The Peculiar & Continuing Saga of Yemeni Unification

When I think about reunification—any reunification—Yemen isn’t the first country that comes to mind.

Where in the world is Yemen anyway? If you’re like most of us, Yemen is probably lumped in with the general geographic bloc of “Middle Eastern countries” that all of us vaguely wish we knew more about (though we probably never wish we knew more seriously enough to take action unless the final question at Trivia Night is about Yemen and then we lose the game to that team with the weird name and then we go home and look up the capital of Yemen).


This is Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Photo credit Ferdinand Reus via Wikipedia.

Yemen may be an obscure place, but it turns out to be a valuable case study in reunification. South Korea isn’t unaware of this; in fact, some Koreans viewed it as a paragon of top-down integration until a civil war broke out in Yemen in 1994 and analysts scrambled to reverse their views. Then it became a cautionary tale of the instability of unification imposed from above. No popular support, no true unification, went the story. Since then it’s been mostly forgotten.

I found out about Yemen from a slim yellow volume on the mostly-unused 7th floor of Emory University’s library. The book was Towards Korean Reconciliation: Socio-Cultural Exchanges and Cooperation, by Gabriel Jonsson, and I picked it up thinking I would learn more about unification dialogue. Instead, I was sidetracked by the backgrounder on Yemeni unification.

The area that makes up present-day Yemen has been a clearly identifiable nation and culture for thousands of years; its capital, Sana’a, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth. As anthropologist Paul Dresch wrote in 2000 on the history of the country, “Since the rise of Islam, if not well before, the idea of Yemen as a natural unit has been embedded in literature and local practice.” But—as with Germany and the Korean peninsula—colonial powers divided it for their own purposes, resulting in two countries, North and South Yemen.



North Yemen (orange) and South Yemen (blue) before unification in 1990. Image credit Orange Tuesday, Fry1989, Alkari, and Jarke via Wikipedia.

North Yemen was ruled under the Ottoman Empire until that empire’s collapse in 1918 at the end of the First World War.  Then North Yemen gained its independence. South Yemen, though, remained a colony of the British Empire until 1967 when the empire moved out and South Yemen gained its own independence.

North Yemen had since become a more or less democratic republic with tribal representatives; South Yemen, after its independence, became the only Marxist state in the Middle East. Not too different from North and South Korea, no? The two states fought through the 1970s and 1980s, but economic factors proved to be the key to unification. When oil was discovered in border regions between the two countries, they decided to end the skirmishes and work together for greater joint prosperity.

In 1988 they formed a joint oil exploration area along their border and a joint company, the Yemeni Company for Investment in Mineral and Oil Resources, to extract the oil. This was the first step toward practical unification. By late 1989, the leaders of the two countries had signed a unity draft constitution, and on May 22, 1990, Yemen was formally unified.

The key to the quick progress was the attitude of each country’s leadership. Both sides saw it as a “now-or-never” opportunity.

They even created a multi-party government. Former North Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh became Head of State, and former South Yemeni president Ali Salim al-Baidh became Head of Government. A unity constitution was ratified by the populace in 1991. On the surface, everything seemed to be running smoothly; Yemen was the best successful example of national unification, and it was relatively unique in being formed mostly from the top down.

But tensions remained. South Yemen had vastly fewer people, and its people felt that they had been co-opted by the populous, prosperous North. More importantly, each side kept its military in place. In 1994, fighting broke out in a civil war; the South seceded, but the prosperous, populous North crushed their rebellion in a matter of months.

Tensions have not disappeared. The South still sees its position as subordinate, and calls for secession have continued. The South also continues to view the Northern rulers as an aggressive faction bent on exploiting the natural resources of the South.

Yemeni unification remains an unsolved problem; even in November 2012, more than two decades after unification, a national dialogue conference was needed to try to resolve some of the conflict between the two still-distinct halves of the country.

That wraps up our too-brief history of Yemeni Unification. Despite the simplicity (or, perhaps, because of it), the parallels to the situation on the Korean peninsula are somewhat clear already. For an investigation into what Yemen can teach us about the future of the Korean peninsula, read Yemeni Unification: Implications.



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