Noel Brehony is an author and chairman of the British Yemeni Society and a former chairman of the Anglo-Jordanian Society. In 2011, Brehony published a book on South Yemen, titled Yemen Divided: The Story of a Failed State in South Arabia (I.B. Tauris). After completing a Ph.D. on Libya, he spent two years conducting postdoctoral research in the West Bank before joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where he worked mainly on the Middle East with postings to Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, and Egypt. Diwan interviewed Brehony in mid-March, in order to discuss his book on South Yemen in light of the revival of a southern separatist movement in the midst of the country’s conflict.
Michael Young: Your book on South Yemen was written in 2011, before the Yemeni conflict. How has the war, which began in March 2015, affected the views expressed in your book on the situation in the south?
Noel Brehony: Events since 2011 have not much affected my views expressed in the book, though in the final chapter I did ask if a southern state might return, while pointing to the lack of an effective southern organization or a majority in favor of redividing Yemen. I saw the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the former South Yemen, as a failed regime rather than a failed state. Much has now changed as a result of the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in the north, the nature of the transition process of 2012–2014, the rise of Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthis, and particularly since the war began in March 2015, with the deep involvement in the south of the United Arab Emirates.
The Houthi incursion into Aden and the south in early 2015 awakened memories of the 1994 civil war, which destroyed the remnants of the PDRY and of earlier attempts by regimes based in the north to expand into the south. When the UAE intervened in summer 2015, it focused its support on local militias fighting the Houthis, often led by southern nationalists. UAE officers trained, equipped, and mentored these militias. The most effective was led by Aydrous al-Zubaydi, a former PDRY military officer from Dhaleh (Lahj). (Dhaleh was part of Lahj in the PDRY. The current governorate of Dhaleh includes areas that were in Lahj in the PDRY and areas that were in the Yemen Arab Republic, or the former North Yemen.) Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, under pressure from the UAE, appointed Zubaydi governor of Aden in 2016, but then sacked him, for insubordination in 2017. Zubaydi set up the Southern Transition Council (STC) with overt support from the UAE.
Subsequently, the UAE-trained militias in and around Aden became de facto the armed wing of the STC, which wants to restore a southern state. There is now an effective southern organization and I assess that there is a majority in the south that wants separation from the north, either in a state or in a confederal Yemen. However, the history of the PDRY shows that if there is more than one state in Yemen it can generate rivalries, competition over resources, and instability. The Houthis show every sign of wanting a united Yemen—80 percent of Yemenis are in the north, while Yemen’s oil and gas reserves are mostly in the south.
MY: You discuss in your book the so-called Hirak, the movement in southern Yemen as of 2007 which sought to secede from the Republic of Yemen. Where do you see this leading down the road?
NB: The STC might claim it is the Hirak, but that is contested. Other smaller organizations can be locally important in parts of the south. There is a very good analysis of the various southern groups for Carnegie by your colleague Ahmed Naji. The main challenge comes from Hadi’s internationally recognized government. The president is from the southern governorate of Abyan, where he has considerable support, and from the Islah Party, which includes elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and is backed by Saudi Arabia because of its importance in fighting the Houthis. The STC took control of Aden from Hadi in 2019, but under Saudi pressure signed the Riyadh Agreement to share power with him. It has ministers in a government led by a prime minister whom Hadi appointed. Yemeni military units in Hadramawt and Shabwa are loyal to Hadi, but the STC has been building its influence in both governorates. The division between Hadi’s supporters in the south, who are mostly in Abyan, and the STC which is strongest in Dhaleh, Aden, and Lahj, reflects the divisions that led to the quasi civil war of 1986.
MY: You describe in your book the very fractured leadership of the PDRY, which remains the only effort to establish a Marxist state in the Arab world. What would you regard as the main lines of division between these leaders? Was it mainly tribal, regional, or ideological?
NB: It was all three, but greatly exacerbated by the personal ambitions of the “historical leaders” of the National Liberation Front that fought the British. Notable among them was Salim Rubayya Ali (known as “Salmin”) from Abyan and head of state in 1970–1978; Abd al-Fattah Ismail, party secretary of South Yemen’s ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) from 1969 until 1980; Ali Antar al-Bishi, a defense minister and vice president of South Yemen, who hailed from Dhaleh; Ali Nasser Mohammed from Abyan, who was prime minister from 1970 until 1985; and Ali Salem al-Beidh, also a party secretary of the YSP and actual leader between 1986 and 1990.
