- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Huthi attacks on ships traversing the Red Sea have prompted people all over the world to ask about the Huthis. Who are they? Why are they taking these actions in solidarity with Gaza against the Israeli genocide, even as it elicits US military reprisals? What, generally, is going on in Yemen?
To answer these questions and more, Daniel Denvir interviewed longtime Yemen scholar Helen Lackner for The Dig podcast. Helen is an associate at the Transnational Institute and the author of many books including Yemen in Crisis: Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope and Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. They discussed the Huthis’ ideology, history, and politics, their solidarity with Palestine, and where they fit into Yemen’s long civil war. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Mainstream reports these days often portray the Huthis as mere Iranian proxies. And their attacks on ships passing through the Red Sea are framed, I think, rather cynically, as either a favor to Iran or as a means to shore up an authoritarian domestic order. For the Huthis’ part, of course, they say they’re motivated by solidarity with the Palestinian people, and that their attacks are geared to pressure Israel to stop its genocide in Gaza. What should we make of the Huthis’ attacks?
The Huthis are genuinely committed to helping Palestine. If you’re looking at the Huthi ideology, which is very limited and very simple, its main foreign policy is support for Palestine and being anti-Israeli and anti-American. So, these actions on their part absolutely fit in perfectly with their own beliefs and ideologies. And they’re doing this essentially through their commitment for this cause.
I want to pick up another element of what you were saying, which is this Iranian proxy bit. I find it particularly frustrating and irritating, because, one, it assumes that the Huthis take their orders from Tehran, which is absolutely not the case. They are not proxies. They have their own mind, and the support for Palestinians is a fundamental element of their ideology. And the second element of that proxy business is that it implies that the Huthis, or indeed all the others who are being accused of being Iranian proxies, have no agency of their own and have no ideas of their own. It’s an incredibly arrogant and patronizing position, which I find incredibly irritating.
These are two really important elements, which are worth getting out of the way before we move on to other things.
Definitely. I wanted to get those out of the way before we get into actual analysis, get the dominant and conventional mystifications taken care of. The Huthis are garnering a lot of sympathy and attention across the Arab and Muslim world, and also across the pro-Palestine left everywhere, because, as you write, “Ordinary people are noticing that the Huthi movement is the only one taking action against Israel.”
Obviously, the Huthis haven’t stopped Israel’s genocide or even slowed it, but they have wreaked serious havoc on the global shipping industry, the backbone of the global economy, which has prompted this recent series of US-led military responses. And the Huthis have done all this in the context of an overwhelmingly mute response from the Arab League, including countries like Egypt that have been directly, economically affected. How consequential is the Huthis’ partial blockade, both economically and geopolitically?
I think economically it has some impact and not particularly against Israel, though it has cut down shipping to El’ad and it’s obviously discouraging a number of ships from going to Israeli ports. Overall, the impact is somewhat significant throughout the region, and beyond that, through the world. But it’s also important not to overemphasize this. Some ships are diverting around the Cape of Good Hope. A lot of them are still going through.
There are people who’ve been suggesting that a lot of ships are diverting because they’ve been told or encouraged by the United States to do so. But the Huthis have been very, very explicit. They have said very clearly that the ships they object to, or that they will target, are ships that have any connection with Israel. So, whether that’s a connection of delivering goods, picking up goods, transit, ownership, whatever, those are ships that they are targeting. They are not targeting others. They’ve also explicitly announced that, for any other ship, all they need to do is respond to Huthis’ calls and say that they have no Israeli connection. They will then not be attacked.
So, I think we have to look at what is actually happening. I mean, I have this vision of the Red Sea sort of becoming a traffic jam of any number of ships all over the place, between the military ones, the civilian ones, and others. They have apparently on occasion either hit or been close to hitting ships that did not have Israeli connections. Whether those [ships] were actually their targets, or they were targeting another one nearby that did have a connection, I don’t know. But I tend to believe that when the Huthis threaten something, they mean it. And at the same time, when the Huthis generally make agreements, they tend not to mean it. So, one has to have a clear differential between the different circumstances that you get when dealing with the Huthis.
But I’d also like to pick up something I missed out on earlier, which is the Huthis’ support. It’s almost funny at times, because certainly within Yemen — within the area that the Huthis control, i.e., two-thirds of the population of the country — they are not popular. And they are generally considerably disliked because their rule is not what you’d call democratic or friendly or showing any respect for basic human rights. The Yemeni population, alongside the population in most Arab countries, and many others, is pro-Palestinian. And therefore, what they are doing in the Red Sea has enormously increased their popularity in the area that they rule.
Throughout the rest of Yemen, all you have to do is look at recent demonstrations in Sana’a in favor of Palestine, and you will see incredibly large numbers of people attending them. And slightly more amusingly, we now have people in the West who are talking about the Huthis as if they’re great people or dreadful people, depending on who they are. I mean, I live in the UK, and the Huthis have been the number one item on the local news bulletin. This is reaching sixty million or sixty-five million [people], or basically 95 percent of the population in this country, who had no idea who the Huthis were two weeks ago and probably still don’t really understand who they are. And you go to a pro-Palestine demonstration, and people again are praising them and saying how wonderful they are.
I mean, they are not wonderful. What they’re doing with respect to the Red Sea and Palestine is definitely a good thing, in my view. But the rest of their activities are by no means things that anybody on the Left should support.
The recent US-led attacks on Huthi targets have been made in the name of securing the free flow of international commerce. All, of course, while the United States continues to energetically fund and supply Israel’s genocide with apparently no redlines at all. And the Huthis, meanwhile, seem to really relish this American intervention. The US attacks have only spurred more defiant statements from Huthi leaders and more attacks on passing ships. There was one widely circulated video recently, after one of the American bombardments, with crowds in the capital chanting, “We don’t care, we don’t care, make it a big world war.”
How do you analyze the US decision to strike Huthi assets? Because Biden was recently asked if the air strikes in Yemen were working, and he responded, and this was sort of exemplary of US foreign policy in the Middle East, “Are they stopping the Huthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.” So, does the United States actually believe that these strikes will produce a desired outcome, i.e., stopping Huthi attacks on ships? Or is it more a quixotic effort on the United States’ part as the global hegemon to demonstrate that the Huthis can’t take these actions with impunity?
I think there’s a number of aspects that need to be noted. Number one, the Huthis have been lobbing things right, left, and center in the Red Sea since early or mid-November. So, we’re now two months later. It’s taken two months for the United States to take any action. So the first question is, why did they not do anything before? And the establishment of this Prosperity Guardian operation was a farce, because it did nothing over and above what the previous one, called Combined Task Force 153, which was established in April 2022, has done. It’s done nothing. I mean, if you look at the US statements, the current attacks are explicitly stated to not be connected with Prosperity Guardian. The main European states have refused to participate in Prosperity Guardian. You know, I actually have no idea whether Prosperity Guardian has done anything. And there’s no evidence that I’ve seen that it has done anything. There might be some evidence that I haven’t seen. But, as I’ve just said, I haven’t come across anything. And I’ve followed things fairly closely.
So, I think the reason the Americans delayed, which is similar to the reasons why the Saudis are responding with such modesty to Huthi actions, is that both the Americans and the Saudis were hoping to have the Yemeni peace deal achieved. They were still hoping that this was going to happen. And there were rumors that it would happen in the first few days of this year. So, they were hoping that they would be able to achieve this before the situation deteriorated. Clearly, they haven’t. The situation has now deteriorated.
The quote you mentioned I’ve also seen and don’t understand. I mean, [the US] is doing this because they feel they have to do something. I think they claim that, in the long run, it will [constrain] the Huthis. I mean, assuming that they were able to destroy every single Huthi drone, missile, and every other kind of projectile the Huthis might have, then presumably that would put an end to the Huthi actions in the Red Sea. But I don’t see that this is likely to happen. I have no idea of the figures of anything, or even the different types of items that they have. I’m not at all a military-inclined person.
But it’s very clear to me that the Huthis are definitely not going to stop, unless they have no alternative. And if you look at the history of US intervention in the region or even beyond the region in the last few decades, one is led to seriously wonder on what criteria and on what grounds the United States is doing what it is doing. Look at the record. Afghanistan is the most obvious and stunning case of twenty years of intervention, and twenty years of killing people, and twenty years of bombing, and twenty years of training Afghans in military affairs and providing them with weapons. And it’s those weapons that the Taliban were pointing at them in August 2021 when [the United States] finally left.
And so you have a history of these interventions having exactly the opposite effect of the effect that is stated. There is no reason to believe that attacking the Huthis will be any different. So it is somewhat puzzling, and maybe people who are more expert on US policy are in a better position than I am to explain this. But I think when you’re looking at the Huthis, and you’re talking about them being happy about the war and the expansion of the war, the Huthi fundamental slogan has three negative items, which are: death to America, death to Israel, and curse on the Jews. So, I mean, being anti-American comes even before being anti-Israeli. So having the Americans attack them is a highly ideologically desirable situation from their point of view.
It also has the impact [of] helping them keep together and retain support, or gain more support, from the Yemeni population. Yemenis are extremely pro-Palestinian and they also do not like to be attacked or invaded by any foreigners of any description. The Huthis kept people together under their control for the last nine years largely in response to the Saudi attack, and what they perceived as a Saudi attack, and what they presented as a Saudi attack: i.e., the foreigners are attacking us, and we must defend ourselves.
And unlike the United States and Israel, who claim self-defense while they’re attacking others, [the Huthis actually] have every right to talk about self-defense. I mean, the US missiles aren’t attacking the Democratic Republic of Congo, you know, they’re attacking Yemeni territory, which is definitely part of where they live. So that fits into a much more reasonable definition of self-defense than the Americans saying they’re in self-defense when they’re attacking a place that’s thousands of miles away.
I should ask you a very basic question that I neglected to ask you. Who are the Huthis? The Huthis are varyingly referred to as a tribal group, a religious sect, and a political movement. Who are they and what is their ideology? And what sort of government have they implemented over the areas that they control?
Okay, the Huthis are not a tribe. The Huthis are a movement that is named after its leading family, who are called “Huthi.” They come from the far north of Yemen, and they are Zaydis. Now, if you look at Yemen’s religious situation, you have two main Islamic groups within Yemen. You have the Zaydis — who are a form of Shia, which is different from the Iranian Twelver Shia — on the one hand, and they control most of the northern highlands. And if you look at a map of the territory of what the Huthis control, they control that area plus I’d say a sort of band around it. So, they control more than just the Zaydi area. And the other religious group are Shafi’is, who [follow] a form of Sunnism, and they live in the rest of the country. And there’s a few tiny groups of Ismailis.
And the important element of the Zaydis and the Shafi’is is that, religiously and in terms of daily life, there’s very little theological difference between them. And for many, many centuries they lived side by side without any problems. But until the revolution in Sana’a in 1962, the regime that ruled Sana’a and surrounding areas was the Mutawakkilite Kingdom or Imamate, which was basically a Zaydi movement. And the main ideological characteristic of the Huthis, other than the two elements of foreign policy I just mentioned, [being] anti-American and anti-Israel, is their belief that the descendants of the prophet have an innate right to rule — and not only just a right, but a duty to rule the country and hopefully beyond. Those people in Yemen are normally known as Sadah in the plural and Sayyid in the singular, and they are the same people that in other areas are known as either Ashraf or Hashemites. A belief that this social group should be ruling the country is really the main ideological element.
The implementation of this in the area that they rule, which is the kind of governance that they run, does not have to be the way the Huthis are ruling. But the Huthis are ruling in an extremely autocratic and authoritarian system. They give no space for freedom of expression. They are particularly oppressive of women, as are most fundamentalist movements of any religion to my knowledge. And they basically do not accept any form of dissent; anything that looks like dissent is very severely repressed. So, although we may be quite pleased at what they’re doing about Palestine, that doesn’t mean that they are in any way a progressive movement.
Let’s step back and discuss how the Huthis came to exercise this sort of state-like power in the first place. Let’s jump all the way back to 2011, when these Yemeni uprisings exploded as part of the broader so-called Arab Spring. What drove this mass uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime president of Yemen and, before 1990, of North Yemen as well? What drove it, and what did that uprising look like?
Well, I think talking about the uprising is one element. Talking about how the Huthis arise is a separate element, because the Huthis were already active and had a whole series of six separate wars fighting the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime between 2004 and 2010. So, if you’re looking at the origins of the Huthi movement, it comes back to the 1990s when it emerged as a Zaydi revivalist movement, which was struggling against the rise of more fundamentalist Sunni movements of Salafis, which also were operating in the same part of their homeland, in the area around Sa’ada, the city in the far north of Yemen. And they had this disagreement with the Saleh regime.
This competition that existed between the Zaydi revivalists and the Salafi development movements, mostly in the 1990s, eventually led to this series of armed struggles that officially described the six wars between 2004 and 2010, in the process of which the Huthis became stronger and stronger. By the time the last cease-fire was agreed to in 2010, their military capacity had significantly improved from what it had been at the beginning. And it’s important to note that even in those days, when Ali Abdullah Saleh was trying to persuade the Americans that they should act against the Huthis on the grounds that the Huthis were close to the Iranians and a threat, the Americans completely ignored this, and everybody agreed that the Huthis were not connected with the Iranians at that time. So I think that’s one element which is very different from the issue of the 2011 uprisings.
Coming to 2011 uprisings, as you pointed out, Ali Abdullah Saleh had been in power in what was first the Yemen Arab Republic, from 1978 onward, and into the whole of Yemen, of the Republic of Yemen, founded in 1990. He had basically been an autocratic ruler. Ali Abdullah Saleh had ruled primarily to the benefit of himself and his close associates and his supporters, and therefore extracted what little surplus value there was in Yemen for the benefit of this small minority of people. And so, you had, building up from the mid-1990s, but particularly in the first decade of this century, an increasing level of frustration and anger among the vast majority of the population of the country who were being impoverished, whose incomes had dropped dramatically, who no longer had many of the options of migration that they previously had in earlier decades. And when they could migrate, the income and the revenue from the migration was much less, and therefore much less [feasible]. Most of the development investments were partly diverted but by no means sufficient to improve living conditions, which were generally deteriorating. You had a rise of popular discontent throughout that decade, and this intensified toward the end of that decade. And then there was an issue of the postponement of elections that were supposed to happen initially in 2009, if I remember rightly. And eventually it blew up into this explosion in 2011.
There are frequent assumptions that the movement in Yemen came as a result of what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia, which is simply incorrect. In terms of fairly large-scale opposition, demonstrations had been going on for quite a few months throughout 2010, and possibly even earlier, but the impact of Egypt and Tunisia was really to intensify and accelerate the movement and very much to give people the feeling and the hope that they could actually win. And I think that was a very big element.
Previously people thought, “Well yes, we demonstrate, we demonstrate, we demonstrate, but it doesn’t really do anything.” And people also, by 2011, had really given up on the hopes of changing or improving things through elections, because the elections, although they didn’t produce the sort of farcical results you found in Tunisia or elsewhere, certainly always ensured that Ali Abdullah Saleh and his party won. So, you had a real opposition and you had basically a mass movement that really emerged in 2011, which was very important, I think, and will probably retain some traces that will reemerge in the future. Because, in my view, one of the more important elements of that was that we didn’t just have mass sit-ins, or live-ins — I’m never quite sure what to call them — in Sana’a, but these happened in every single capital of every governorate. Now that includes real cities like Aden or Taizz or Hodeida, but it also includes a number of very small places, which I would personally call at best towns and just one step up from large villages. And the importance of these is not just that they happened everywhere. The real importance of these is that they were opportunities for people of all different social sectors and social origins to talk to each other and to discover that they had a lot in common.
In a society where people had previously mostly talked to people around them of the same tribe, or the same social group, or the same village, people from totally different parts of the country [could discover that they] had the same problems and that they shared a lot of things that they wanted to talk about. So, I think that was one of the very important elements about 2011 and one of the big hopes from it. I think the reasons it did not achieve very much are, first, that the movement itself lacked cohesion and lacked any clear objective beyond, you know, get rid of Ali Abdullah, which is a negative objective rather than a positive one. And the alternative was: We want a national economy. Well, that’s not really a very detailed economic program.
And so, that’s one of the reasons I think it did not achieve what it hoped for. The two other reasons are basically that the regime powers, which had had rivalries within them, split and ended up in military confrontations. And the third one, of course, was the intervention of the international community, which was intended to bring about a transition to I’m not quite sure what — I think it was supposed to be a transition to a democratic Yemen. And that eventually forced Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign the presidency, because if you look at the transition period which officially was 2012 to 2014, he was still heading his party, which was the most powerful party in the country and therefore retained considerable influence. That also had an impact on the failure of the transition.
