CWI contribution on the ongoing crisis in Yemen
Far away from mainstream media’s attention, a catalogue of calamities is falling on Yemen. A devastating war, copiously fuelled by the world’s most potent capitalist powers, is subjecting the Yemeni people to enhanced misery, starvation, as well as deadly epidemics.
More than 3 million people have been driven from their homes in the last two years. More than 17 million people are in desperate need of food. More than half of Yemen’s health facilities are out of service or dysfunctional. A cholera outbreak is spreading fast since April, with hundreds of thousands of suspected cholera cases already spotted across the country.
As in every humanitarian crisis, women and children pay the heaviest price. Children are the worst hit by malnutrition and cases of rapes and forced marriages of under-aged girls are on the rise.
The United Nations has warned that Yemen, already one of the poorest country on earth before the current crisis, is facing a spiral downwards toward “total collapse”. Yet the UN itself is not some benevolent agency commenting on this conflict from a position of neutrality; it is massively influenced by countries which are direct protagonists in this war. It continues to supports the side of the allegedly “legitimate” President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the puppet of western imperialism and of the Saudi-led coalition, i.e. the very same forces who are bombing Yemen day and night and imposing a murderous economic blockade on its population.
Since March 2015, a coalition of mostly Arab dictatorships, spearheaded by the Saudi kingdom, have launched “Operation Decisive Storm” (later re-baptised “Restoring Hope”), a military offensive aimed at defeating the Houthi rebels and their allies.
The Houthis are a group of tribal fighters primarily based in the north-western and mountainous province of Sadaa, who originate from the Zaydi school of Islam (an indigenous branch of Shiism, shared by about a third of the population). They exploited to their advantages the fragmentation of Yemen’s central state and the popular grievances against the previous, short-lived administration of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in order to seize the capital Sana’a at the end of 2014. They extended since their influence across much of the western part of the country, controlling now a string of key ports along the Red Sea coast.
Hadi had been brought to power as a result of the so-called “Gulf Cooperation Council initiative”. The GCC initiative was an arrangement concocted at the end of 2011 between the Gulf, EU and US ruling elites, consisting in a negotiated withdrawal from power of 33-year despot Ali Abdullah Saleh, in exchange of the latter’s full immunity for his crimes.
This power arrangement came in the wake of the “Arab Spring”. In 2011, the torrent of revolts that swept the Middle East, setting in motion millions of workers and poor against unemployment, poverty and corrupt dictatorial regimes, found its way in Yemen. Fuelled by the bravery and energy of young people, months of mass protests, squares occupations, workers’ strikes and sit-ins shook the country, particularly the main cities such as Sana’a, Taez and Aden. It provoked open fractures within the regime’s state machine.
But the lack of strong independent revolutionary organisations prevented the Yemeni masses to bring their struggle forward. The mass mobilisations eventually run of steam, victim of political hijacking by defecting wings of the regime. To preserve the system from collapse, factions of the country’s ruling and tribal elites, assisted by US imperialism, pushed their previous patron Saleh towards the exit door, and promoted Hadi, Saleh’s then vice-president, as the new figurehead to represent their interests and carry on with the old business.
As the CWI commented at the time, “The fact that the GCC plan is supported by ruling autocracies in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which crushed opposition protests in Bahrain last year, and by the US, which was a strong backer of Mubarak and Saleh, reveals the real purpose behind the ‘initiative’ – to defend the interests of the ruling elites in Sana’a, Riyadh and Washington”.
They were helped in this task by the attitude of the leadership of the conservative and pro-capitalist Sunni opposition party Al-Islah, Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. This party had played a role in the protests but its leaders were ready to bargain their own “place in the sun” with fragments of the old regime. Al Islah became the best ally of Hadi’s interim presidency, taking on seats in the post-Saleh “national unity government” formed under his supervision.
Hadi was formally elected in February 2012 in an uncontested, one-horse presidential race. But his government, crippled by corruption, carried through the very same policies that had pushed important sections of Yemenis to rise up against Saleh’s rule. He continued his predecessor’s endorsement of the US-led drone campaign that had killed scores of Yemeni civilians over the years. In particular, Hadi’s decision to lift fuel subsidies in the summer of 2014 sparked massive street protests demanding the government to step down.