The politics of the PDRY focused on Aden, Dhaleh, Lahj, and Abyan, which had been the centers of the NLF in its fight against the British and the sultans. The bulk of the National Front (the “Liberation” part was dropped in 1967, before it became the YSP in 1978) originated from these governorates. Conversely, the large governorate of Hadramawt was underrepresented, although individual Hadramis such as Beidh were very influential and Hadramis, thanks to their better education and links to the diaspora, provided some leading military and state officials. Shabwa, a large area but with a small population, usually allied with Abyan.
Other factors that affected the struggle between the leaders included, first, that each leader built a power base in his home region, often reflecting the tribal alliances within the previous sultanates, sheikhdoms, emirates, or other entities that had made up South Arabia. South Yemen was not a state in 1967, but an entity made up of Aden, which had been a British colony, and two protectorates, each composed mostly of tribes within small emirates and sultanates who had been left to their own devices by the British. The PDRY set out to abolish tribalism, but this was undermined by the way that individual leaders built power bases in their home regions.
Second, the struggle was affected by the fact that most influential politicians from Aden in the NLF were, like Ismail, of northern Yemeni origin. In the early days they wanted to build up the National Front/Yemeni Socialist Party (NF/YSP) as their source of influence since they lacked the tribal and regional power base of their rivals.
Ideology was not a source of major divisions after June 1969, when the extreme left ousted more pragmatic socialists. The National Front understood the need to build up effective cadres and educate them in Marxism at a party school set up with the advice of the Soviet Communist Party. When I was in Aden in 1970 and 1971, I came across people who said they were Leninists, Stalinists, or Trotskyists. However, they wore their ideology lightly and tended to reflect the views of individual leaders from their home regions. There were also differences in emphasis: ideology versus pragmatism in the economy; the balance between dependence on Moscow and its allies and the need for better relations with the PDRY’s wealthy neighbors.
There were greater differences between the PDRY’s leaders over the attitude toward Yemeni unity. The NF/YSP put Yemeni unity at the top of their public policy objectives, as did leaders in the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north. However, each saw unity as the imposition of its ruling system on the other. They fought two wars in the 1970s, each followed by unity agreements that were not implemented. When the YSP was set up in 1978, it created a secret northern branch whose leaders were members of the leadership of the YSP (though never declared as such). Politicians like Salmin and Ali Nasser gave priority to building up the strength of the PDRY (and it was stronger than the YAR in the 1970s), with unity as a long-term objective. They worked closely with YAR leaders to preempt or limit the impact of the many problems that arose. Abd al-Fattah Ismail wanted more immediate unity, as did some leaders from Dhaleh and Lahj—both bordering the YAR. They sought to undermine the YAR regime.
Personal ambition played the greatest role. Salmin was at loggerheads in the 1970s with other leaders over the role of the head of state and the party. He was opposed to the setting up of the YSP, which he saw as weakening his influence as head of state. His execution in June 1978 followed what appeared to be his personal involvement in the assassination of a YAR head of state. His successor, Ismail, alienated southern politicians by insisting on being head of state and party leader, promoting other northerners, and drawing too close to Moscow. Southern politicians mobilized against him (this was when the term northerner and southerner started to be used in PDRY politics) and forced his resignation in 1980. He was exiled to Moscow but made president of the YSP. Ali Nasser then took over as head of state and party secretary while remaining prime minister. He implemented more pragmatic policies that gave the PDRY its few golden years in the early 1980s. His refusal to share power caused his rivals to conspire against him—leading to the tragic events of January 1986, which dealt the PDRY a mortal blow.
MY: One thing that is striking for anyone who reads about the National Liberation Front is the way that it was ideologically influenced by Marxists from other Arab countries—notably, Palestinians and Lebanese. Can you tell us about the importance of this outside influence, and in this context explain the role played by the Arab Nationalist Movement in the liberation movement?
NB: The NLF was born in the late 1950s, in the era of Arab nationalism and socialism personified by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. It transformed the Arab world, aided in what was then the Imamate of Yemen and British-run South Arabia by the rapid spread of the transistor radio. The Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) was set up in Beirut in the 1950s with among its prominent leaders the Palestinians Georges Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh. It saw itself as a vanguard, led by a nationalist elite that sought to replace existing Arab regimes as steps toward creating an Arab state. Yemenis, mostly southerners, studying in Beirut and Cairo were attracted to it and the ANM leaders saw Yemen as the best candidate to be the first ANM-run state. The ANM rapidly built an organization in Aden and South Arabia, and in 1963 it set up the NLF. ANM branches elsewhere mobilized members of the Yemeni diaspora (in Kuwait in particular) to join the NLF. The NLF’s success owed much to the operational support and training of Egypt’s intelligence service, and to being able to operate from the friendly YAR. Divisions within the ANM affected the NLF, in which a strongly Marxist current prevailed. After southern Yemen achieved independence in 1967, the National Front absorbed the pro-Syrian Baath Party and a small but influential communist party in Aden.
Communists from other Arab countries—Lebanon in particular—were influential and taught in the party school. But it was Habash and Hawatmeh who had the greatest impact on the NLF/NF/YSP, influencing its policies and helping to deal with the rivalries within the National Front leadership—and in the case of Hawatmeh maintaining its Marxist direction. The PDRY was also close to the Soviet Union and had diplomatic relations with many communist and revolutionary regimes. One striking feature was the degree of personal interest that successive Soviet, East German, and Cuban leaders took in the PDRY and its leaders.
MY: You suggest that the major leadership clash in January 1986 was the beginning of the end for the PDRY. Can you describe what happened and explain your conclusion?
NB: Ali Nasser Mohammed was unchallenged in the period 1980–1983. His monopoly of power led to growing demands, initially from Ali Antar, who had supported Ali Nasser in removing Ismail, that he give up one of his posts. Antar then maneuvered for the return of Ismail in early 1985 as Ali Nasser’s control was weakening. He was forced to step down as prime minister and from mid-1985 he was in danger of being removed as president. The rivalry intensified with both sides mobilizing their supporters in the party, state, and military (Ali Nasser was defense minister for most the 1980s and Antar was a former defense minister and commander of the armed forces). Tensions were very high in 1985, paralyzing decisionmaking. Both sides were visibly preparing for a showdown. The question was who would move first. On January 13, 1986, Ali Nasser acted. His opponents were summoned to a party meeting at which his bodyguards killed Antar and close associates. Ismail escaped (as did Beidh), but he died later that day.
Despite Antar’s and Ismail’s death, Ali Nasser’s opponents rallied with the support of elite parts of the military and armored units in and around Aden. There was heavy fighting in Aden for three days—and for longer in other parts of the PDRY—but by mid-January Ali Nasser had clearly lost. The civil war led to the death of at least 5,000 people, the decimation of much of the PDRY’s leadership, a part of which fled to the YAR with Ali Nasser, much destruction in Aden, and great damage to the economy and the legitimacy of the YSP regime. The state was weakened at a time when Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in the YAR was becoming much stronger. Beidh became YSP party secretary and Haydar al-Attas president—both of them Hadramis—of a greatly weakened state. From 1986 on the Soviet Union advised the PDRY to follow its example of glasnost and perestroika. The Soviet Union’s collapse ended economic and military support from Moscow and its allies. The PDRY had nowhere to go except toward unity, which it entered at extremely short notice and with little preparation. The civil war of 1994 (in which militias linked to Ali Nasser Mohammed sided with Sanaa) finished off what was left of the PDRY.
MY: Who, for you, was the outstanding figure, or figures, from the PDRY experiment, and why?
NB: Salim Rubayya Ali, Abd al-Fattah Ismail, and Ali Nasser Mohammed, for their role in creating and sustaining the PDRY, despite their flaws. Others who receive less publicity but who were very influential were Abdullah Ba Dhib, the leader of the communist party in Aden known as the People’s Democratic Union, whose ideas and thinking helped shape the PDRY’s ideology; and Jarallah Omar, another intellectual, who had been a key figure in the clandestine northern branch of the YSP and helped shape thinking in the last years of the PDRY and in the YAR until his assassination in 2002.
It is often forgotten that the NLF did not inherit a state. They had to create one that had to impose its authority over all parts of the south, despite losing much of the income from the Aden port because of the closure of the Suez Canal in 1967–1975. There were few roads or government services outside Aden. Saudi Arabia was financing crossborder attacks to try to bring the regime down. The NLF had almost no time to prepare for government and few observers thought that its regime would survive for long. At its apogee in the early 1980s, it provided effective state services, rights for women second only to those of Tunisia, and a secular administration that was not corrupt.