So, at this point with the failure of the transition — the failure of the so-called National Dialogue Conference under interim president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi — how did the breakdown of that process and the failure of the uprising spiral into this decade-long civil war? And specifically, how did that lead to the Huthis marching south and taking Sana’a?
Well, 2011 led to this agreement which was known as the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] agreement in November 2011, and which created the transitional period, as you said, under Abdrabbuh Hadi. This transition government had a number of tasks. One of them was to have a government of national unity, which meant that half the government was from Ali Abdullah Saleh’s party, even though he wasn’t there. And the other half was officially composed of the main opposition parties, which include the major one, which is the Islamist Islah Party, what was left of the Yemeni Socialist Party, the Nasserists, the Ba’athists, and indeed what was known as the New Forces, which was women, youth, and civil society. So, they shared one half of the ministerial posts. And Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress had the other half. So, this was pretty much a recipe for failure. This government I think now has been overtaken, but at the time it was widely known by Yemenis as the most corrupt government they’d ever had.
Another element of the transition was this National Dialogue Conference, which took place between 2013 and 2014 for eleven months, instead of the six months that it was supposed to be. And that brought together all these forces that I’ve just mentioned and was quite an open discussion. It also led to recommendations, which were known as outcomes for some reason, which were supposed to be used for the establishment of a new constitution. And then there was a constitutional committee, which was set up in early 2014, which presented its results a year later, in early 2015. Now, in the course of the National Dialogue Conference, and with this government, while all these things were going on, the general situation in the country was continuing to deteriorate in terms of economic conditions and living conditions and social services, et cetera.
Another element is that the Huthis had been active members of the uprising in 2011. That kind of mellowed down or reduced, because there were still tents and people living in them two years later, but far fewer. What they concentrated on, while all this was going on, because they were not part of this government, was consolidating their power in their area, in the far north of the country. They expanded their control gradually in the neighboring governorates. And so, they strengthened their position.
One of the main elements of the transition, and the main sort of belief that came through the transition, was that Yemen would become a federal state. One of the big debates in the National Dialogue Conference was what was the federation going to be — how many regions, et cetera. I mean, in the period I spent in the NDC, I saw many different maps and suggestions. But the main point, from the long-term point of view, is that there were two groups who really opposed this federation. Ali Abdullah Saleh was one of them, along with his people, who wanted to retain centralization. And the Huthis were the other. Well, the Huthis weren’t necessarily against federalism. But once the proposed six regions were announced, they immediately denounced them because they completely isolated them and did not give them any of the things that they wanted — one of them being access to the sea, to the Red Sea in the west, and the other one being access to the oil fields in the east.
But they already had been working quietly in alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh. So what happened during 2014, when officially the transition was supposed to end, was that somebody in the UN [United Nations] or somewhere decided that Hadi’s time was going to be extended. I heard many talks that it was being extended for a year. I never saw anything that confirmed the duration of the extension of his period as president. But during 2014, the situation became much more acute as the Huthis gradually moved southwards from the far north and got closer and closer to Sana’a.
Their alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh was stronger, and between them they basically, by the summer of 2014, took over Sana’a, which is the capital, and all the surrounding areas. Then there were three months of negotiations and discussions, which eventually led to, in 2015, the escape of Hadi, because at that point he was under house arrest. And the Huthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces [were] heading south and threatening to attack and take over Aden. So, you had a battle in Aden for about three months in 2015, which is when the Emiratis and other forces started being directly involved in the fighting.
So why and how did the war become internationalized in 2015 with Saudi Arabia and the UAE entering with critical support from the United States? What motivated these neighboring monarchies to fight the Huthis? Their entrance came at the request of Hadi, but what was their motive?
Well, basically Hadi, as he was on his way out, because he felt there had been attempts to bomb his palace in Aden, promptly asked the Saudis to help them. Now, if we go back to what was the agreement for the transition, it was known as the GCC Agreement, and it was primarily sponsored by the Saudis and the Emiratis. The GCC Agreement took the name of the GCC because they wanted it, because the UN was involved. There was a group of ambassadors who were involved and who were forming all this, which included Brits, Americans, French, and various other European and other nationalities. So, I think if you want to look at the reason the Saudis were involved, you have to remember that the Saudis have been involved in Yemen since the creation of the Saudi state. And the first war that happened between Saudi Arabia and Yemen was in 1934. So, you have a serious long-term involvement.
The Saudis, for reasons which I still find somewhat obscure, always seem to see Yemen as a potential threat. Now, there’s no doubt that population-wise, the populations of the two countries are pretty much similar. And with a big difference, of course, that the Yemeni population is 99 percent Yemeni, whereas the Saudi population is about 60 to 70 percent Saudis, so there’s a lot of foreigners involved. And of course, the Yemenis are known to be serious fighters.
So, there is that element, but other elements would suggest that there’s good reasons for them to be getting on. I mean, you always have large numbers of Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia even now and even during the war. And the North Yemeni state from basically 1970 onward, and the whole of Yemen after unification, is enormously dependent on financial support from Saudi Arabia. And of course, the Huthis had been in a way threatening Saudi Arabia to some extent. So, requests from Hadi to intervene seemed welcome.
There are also two other elements which are particularly relevant to Saudi intervention. You have to remember that on January 15, King Abdullah died and was replaced by King Salman, who promptly started promoting his own direct descendants, and in particular Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, who was immediately appointed minister of defense. It seems laughable today, but I think it was widely known at that time [that MBS] thought, “Oh, well, that’s easy. We’ll sort this lot out in a couple of weeks or maybe a few more weeks. There’s this bunch of wild tribesmen sitting in the mountains with their small arms. And here we are. We’ve got US training, US weapons, the most advanced kinds of weapons of all varieties. We’ve got the Brits, the French, and everybody else supporting us. I mean, this is just going to be a walkover.”
And of course, he got the shock of his life, because that’s not what it was. And the Saudis right from the beginning were completely unwilling to put any people fighting in the country. They relied on air strikes. The Emirates at that time were very close to the Saudis and the relationship between MBS and Mohammed bin Zayed — who was then crown prince of the Emirates and is now the emir — was a close relationship, which was widely described as mentor-mentee. And they operated very much together, which is no longer the case now, almost a decade later.
So, you have a situation where they really thought it was going to be a walkover. And as things deteriorated, and as things extended, that gradually changed. So, that’s really how the Saudis and the Emirates got primarily involved. It’s worth mentioning in passing that officially it was a coalition of nine states. I mean, there are various other countries who were officially involved. The Egyptians were officially involved, but the Egyptians refused firmly to put any people into Yemen. They remembered the period between ’62 and ’70 when they had something [like] up to seventy thousand Egyptians in Yemen. And they got nowhere fast and a lot of them died. So, they had no enthusiasm for that. And the Pakistanis were also supposed to be part of it, and they were very crafty. They just said, “We have to go to our parliament to get permission.” And the parliament said no. So that was that.
Qatar was surprisingly part of the coalition. I say surprisingly just because they’ve had so many other conflicts with their Gulf monarchy neighbors over the years.
Well, Qatar was part of the coalition at that time. They were getting on fine. I mean, the rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, again, is something one can go into separately. But at that time, basically all the GCC states were part of the coalition, except for Oman. Oman refused to participate. I mean, Kuwait was officially there. Bahrain was officially there. I mean, there’s no reason why Qatar shouldn’t have been there in 2015. It’s only later on, when things deteriorated seriously between them and primarily the UAE, where the relationship remains quite tense and probably is unlikely to change for a while.
And today, Bahrain is the only GCC state, I believe, that is participating in reprisals against the Huthis, or at least Prosperity Guardian.
Yeah, it’s part of the Prosperity Guardian, not in reprisals against the Huthis. I mean, the Prosperity Guardian, as I was just writing for Jacobin, actually, is a farce. I mean, it’s done absolutely nothing. Even if you look at the strikes, the United States — I forget if it’s the Pentagon or the State Department, one of them — has said explicitly that these strikes have nothing to do with Prosperity Guardian.
Yemen’s war quickly became incredibly complex, including the separate but related campaign that the United States waged directly against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. All, again, while the United States was providing this material support to the Saudi-UAE intervention. How should we assess the US role, both in terms of their campaign against AQAP, and also, again, its lead role in this larger coalition of Western powers backing that broader Saudi-UAE war?
