Yemen, Saleh (Now Dead), and Civil War, Part 2

We continue from Yemen, Saleh, and Civil War, Part 1.

Edit: When I wrote this last night, Saleh was still alive.  Now watch for the tertiary conflict.

(BBC) Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former leader, killed in Sanaa fighting. I first addressed his endurance as a survivor in (Jul 2014) It’s a People Game.

The peculiar relationships anticipated in Part 1:

  • Saleh, a Shia, (is)was now in conflict with a Shia based “renewal” movement, with little noted about what the Sunni tribes are thinking or doing.
  • In the north, the Sunnis remain underrepresented. Yet such is the tribal sociology that Hadi, a Sunni southerner, could not find the support to repel the Houthi surge.
  • The de facto border closely follows the border prior to unification.
  • The previous reasons for the unification of the north and the south, economic opportunity and pan-Arabism,  are no longer operative or influential.


  • Aden has an indigenous civic and military movement. It does not  want to be part of a unified Yemen. Although this became manifest with the Battle of Aden, the feeling of cultural irritation preceded Saleh’s departure by many years.
  • Taiz, also sophisticated and multicultural, containing disparate elements could be a bloodbath, — or not.
  • Saleh’s record was that of a traditional tribal chieftain: extreme, divisive, intolerant, and  by Western if not tribal standards, corrupt.

So now that Pan-Arabism has so distantly dissipated, Yemen looks less like a nation, and more like the last misbegotten child of the British Empire. Had the British drawn the line of their Aden Protectorate a  little further inland, to include Taiz, the political culture of South Yemen might have survived the 1986 civil war.


  • Ali Abdullah Saleh (is)was not the guy to run this country, if in fact there is a single country to run. He is useful in the short term. He (has) had the personality of a minor satrap, as whom he could continue to exercise his talent for staying alive.
  • Yemen is better off as two countries. In the modern context, this means two regions with separate governments that compete for recognition.
  • Without the benefit of the Saudi microscopic knowledge of Mansour Hadi, and his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, he fits the template of a leader of a reconstituted South Yemen.

There are actually three conflicts:

  • Primary. Houthi versus non-Houthi.
  • Secondary. north versus south.
  • Tertiary, potential.  Zaydi versus Sunni in the north. 

Saleh’s political talents may have impeded the natural-for-the-region tertiary conflict. It may occur if his talent for survival wears out. Well, it has. A legacy of my participation in the IARPA Forecasting World Events program is a NY Times photo of Saleh, taped to my basement wall. I guess it’s time to take it down.

With lower population density, absence of the tertiary conflict potential, and the civic, if not national feeling of Aden, the  south has potential for natural stability. This is best actualized by splitting it off.

But how do we keep out the Iranians?  The geography of South Yemen, and common culture, facilitate economic integration with Saudi Arabia. As a model, consider the Red Sea bridge to link the Sinai with Egypt.

A strategy for North Yemen is more difficult and indirect. The tertiary conflict potential is like unexploded ordinance. But effective control of South Yemen, and the waterways adjoining the ports of North Yemen, convert the problem to almost one of internal control. Isolated from Iran, North Yemen may become amenable to variations on the manipulations used so successfully to build the British Empire.

Britain did not conquer the Mughal Empire by primarily military means.  India was won by a combination of economic development, suborning of local rulers, and attractive additions of Western culture to  the indigenous. The one obstacle that did not then exist is cultural militancy on the national scale. That did not occur until the dual creations of Mahatma Gandhi, and JInnah’s Muslim League. 

It remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia can rescue itself. It it succeeds, then it can surely (?) rescue Yemen.

Saleh, who was significantly responsible for the collapse of Hadi’s government and the preceding years of discord in Yemen, was about to become  a useful, if expendable proxy. Now the Saudi task becomes harder. Watch for the tertiary conflict.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *