tribal areas and, in particular, the discovery of oil in Marib Province, in the heart of the eastern tribal country,” he writes
Dunbar notes that the “new relationship between the tribes and the government made tribal leaders more willing to go along with Sana’s major foreign policy initiatives, including unity.” That allowed President Ali Abdullah Saleh—who had ruled the YAR since 1978—to work on achieving unity without it leading to a crisis with the tribes as it did in the past.
The decisive meeting came on November 30, 1989, when Saleh met his southern counterpart, Salim Ali al-Beidh, in Aden. Both presidents agreed on bringing the two states together. To Saleh and al-Beidh, unification was seen as a solution to internal problems they were facing in each state.
Since then, Yemen has witnessed various conflicts, but none fractured the country in the way the current civil war has. The ongoing conflict, which erupted over six years ago, began after the Ansar Allah movement, more commonly known as the Houthis, took advantage of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s weakness and went ahead to consolidate their control over the north. Hadi came to power after Saleh was forced to step down in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions, which had reached Yemen.
The Saudi intervention ended up being a prolonged bloody quagmire.
In September 2014, the rebels took over the country’s capital and ousted Hadi. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm and led a coalition that aimed to restore Hadi’s government. However, the Saudi intervention ended up being a prolonged bloody quagmire, with increasing signs that the rebels are shifting the course of the war in their favor. The conflict is no longer solely between Hadi’s government and the Houthis. Instead, the country is increasingly divided among numerous factions.
The Houthis now control most of the northern areas. In February, they launched an offensive to seize Marib—the government’s last major northern stronghold—though they have failed to capture it and the stalemate over Marib continues.
In turn, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), which pursues a separatist agenda, controls Aden, Lahj, al-Dhale, and parts of western Abyan in the south. The STC, which was formed in 2017, also controls Yemen’s Socotra island in the Arabian Sea.
The Islah Party, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Yemen, maintains strong support in tribal areas across the country. In Taiz, which is Yemen’s third-largest city and the capital of its largest governorate of the same name, it is Islah that dominates politics.
Meanwhile, Tariq Saleh – former President Saleh’s nephew – established in 2018 the National Resistance Forces (NRF), which are backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Tariq “consolidated his power in the areas under his control, which stretch from the Bab al-Mandab Strait to the southern perimeter of Hudaydah city.”
In al-Mahra, there is a Saudi-Omani rivalry. “Saudi Arabia has built up its military presence on the Omani border, establishing at least two dozen bases over the past three years and recruiting locals for paramilitary groups,” writes Gregory D. Johnsen. “Oman, which sees al-Mahra as within its sphere of influence, has grown increasingly concerned with the Saudi military presence on its border and is working to undermine it.”
There is also a rivalry between al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorist groups in Yemen. Fighting occurs regularly in al-Bayda province between tribes who are aligned with either al-Qaeda or ISIS. It is known that the disputes between them supersede any peace agreements.
Incredibly, these are not the only active armed groups on the ground in Yemen. Indeed, there are more parties and factions complicating matters. In other words, Yemen is only united in name. In reality, it is utterly divided. Although there are various parties fighting against the Houthis, apart from the common goal of defeating the militia, they appear to have conflicting agendas.
The warring parties, who control different areas, have the capability of spoiling any peace effort that does not meet their interests.
Under these circumstances, it is almost impossible for Yemen to be a united country again any time soon. The warring parties, who control different areas, have the capability of spoiling any peace effort that does not meet their interests. Unity is unlikely to be one of their aims, simply because it would mean their influence would shrink, should the Yemeni state retain control over the country’s territory.
The Houthi rebels are trying to present themselves as Yemen’s sole representatives rather than being only one part of the broken state. Meanwhile, even though the STC and the government signed the “Riyadh Agreement” – which aimed to end the rift between the two nominal allies – in November 2019, the STC has still not abandoned its separatist agenda.
Even if a permanent ceasefire is implemented, which is possible, it does not mean the government will retain control over all the areas it has lost. Should the Yemeni government try to restore its authority over all of the country’s territory, fighting could erupt again. After the territorial gains the warring parties made, it is unlikely they will hand over the areas they now control voluntarily.
In short, the situation in Yemen has become a patchwork of rival zones mired in endless conflicts. Understanding these clashes is essential for finding a solution to the current crisis.
For the warring parties, Yemen’s future does not seem to be the priority. Instead, and unsurprisingly, it is their own interests that appear to drive their actions. Furthermore, there are regional countries that have an influence in Yemen and they too are unlikely to support the idea of a united Yemen if that means losing their influence. Thus, while peace could still occur in Yemen, the fractured country has a long way to go to be united again, if ever.