Well, I think you have to go back to before 2015. The US involvement in Yemen since the ’90s has been primarily counterterrorism. They’ve been particularly concerned with al-Qaeda. And although nothing that much happened until ’98, when there were the attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, al-Qaeda was rising and was an important force in the peninsula and to some extent in Yemen. It’s been far more of a problem for the Yemenis than for the Americans. But the rationale for most of the US presence in Yemen is based on counterterrorism. So it’s not so much that the US has got any significant fundamental interest in Yemen. It has a fundamental interest in supposedly ending terrorism. And so that explains why they were very active. And a few Americans at different points were kidnapped. I forget the details, but some of those who were killed were actually killed in attempts to rescue them.
So that’s the main interest for the Americans. I mean, there’s no fundamental economic interest. Until recently — well, even now, obviously — access to the Red Sea is a strategic position. And therefore, US interest in controlling strategic positions is worldwide. And they, for example, moved in and took up part of the French base in Djibouti many moons back. I can’t remember what year that happened. But it’s been going on for a long time. So, I think that’s really the main interest at that stage.
How big or consequential was AQAP? Tariq Ali said, after a visit to Yemen, that government ministers suggested that Americans had inflated the threat, saying that, and these ministers said, I think, that it was at most three or four hundred isolated fighters, that it was more a pretext for American intervention than a genuine mass or military phenomena. What’s your assessment?
Yeah, I think to a large extent, I agree with that. I mean, what one used to say in the 2000s and even earlier is, when people talk about al-Qaeda, what do they mean? Because every single faction had its branch of al-Qaeda. So, you had Ali Abdullah Saleh’s al-Qaeda, you had Islah’s al-Qaeda, you had different people. And when people came to me and said, “Al-Qaeda has done this, that, or the other,” my first question was, “Whose al-Qaeda and which al-Qaeda?”
So, my view is that I think that’s quite true that al-Qaeda was much less of a threat than it was presented internationally. The main people who were suffering from al-Qaeda would have been the Yemenis. And I think it was exaggerated, mainly because I think the Americans have tried to exaggerate their threat and terrorist threats systematically. I don’t think that’s exclusive to Yemen. They are a threat to some Yemenis in some parts of Yemen. But certainly the few international incidents have been dealt with. And again, if you look at it, it expanded after al-Qaeda moved, when most of its forces or its people moved from Saudi Arabia to Yemen. So I think it’s a mistake to assume that al-Qaeda is the fundamental feature of Yemeni life. What I used to say when people asked is that, when you asked an Afro-Yemeni what his problems and priorities are, al-Qaeda would probably be listed somewhere from number fifteen to twenty. There’s plenty of other more important issues that he or she has to deal with.
What role did Iranian support play in underwriting the Huthis’ political and military power throughout the civil war?
If you look at the early stages of the Huthis, they had a minimal, ideological relationship [with Iran]. Some members of the Huthi family went to study Islam in Iran, and they had this ideological connection. But when it came to the fighting, certainly during the six wars against Ali Abdullah, the Iranians just didn’t feature. The relationship developed and expanded from 2015 onward. And it’s expanded throughout that period. So, it’s both a political alliance and also an ideological change, the Huthis trying very much to differentiate themselves from traditional Zaydism. So, in terms of their influence on the population, they’ve imported a number of religious occasions from the Iranian Twelvers, and they’ve introduced various religious events that were basically not part of Zaydism in the past. So that’s the ideological influence.
Politically, they are closer to the Iranian regime in terms of this opposition to the United States and to Israel. And the military connection has certainly increased and is increasing, I would say, in the last three or four years. I mean, dates are a bit difficult at this stage, but I’d say from ’17 onward, the Iranian input [has been] providing the Huthis with technical knowledge to improve their weaponry. The Huthis have learned very much. Most of their original missiles and such were things that they inherited from the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime. But the Iranians are providing both information and bits and pieces that are highly sophisticated to put in these different weapons. As I said earlier, I’m really not a military expert. I can’t tell the difference between a missile and a Kalashnikov. That’s about my knowledge. So, although they are politically independent, they are very close allies at this point in history.
After almost a decade of terrible warfare, how did a cease-fire finally come about when it did? And will this at some point lead to an actual peace treaty with Saudi Arabia being signed?
Okay, well, first, it’s not a cease-fire, it’s a truce. And I think the UN can always insist on the difference. And the truce started and lasted from April to October 2022. So, what it meant is that the fighting reduced very, very considerably. Since the truce ended in October 2022, up to now, there’s been very, very limited military activity on all the usual fronts within Yemen. And it has been almost exclusively between the Yemeni sides, though on the immediate border to Saudi Arabia, there have been a few strikes across the border from Yemen. And recently, in the last few months, the Huthis managed to kill a few Bahrainis who were fighting there.
Mainly what there hasn’t been at all, until this last week, has been any air strikes on Yemen, full stop. Up to that period, any air strikes that took place were mainly from what is officially known as the Saudi-led coalition. And one assumes they were primarily Saudi planes and Emirati planes, on the assumption there weren’t any others. And I never attempted to figure out exactly which strikes were by whom. And I haven’t seen anybody who’s done that, though I think it can be done. You had a serious military intervention.
And until about 2020, the Saudis in particular had a lot of strikes which were not [on] military targets. They were particularly blamed for attacking weddings, funerals, and other such occasions. After 2020, I think most of their air strikes were very specifically and properly targeted at military situations, primarily in and around the Marib area, which was one of the major, major fronts between the different groups.
So, if you look at the evolution of the war overall, you had incredibly limited changes in fronts between 2016 and 2022. In 2020, the Huthis attempted a major offensive to take Marib because of its oil supplies and it being important for them. And they had these offensives in 2020, 2021. Finally, they didn’t succeed because of the Saudi air force, or Saudi and Emirati air force. And the Yemeni elements of the coalition really, really concentrated to prevent them from making progress there. You had, basically, a stalemate in the war by 2022, because nothing much was changing on any of the fronts. The humanitarian situation was disintegrating and deteriorating increasingly, dramatically, and systematically throughout the period. The economy was collapsing. This truce came very much at the time when it seemed that things were at the stalemate.
At the same time as the truce was the replacement of Hadi by what is known as a Presidential Leadership Council. Now, this is something that was entirely a UAE-Saudi operation that selected eight men to be this Presidential Leadership Council. I think even the members weren’t asked their views on this topic; they were just appointed. And the Yemeni involvement in that decision was minimal, if there was any at all.
This Presidential Leadership Council is basically eight military leaders, some of whom have less military force than others, representing different factions politically, different regions of the country, and whose rivalries and differences are superseding and far more important than their intention or wish to get rid of the Huthis. So, since they were appointed, they spent far more time in internecine fighting and struggling, because there’s hardly been any actual military fighting between those groups. And the important element is that some of these people are primarily supported by the Saudis, and the other half are primarily supported by the United Arab Emirates. What that means is that their differences, which are connected with internal power, are also connected with the rivalry between the Saudis and the Emirates in the Yemen conflict. And that is an important element, both in the emergence of this rivalry between the Saudis and the Emirates and in the potential future of the country in terms of finding a solution.
The other main element that happened from late 2022 onward was direct negotiations between the Saudis and the Huthis. As we said earlier, from 2020 onward, the Saudis’ main objective in Yemen is to get out of this mess and to be able to say, even if they can’t say “We’ve won the war,” that “We have ended the war, and we’re no longer involved.” The Saudis have been wanting to do this, I’d say, since 2020, possibly even earlier. And their efforts to do this have been through direct negotiations with the Huthis, which since late 2022 have been done openly.
In the course of 2023, there were two major events that led many to believe an agreement would be reached. First, there was a major Saudi delegation that went to Sana’a in April. And second, a Huthi delegation went to Saudi Arabia in September. In both cases, people thought that this is it, and we’re now going to have an agreement. It hasn’t happened; it didn’t happen. There was lots and lots of talk, including by the UN special envoy in December, that the agreement had been reached, and there would now be a roadmap, et cetera, and that it would happen in early January. It hasn’t happened.
I think one of the things that needs to be added here is what was the agreement, or what would be the agreement, and how it would work. The main elements that were under debate and eventually agreed [upon] were that the Saudis would pay the salaries of government staff for at least one year, which took some debate and some time to be achieved. The blockade on the Hodeida ports would be ended completely. It’s been largely lifted, but it still exists to some extent. And that the destinations for Sana’a airport, which has now been reopened for a couple of years, would be expanded. At the moment, they just go to Cairo and Amman. So those were some of the main agreements. And of course, on the other side, the Huthis would stop trying to prevent exports of oil from the southern ports.
One of the main sticking points, which some people claim has been solved and others say is still there, is under what name or what conditions the Saudis would be signing the agreement. The Huthis were for a long, long time insisting that the Saudis have to sign as participants. And the Saudis are saying we want to sign as mediators. Now, the [difference] is important because if they sign as participants, that leaves them open to accusations and court cases of war crimes for what they have done in the past, i.e., the period when they were bombing schools, and weddings, and funerals, and the like. Whereas if they sign as mediators, then this problem doesn’t occur.
It was said widely that the Huthis had conceded, and that [Saudi Arabia] would sign as mediators. Now, there’s been debate and some people who say that’s not true. But anyway, the point is that it means that the parties who would actually sign this agreement would be on the one hand the Huthis, and on the other the PLC, or the internationally recognized government. And it’s important to note that none of the PLC, nor any other elements of the internationally recognized [government], nor indeed the UN special envoy, have had any involvement in the negotiations between the Huthis and the Saudis. So, whatever those two have agreed is basically being imposed on everybody else regardless of what they may or may not think about it.
So lastly on this point, what is the status of the negotiations now? Where do things stand in the prospect for a formal end to the civil war?
Well, here you have to differentiate the end to the civil war and the agreement. The two things are very, very different.
The agreement — I think the hope after October and November for both the Saudis and the Americans was that they would manage to get the Huthis to sign this deal before the situation relating to Gaza deteriorated to the point where it was impossible to do so. I think we’ve now reached the point where it is impossible to do so. And therefore, the signature is highly unlikely to happen. The kind of comments and suggestions that one has heard vary between dead, in a coma, in intensive care, moribund, et cetera. So I don’t see how, now that the Americans have hit the Huthis, the Huthis would under any conditions go and sit in Riyadh, Mecca, Muscat, Amman, or anywhere else for a signing ceremony in the presence of Saudis, Americans, and others. I just don’t see this happening. I’d say it’s, at best, indefinitely postponed.
I personally have doubts that it would have happened anyway, but that’s another story. Because I believe that the Huthis don’t want a peace agreement that would reduce their control over the population, which is under their rule. And therefore, they basically need to be at war. Which also partly explains what you were saying earlier — [some Yemenis] saying they’re happy about the war with the United States getting involved — because it means they now have a real big enemy to deal with. So, if the deal had happened, it would have been a deal that clearly helps the Saudis and, to a lesser extent, because they’re less bothered with the Emirates, to say, “We are now out of the war in Yemen. We are no longer fighting the war in Yemen. We have won, maybe. But anyway, we are out.” The fact is that they would continue supporting the factions they like, et cetera, underground, on the quiet. I mean, it’s a standard international practice. It happens all the time.
With respect to the civil war in Yemen, it would not have necessarily had very positive implications. Because if it happened with the Huthis being very, very strong, it means that you then have the strong Huthis facing this very divided, internationally recognized government, which is not just divided but weak in a whole host of other respects. And therefore, you would have these intra-Yemeni negotiations under UN auspices taking place in a context in which the Huthis would very much have the upper hand. And, as we’ve explained, the Huthis are authoritarian and unpleasant. Unfortunately, most of the factions on the other side are at least as authoritarian and unpleasant.
So, in terms of solving the internal Yemeni crisis in favor of a regime that would respond to the needs, ambitions, hopes of the thirty-plus million Yemenis who are trying to live, the prospects are not very good. I think the current UN Special Envoy is doing as much as he can. I’d say his heart is on the right side. But whether, in those circumstances, anything could be achieved that would really improve living conditions for Yemenis is really under debate.
Alright, let’s turn way back in history, nearly two centuries, to when Aden first became a British colony in 1839. Why did Aden become so important to the transoceanic British Empire, and how did the British initially seize control?
Oh, well, they initially seized control the easy way. They brought their gunships and they shot off the few locals who happened to be around. I mean, that was not a difficult one. There were about, I think, four thousand people living in Aden at that time.
The importance of Aden is fairly straightforward. India was [Britain’s] main colony and was throughout the colonial period the most important colony. Aden had a fantastic quality [as a] natural port. I mean, even prior to the creation of the Suez Canal, but once the Suez Canal was there after 1869, it was an absolutely obvious transit point. And it was then known as the coaling station, because the ships were operating on coal and had to restock [there] with coal. And it just became a major transit point on the route between Britain and India, particularly after the Suez Canal and to a lesser extent before that.
What sort of city did Aden become as this key node in the British Empire?
It became a very mixed city because, as I said, it started as a small village of about four thousand people. It expanded primarily to service the needs of the British port and eventually of the British military, becoming a major military base. The population expanded enormously, mainly by immigration. On the one hand, a lot of Indians immigrated because, until 1937, Aden was actually ruled from Bombay and not from London. And so, a lot of bureaucrats and others were brought in from India. Later on, as [Aden] developed industrially, but also still for the port and for the British base, [people moved] from the hinterland — which was then officially in the Aden protectorates, i.e., within British areas — into areas which were then the Imamate, as well as people from Somalia and other areas. So, you had this very mixed population. Most of the people from Somalia and from the hinterland and from the Imamate were unskilled workers. A few managed to get some skills and an education, but the vast majority were workers.
So, you had quite a significant working class in Aden by the late ’40s, I’d say. I’m not sure exactly when, but certainly throughout the ’50s, you had a strong working-class element in Aden city itself. And it’s always worth noting that Aden was a colony. The hinterland was the eastern and western protectorates. So, the official relationship between the British and Aden and [the British] with the protectorates was very different.
What did the political order look like elsewhere in what is today Yemen? Including Sana’a in the north, where the Zaydi Imamate ruled.
Well, in the north, until the late nineteenth century — I can’t remember officially if it was until the end of World War I — you had an Ottoman connection. You had the Ottomans being present and trying to rule a lot of that country but not really succeeding. And then you had the Imamate, which varied in size and scope and territory over the centuries, but after World War I was basically based in Sana’a. And the borders between what was the Imamate and the British area were actually agreed on by the Imam and the Brits. Some of the reasons why there have been conflicts on some bits of the border is because it was all connected with various microrulers, who thought they would get more money out of how things worked. So, you have a very weird border which cuts across tribal groups and other groups.
The Imams in the twentieth century ran quite an authoritarian system and were active collecting taxes from the majority of the population. They also ran a very isolated state with very limited connections with the outside world.
And this is also where, up until the foundation of the state of Israel and the Nakba, Yemen’s substantial Jewish minority lived.
The Jews in Yemen were everywhere. There were a lot of them in the protectorates as well. I’ve no idea about the figures, but they were a minority, and they were mainly active in handicrafts, particularly things like silver and other sorts of manufacturing activities. But they existed everywhere in both the Imamate, and in the protectorates, and presumably also in Aden. Indeed, I think there is or was a small Jewish cemetery in Aden somewhere.
You recently wrote a Jacobin essay about the long history of Palestine solidarity in Yemen. You write, “In 1947, in the then-British colony of Aden, one of the first public demonstrations against British rule took the form of a three-day strike against Britain’s pro-Zionist policies in Palestine.” How was it, even before the Nakba, that anti-Zionism and Palestine solidarity served as this means for mobilizing broader anti-colonial sentiment in Yemen — in Aden in particular, but also across the region more generally?
I think it was very simply the fact that everybody objected to the British supporting the creation of Israel. If you remember that period after World War I and thereafter, the British promised to help the Jordanians, to help the Hashemites, to take over and to run the region. And the Balfour Declaration was something that was regarded with great hostility throughout the Arab world. It wasn’t a matter of being anti-Zionist so much as being anti the British creating a Jewish state on Arab land, if you see the difference. I mean, basically, they objected to the land being taken over by someone else. If it had been a bunch of Catholics from Ecuador, it would have been the same thing. It was this stealing and removal of Arab lands. I mean, there was already quite a lot of fighting going on in Palestine from the 1930s onward. And so, it was a widespread hostility to British colonial activities and expansion of colonialism.
In 1963, the National Liberation Front, or NLF, was founded. It was the force, the national liberation movement, that would ultimately push the British out of Aden in 1967, establishing the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in South Yemen. What was the NLF? How — and I found this fascinating — did it grow out of the Palestinian-led and Beirut-based movement of Arab nationalists? This is the same organization that ultimately gives birth to the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or DFLP. How did the NLF come about, and what accounts for its close historical association with the left wing of the Palestinian liberation movement?
Basically, the ANM [Arab Nationalist Movement] created those Palestinian movements you mentioned, but also other movements throughout the Middle East. I mean, there was a group in Kuwait that was associated with them. The People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman also originated with them. It was really a core group, which, as I understand it from people I knew way back who had been kind of involved, was a group that was created within AUB, within the American University of Beirut, which started discussing and having these alternative views and challenging colonialism and imperialism in general. It was a multinational group, I think. There were also some Saudis involved. The major movements that emerged out of it were the PFLP and the DFLP in Palestine; they were the biggest. And indeed, it was originally started by Palestinians. But I think it involved small groups of nationalists from all the different countries.
Eventually, it did split. It split between the sort of more right-wing and the more left-wing sections. The NLF was one. It had descended from the movement of Arab nationalists. Because when the NLF was formed, it included other groups, which were more local groups. So, in that sense, it was a front which included both elements of this left-wing group from the movement of Arab nationalists and other small groups of people from different parts of the British protectorates, mostly. I don’t think that if we look back to 1963 that you would find such a detailed analysis or a very firm, clear ideological position that was shared by all the groups who were in it. And indeed, if you look at the divisions that later emerged in the NLF before independence and after, you can see that there were different tendencies. But I think what’s really interesting to remember is that most of the left-wing and even communist movements, as far as I know, in the Arab world had their origins with that [ANM] group in the 1950s.
How did the NLF ultimately defeat the British Empire? And then what sort of government was the Marxist-Leninist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen [PDRY] that the NLF established?
Well, basically, there’s two things to remember here. First, the Brits had decided to go, and they were going anyway. So, it’s arguable whether or not they were literally driven out or they were leaving anyway. But, particularly in ’66 and ’67, there was as much fighting by the NLF against the Brits as there was fighting by the NLF against the rival liberation movement, the Front for Liberation of Occupied South Yemen [FLOSY], which itself was much, much closer to [Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser and Nasserism, and therefore very much a rival to the NLF. One of the interesting things — in retrospect, maybe slightly comic, if one can use that word in these circumstances — is that the British had had planned to leave and they decided to leave. But Aden, in particular, had become extremely chaotic. They only started negotiating with the NLF for the formalities of independence a couple of months before it actually happened. And one of the reasons they negotiated with the NLF is that they were totally opposed to FLOSY because of FLOSY’s close association with Nasser and Nasserism. And, if you look back at that period in the 1960s, as far as Britain was concerned, Nasser was the closest thing to the devil that you could find in the region.
They would have negotiated with anybody who opposed Nasser. And most of the memoirs you read of the Brits who were involved in that period, they had no idea who the NLF were. I mean, there’s endless stories of them discovering through a complete surprise that one of the people they negotiated with in Geneva was one of their staff members whom they had absolutely no idea was against them. So, there was a certain element of chaos going on in Aden in ’67 and the sudden decision to speed it up. Because first they were planning to leave in ’71, then they brought it back to ’68, and then eventually they left in November of ’67. So they were really in a rush to get out.
Speaking of Nasserism, let’s turn to North Yemen where republican military officers overthrew the ruling Imamate, the Zaydi Kingdom, in 1962’s September Revolution, leading to the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic [YAR] and also a major armed conflict that lasted until 1970. What were the politics and geopolitics of the Zaydi Imamate? And then what were the politics animating the nationalist revolution that overthrew it?
Well, the Zaydi Imamate was isolationist. And it had had some reasonable relationships with the Italians when the Italians were in the region, mainly in Ethiopia. But it kept trying to keep its relationship to the outside world to the minimum. So, the overthrow happened, which as you said is known as the 26 September Revolution. Although the Imam was very isolationist in the ’50s, he had sent a number of military cadres to be trained in Egypt and in Iraq, I think. And so these guys came back with some more Nasserist and independence ideology. And they are the ones who overthrew his son, who had been in power for nine days, if I remember rightly.
Some of them had a good relationship with Nasser and his movement in Egypt. And, of course, it was happening in a period when Nasserism was ascendant throughout the Arab world and there were threats, or perceived threats, of Nasserist revolutions in other countries in the region. And so of course immediately Nasser offered to help the revolutionaries and send both military and civilians to kind of develop an administration in the Yemen Arab Republic. But having failed to actually kill the new Imam, the Imam escaped and went to various areas and gathered support from various tribes. And so, the civil war emerged between the republicans and the Imamites throughout the country.
The Egyptians came to support the republican movement. But they had absolutely no idea about Yemen and what Yemen could conceivably be like. [Here is] one of the stories — which I understand is true, because this was reported at the time by a well-known British journalist. If you’re traveling from Sana’a to Hodeida on the coast, you’re basically starting at two thousand meters altitude to end up, obviously, at zero. But in between you have two mountain chains. So you go up the mountains, down into a valley, and up the next lot of mountains, and down into the valley. And the proper road hadn’t been built. And this guy recalls going from Sana’a to Hodeida and coming across a group of Egyptians who were heading in the opposite direction and got into conversation with the commander or leader of this operation. And the guy was asking him, “How far is it still to Sana’a?” And he responded and told him. And then the guy explained, “You see, we don’t even have any maps. We have no idea.” So, the Egyptians had no idea.
I had a very different but comparable experience when I had some Egyptian volunteers who were coming to Yemen to work on a rural development project I was on, and they were supposed to be staffing it. And they were just completely horrified about the fact that the place had mountains! You know, that there were hills! That it wasn’t completely flat. And that completely threw them. So, if you think of the Egyptians having turned up thinking that Yemen was going to look like the Nile Valley, you can imagine that they had problems.
The fight was pretty horrible. I mean, gasses were used. Mass destruction weapons were also used. So again, it was a case where everybody thought they would win in a hurry but obviously didn’t. And then the Saudis were involved. Of course, after the 1967 defeat of the June War for the Egyptians, there was a conference in Khartoum — I think it was in August of that year — at which the Egyptians said they were withdrawing. And the Saudis said, “Fine, if you withdraw, this is fine.”
And again, they thought the supporters of the Imamate would win in no time at all. But the republicans fought back and held out. And so, the compromise that was finally achieved in 1970 was a compromise that again gave much more influence to the Right than would have been desired. The left of the republican movement had been repressed and many of its leaders killed in ’67, ’68, ’69. So you then ended up with a republican movement that included a lot of Imamate supporters in the government and in the ruling factions. And the republicans were not particularly left-wing republicans.
Does that help explain how Ali Abdullah Saleh rose from the military ranks of the YAR to the presidency of North Yemen in 1978?
Not really. Because we’re talking about 1970 to 1978, an eight-year gap. And during these eight years you had the three-and-a-half-year rule of Ibrahim al-Hamdi, who took over in a military coup in June ’74, and who was much more left wing and who was very close, and getting close, to the PDRY leadership. And it was indeed the prospect or the belief that he and the then president or head of the party in Aden were going to sign a unity agreement in 1977 that led to his assassination. And then he was followed by another president who lasted barely six or seven months before he was assassinated, supposedly by somebody who had been sent by the PDRY leadership. And it was as a result of that assassination that Ali Abdullah Saleh and his friends maneuvered for him to be chosen as president of the YAR.
And is it fair to characterize that as a consolidation of the right flank of the YAR government?
Yeah, I think you could say that, yeah.
Turning back south, what sort of government did the People’s Democratic Republic turn out to be?
Yeah, the PDRY regime is, of course, blamed and described as a horrible bunch of dreadful communists who were out to do all kinds of horrible things to everybody everywhere, which is not what they were. The reality of it is that, in terms of governance for the population, they did a lot more than was technically possible thanks to the financial means of the regime.
Basically, they took over in November 1967 at a time when the main two sources of income of Aden had disappeared. The Suez Canal was closed; therefore, [there was] no more income from the port. And the British base, which had been the other main source of income, also closed, obviously. So, they were left with a disastrous economic situation and no obvious sources of income. The subsistence agriculture of most of the country was not going to keep them afloat. So, what they did in those circumstances is that they raised money, partly from international aid, a lot of it from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but also from local resources by setting up various attempts at industry, et cetera. I mean, there was the famous Chinese weaving factory and such.
But mainly what they provided was a regime in which people could live on their salaries. There was almost no unemployment. Education was massively increased. There had been hardly any education services in the British period. Health services were provided, a lot of them through help from Cuba and China. But by the mid-’70s, they had their own medical school. And that was operational, and they produced their own doctors. And so, they provided basic living standards that were actually above the real financial means of the state. So that’s the very positive element of the PDRY rule.
The negative elements were basically internecine fighting, which meant that there were a whole host of divisions and a series of conflicts within the regime. There was one in ’68. There was another one in ’69. The next big one was in ’78. And the real biggest one was in 1986. And on each of these occasions, the leadership split. Some of the top leaders were killed and others imprisoned. And a fair number of people then went off in exile to Sana’a in the YAR.
Some of it can be understood, because they were dreadfully worried about external opposition, which was quite realistic and true. Because the Saudis were against them, the YAR was against them, the United States was obviously against them, and the Brits were against them. I mean, there was no diplomatic relation with the United States at all. They did feel besieged. And one can rationally say they were besieged. And then of course there’s Amman. So, they were besieged, and I think that probably increased and worsened the level of concern, or one could even say paranoia, among the leadership, which helps to explain, to some extent, the internecine warfare or disagreements. But on the other hand, if they managed to stay united, they would probably have done a lot better.
And popular support was positive with respect to the services. But the level of expectations of the population was really unreasonable, because a lot of the population had gone to Saudi Arabia, or the Emirates after the Emirates were created, or to Kuwait, or Bahrain, and expected the same level and quality of services as existed for nationals in those countries. And I had lots of arguments with people in the late ’70s, when oil had not been discovered. But even if oil was discovered, the issue was that what you ended up with in Yemen was a few hundred thousand barrels of oil per day for twenty to thirty million people. Whereas, in Saudi Arabia, you had eleven million barrels of oil per day for the same population or even fewer. So, the actual relationship between what was realistically possible and what was expected was not rationally determined.
In terms of the PDRY’s besiegement, how did the PDRY and YAR ultimately end up on opposite sides of the Cold War?
Basically, the PDRY was the only socialist country in the region. And therefore, it was automatically related [to] and supported by the Soviet Union, which had no other potential allies in the region. I mean, okay, it had a good relationship with Syria, but the PDRY’s Yemeni Socialist Party, as it became after 1978, was a socialist party which claimed to be part of the socialist world. And again, in the early years, you still had the end of the Sino-Soviet disputes, so these were also relevant. But you did not have a comparable regime in the region and certainly not in the peninsula. So that’s why the PDRY was aligned with the Soviet Union.
The YAR is much more complex, because they tried to keep good relationships with everybody. And there is the probably true story that there were times when you’d have the Americans training the air force on one end of the runway in Sana’a Airport and the Russians training the air force at the other end of the runway of the same airport. So, they tried to keep a balance. And the YAR regime, although it was very straightforwardly capitalist and one could even say kleptocratic, particularly in the ’80s and maybe not so much in the ’70s, was part of the Western camp. But only to a marginal extent, I would say.
Because of keeping relations with all sides, they were, you could almost say, neutral in those issues. But of course, by comparison with the PDRY, they were far to the right. And they were, of course, very, very dependent on Saudi financial support. The Saudis kept the regime in Sana’a afloat financially — both the regime and, separately, the tribes — so as to have a kind of semi-divide-and-rule relationship between the tribes and the actual regime in the capital. And again, between ’74 and ’77, when you had Hamdi in power, things were quite tense with the Saudis.
So, you had a varying relationship. The Saudis had, one, a lot of the exiles from what had been the British protectorates, the people who were anti-socialist and who emigrated. Those were partly in Saudi Arabia and partly in the YAR. But some of them set up military groups, and they had occasional conflicts on the border. They were actively involved in trying to undermine the socialist regime in Aden.
What was the PDRY’s role in supporting revolutionary struggles across the region? Obviously, they were isolated in terms of governments across the region, but what was their role in supporting insurgent forces, particularly in Palestine and in neighboring Oman?
In Palestine, they didn’t have much of a role to play. The Palestinian movement had its own finances, had its own facilities, [which were] available throughout Jordan and elsewhere. After the big Israeli attack in 1982 in Beirut and the expulsion of the Palestinian movement, both the YAR and the PDRY invited a lot of Palestinians, including militaries, to move to Yemen. So that’s really what they were doing with respect to Palestine.
The more important element for the PDRY was the revolutionary movement in Oman, which they supported very, very firmly from the earliest days. The Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf — which changed its name over time — started in 1965. As soon as [the NLF] came to power, they were absolutely firm supporters of [the Omani revolutionaries] in terms of logistics, in terms of diplomatic support, insofar as they had any diplomatic influence, but also in facilitating travel, and possibilities, and supplies, et cetera. So the PDRY fully supported the Omani movement, indeed till way after it was defeated. I mean, some of the members of the People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman, as it was called by the end of that, stayed in Yemen until the civil war. And as far as I know, there might still be some there. But I know some who went back to Oman after the civil war started, in the last few years. So their support for that movement was very considerable.
They also supported other movements in the Horn of Africa. And, of course, they had a good relationship with Mengistu [Haile Mariam]’s Ethiopia, and with other movements — I mean, with the Eritrean Liberation Movement, when it was still a reasonable liberation movement trying to get its own independence. And they had meetings and visits by revolutionary Third World movements throughout. They had a very good relationship particularly with Cuba. But Cuba was already a state, not a liberation movement, by the time the PDRY was created.
Yemen unified in 1990 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why did unification happen when it did? And what did it look like when it happened?
It happened when it did partly, as you say, as a consequence of the end of the Soviet Union. But [the PDRY] had already been encouraged by the Soviets to improve its relations. And there were two wars between the PDRY and the YAR, one in 1972 and one in 1979. And both ended with agreements for unification, which very few people thought was ever going to happen. But they did. Particularly the second one led to the creation of a whole host of committees who organized a common constitution and agreements on school syllabi and all kinds of different administrative and political details.
The concept of Yemeni unity, I think, is something that made and still makes a lot of sense. I mean, personally, I always thought that the talk of Arab unity was a joke and it was completely unlikely and that couldn’t happen. But Yemenis do form a nation. And there’s a very clear, instantly recognizable difference between a Yemeni and a Saudi, or a Yemeni and an Omani, let alone a Yemeni and an Egyptian, or whatever. And there are what I’d call the basic elements of a joint culture. The language varies within Yemen, of course, as all Arabic dialects vary even within the country. But there are more cultural elements that keep Yemenis together than separate them. Although they’re not all the same, and it would be very difficult to do a matrix or a map. But it could be done.
And there was a very, very strong will for unification. Just as we’re saying today about the Yemenis being very pro-Palestinian, if you walked around any part of Yemen in the 1980s, everybody wanted unification. Everybody believed that unification was the solution to many problems. And indeed, it was seen as a solution to a lot of the economic problems. At the time of unification, both the YAR and PDRY were in financial and economic crises. And unification could have solved a lot of the problems. It’s just that it wasn’t planned and organized in connection with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which led to the expulsion of almost a million Yemenis from the Gulf and the creation of an even bigger economic crisis for the unified state.
And the negotiations that took place, particularly after the 1986 internecine conflict in the PDRY, which was really by far the worst. The PDRY leadership, although it carried out some very important and good reforms, was in a weak position. And it was more in favor of unification. And of course, the way unification happened, there’s a lot of debates about Ali Abdullah Saleh having basically blackmailed [Ali Salem] al-Beidh to agree to full unification, whereas the central committee had only agreed to have a kind of federal type of unification and other such details. And certainly in 1989, when the agreement was made, Ali Abdullah was in a stronger position than the PDRY leadership. But the idea and the concept of unification is something that you could have asked almost any Yemeni about at the time, except the leaders of Islah, and they would have said, “Yes, yes, we want it.” So it was a very popular move on both sides of the border.
What sort of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics emerged in the wake of unification? Did post-unification politics have room for the north’s General People’s Congress, the south’s Yemeni Socialist Party [YSP], and also other parties like the Zaydi Ḥizb al-Haqq, or you just mentioned the Sunni Islamist Islah Party? And, in that context of this new system, how did Saleh, who’d been in charge of North Yemen since ’78, manage to maintain control over this unified state?
Yeah, unification was greeted with great enthusiasm by all. It was greeted with even bigger enthusiasm by all those people who had an interest in politics and in different ideas. The immediate response to unification was a multiplication of political parties. I mean, prior to that, you’d had one-party states in both parts of Yemen. So, you had the General People’s Congress in the YAR. You had the Yemeni Socialist Party in the PDRY. After unification, not only did various underground parties like the Islah and the Nasserists, et cetera, create their own parties officially, but you had an incredible multiplication of parties. I remember at some point in ’91 or ’92, sitting down with somebody and trying to figure out the number of parties there were, and we stopped when we’d hit thirty or forty or something.
Basically, everybody and his brother and sister were setting up a political party if they felt like it. You had this flourishing, for two or three years, of enthusiasm and belief in the wonders of democracy, and the openness, and freedom of expression, and enthusiasm for a new regime, despite the underlying economic crisis. Let’s not forget, not only did the eight hundred thousand come back from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but the World Bank cut its funds, the USA cut its funds, everybody cut funds. So, the place was in desperate financial straits at that time. But you had this great political enthusiasm and a great openness at all levels, which really lasted roughly until ’93, ’94.
And then what happened is that, during that period already, Ali Abdullah Saleh started to tighten his control over everything and everybody. And [he] primarily proceeded through organizing or ensuring assassinations of major leaders of the YSP and anyone else who disagreed with him. So, you had this undermining. And at the time we thought, “Well, this is us stumbling, things will improve,” et cetera. And then when you had the ’93 elections, the result was a very, very strong weakening of the Yemeni Socialist Party. And that was supposed to end the transition period. You know, every minister was either from the north or the south and had his deputy minister from the other part. And you had the two parliaments sitting in a joint parliament. All this ended in 1993 when the elections took place. And that already very much weakened the Yemeni Socialist Party, which, demographically, really didn’t stand a chance. But it was still perceived, particularly through the propaganda, as this horrible bunch of atheist communists. And so, they didn’t get as many votes as they might have hoped for or expected in certain parts of Yemen where they could have done better. In addition, you had the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Ali Abdullah Saleh and his vice president, who was Ali Salem al-Beidh from the south, whose strategy, when he wasn’t happy with what Ali Abdullah was doing, was to go back to Aden and sulk. I don’t think that’s a very effective political strategy.
And so things did get very rapidly, much worse. And then in 1994, you had the first civil war between the north and the south, which Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces won very quickly, partly because they had succeeded in isolating most of the military units from the south in various locations in the north. They were isolated and couldn’t take any action. That was, in a sense, the end of the strength of the YSP. The YSP also suffered enormously then, and I think up to today, from its political positions. The YSP has taken a position on the whole supporting unification, which means that, in the south, a lot of people who are southern separatists do not support it.
To bring our conversation full circle, it’s interesting that recently we’ve seen Saudis fighting Zaydi Huthis when before, during the North Yemen civil war, it was Saudis backing the reactionary Zaydi Monarchy. How did the overthrow of the Zaydi Monarchy in 1962 — followed by the repression of Zaydis at the hands of an ostensibly secular nationalist state that ultimately ended up increasing Saudi Islamist influence in the country — lay the groundwork for the Zaydi revival? A revival that began in the late 1980s and that ultimately became both opposed to the government and to Saudi Salafi proselytization.
What I can say is that it is indeed worth remembering that sectarianism basically does not enter into any of this. The Saudis supported whom they considered to be good for them. In other words, they supported the monarchy, however Shia it might have been, versus the republicans, however Sunni they might have been. I think that’s one element. So today, they’re anti-Huthi not because the Huthis are Zaydis, they’re anti-Huthi because the Huthis threaten their ideological position. Partly because, of course, the Huthis believe that descendants of the Prophet have the right to rule and the Saudis are tribal. So, they don’t fit into that description. That’s one of the many points of disagreement you have.
The Zaydis and the YAR were not given the privileges that they had had in the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. Or, sorry, not the Zaydis in principle; it’s the Sadah. Because every president up to 2015 in the YAR was a Zaydi. So it’s not the Zaydis who were having problems with the Sana’a regime, it was the Sadah, the descendants of the Prophet. And you can’t say that they were being oppressed. What you can say is that they didn’t have the high level of privileges that they’d had prior, under the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. In other words, they were not, for example, more or less automatically given the best jobs, which is now again the case with the Huthis. With the Huthis, the Sadah get the best jobs, regardless of their capacity. And they have access to all kinds of things that other people don’t have access to. For example, the new zakat law specifically says that it’s to help poor Sadah, not everybody. So, the vast majority of the population, and indeed the vast majority of the leadership throughout the YAR regime, were Zaydi. And indeed, some Shafi’i were complaining, particularly those from Taiz, that they were treated unfairly, because they didn’t get enough jobs.
So the Zaydi revival was a response to the rise of Salafism and also to an overall perception that their area, i.e., Sa’ada and that surrounding area, was not getting the benefits from the regime that they felt they were entitled to get. Now, this perception, that you’re not getting what you’re entitled to and other people are getting it, is something that you found everywhere in Yemen. Everybody thought everyone else was doing better than they were doing.
I mean, basically what was happening is that the cronies and friends of Ali Abdullah Saleh were doing well and everybody else was not doing well. So, the people in Sa’ada are thinking that they were being discriminated against by comparison with those in Raymah or someplace else, [but that was] simply not true. What was true was that, if you were a friend of Ali Abdullah Saleh, regardless of where you came from, you did okay. And if you weren’t, you didn’t.
The Zaydi revivalist movement was a response to two elements. On the one hand, the rise of the Salafi movement in Dar al-Hadith run by Muqbil al-Wadi’i, which was set up in the eighties in Sa’ada, or very near Sa’ada. Dar al-Hadith is within a few kilometers of Sa’ada. So that was perceived as a real attack on Zaydism, having this Salafi movement rising in the neighborhood. And the reason it was happening in that neighborhood is because this al-Wadi’i actually was an original Zaydi who’d gone to Saudi Arabia and converted, and he’d basically set up this Dar al-Hadith in his home. So that was one element. And the second element was this perception of economic discrimination against them from the Saleh regime, the impoverishment. So those were the two main motivations for the establishment of the Zaydi revivalist movement.
And it’s also worth remembering that its leader, then Hussein al-Huthi, who was killed in 2004, was an MP in Saleh’s party, if I remember rightly, in ’93, for one parliament. So, I think that explains the Zaydi revivalists.
What accounts for the politicization of that Zaydi revival into what became the Huthi movement under the leadership of Hussein al-Huthi, who, as you mentioned, was killed in 2004? How in particular did this ongoing armed conflict between the Huthis and the state, the so-called six Sa’ada wars, blow up in the way it did? And how did it deepen Huthi power and radicalize Huthi politics?
I don’t think it radicalized Huthi politics. Huthi politics were what they were, I think. I don’t think they changed enormously. It was a series of wars which were prompted and set up and sort of took place as a result of a number of incidents. But one followed the other and none of them solved it, because the Huthis were hoping to achieve more versus the Saleh regime. And Saleh was also using these wars as an element in his internal struggle with his rivals in Sana’a. So that’s another side of things, which maybe at this point is obsolete.
Despite this tremendous military pressure, an ongoing humanitarian crisis, and now direct conflict with the United States, the Huthis have, it seemed, survived more than a decade of civil war. It does not seem, though, that they’ve been domesticated. What is your estimation of their staying power in the years ahead, and what does that mean for Yemen’s trajectory heading forward?
You’ve brought up this really important point, which is the humanitarian crisis. I mean, the Yemeni economy has collapsed. There’s almost nothing left of it. People are dependent on humanitarian aid, imports, on bits and pieces of unclear economic activities, and on remittances, et cetera. So, the humanitarian situation, although by no means comparable to the absolute nightmare of what’s going on in Gaza now, is extremely serious. And the UN’s humanitarian response plan, which was financed at 55 percent in 2022, was financed at 38 percent in 2023. Now, that’s not particularly a discrimination against Yemen, because, internationally, the humanitarian response plan in 2023 has been financed about 37 percent, or 37.5 percent. So, this is part of the overall demands on the humanitarian sector increasing, combined with decreasing funding.
But it has a very strong impact. The World Food Program has reduced its rations to millions of people to a fraction of what they were two or three years ago. And many of these people don’t have any alternatives. So, the humanitarian situation is something that really needs to be addressed, and which is very severe, and continues regardless of whether you’re living in Huthi land or in internationally recognized government land. So that’s one very important element.
The element of the future of the Huthis — I think what is clear is that, unless some extraordinary military activity takes place that actually defeats them, and it would be difficult to imagine what it would be, because I can’t imagine that a US land invasion would have a different result in Yemen from what it had in Afghanistan eventually, the Huthis are there to stay. They may be a highly undesirable set of people to live under, but they remain the most relevant and important political force in the country. And I think that’s not a particularly cheerful way to end our conversation, but I suspect that it is the way things are and are likely to be. I haven’t come across anybody in recent times who suggested that there’s any likelihood of the Huthis not being around for a long time to come.