Change of game
Hadi’s rapid discrediting helped open the path to the takeover by the Houthis. They took advantage of the political vacuum, fuelling their support through a populist rhetoric of anti-corruption stands, diatribes against the US and Israel, and pretensions to safeguard the heritage of the 2011 revolution.
It is after the Houthis took control of Sana’a that the Saudi elite put together a military coalition to oust them, politically centred on the “internationally recognised government” of ex-President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who relocated in Aden in the south after being forced into exile.
Having fought six rounds of bloody conflict with the Saleh regime during the preceding decade, the Houthi leaders opportunistically forged a military alliance with their previous enemy. Saleh had retained control over an important part of the army and over the security organs run by his close relatives, and sided with the Houthis he had portrayed for years as “terrorists”, in order to pursue revenge against the clans who had supplanted him.
This whole change of game represented an objective threat to the strategic and economic interests of the Saudi regime, who for long had considered Yemen as its privileged backyard. Despite episodes of frictions with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the latter was one of the longest serving ally of the Saudi rulers. The House of Saud had played an instrumental role in his rise to power, and used his regime for decades as a lever to yield enormous influence in the country.
Saudi Arabia’s super-rich and oppressive rulers were not ready to contemplate the new instability hitting in a country on their doorstep, and the rise of a movement totally escaping their political control, and benefiting from the support of Iran. Facing a period of growing domestic turmoil and economic uncertainty, the Saudi regime was also in need of projecting strength, which its brutal aggression on Yemen provided an easy outlet for.
Economic factors played their part as well. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait, providing a sea trade route between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, is one of the world’s busiest trade routes, and of strategic importance for the passage of goods for countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan – all part of the regional military coalition set up to drive the Houthis out.
War of attrition
After two years and over ninety thousands airstrikes, the Saudi-led campaign has achieved none of its political aims. The return of ousted Hadi to power in Sana’a seems further away than ever, as is the goal of driving the Houthis back into their northern stronghold.
Instead, this military campaign has managed to bring a monumental amount of destruction in its way, laying waste to the country’s already bare infrastructure. Surveys show that around a third of all Saudi-led airstrikes have been against non-military sites, hitting marketplaces, schools, marriage parties, funerals, electricity and water plants, mosques and medical facilities, killing thousands of civilians.
Furthermore, Yemen, which imports around 90% of its food, is facing economic strangulation via an aerial and naval blockade by the Saudi-led forces, with drastic restrictions imposed on the flow of goods. The Saudi-led coalition has bombed ports, airports, bridges and roads to make it more difficult for supplies to be brought to people living in Saleh-Houthi held areas, the areas with the highest density of population.
All of this has greatly magnified a humanitarian catastrophe in the making, with vital products such as food, fuel and medical supplies being blocked from reaching people in need.
As a result, prices of basic commodities have skyrocketed to unseen levels, driving large segments of the population into utterly desperate economic conditions. This is made worse by the fact that businesses, traders and smugglers are hoarding stocks and rising prices for self-enrichment, and that various armed groups are diverting food aid to the advantage of their own supporters.
Saleh and the Houthis
The barbaric effects of the Saudi-led intervention has coalesced a certain amount of support behind the Houthis, including beyond their traditional base among the country’s Zaidi-Shia minority. Mass demonstrations of several hundred thousands have been held in Sana’a against the Saudi military onslaught.
When it comes to Ali Abdullah Saleh and his cronies, organised in the General People’s Congress Party, they can rely on some tribal support inherited from past regime allegiances, as well as on sections of Saleh’s old armed forces.
But the unity between Saleh and the Houthis is nothing but a fragile and temporary marriage of circumstances aimed at fighting a mutual enemy. It is increasingly the scene of heated tensions over state’s positions, weapons and resources, and is highly likely to break out into new clashes in the future, or even in complete turn-arounds of loyalties. This is attested by the General People’s Congress’ recent threat of withdrawing from their government with the Houthis, and by Saleh’s own readiness to open a line of negotiation with the Saudi regime.
The workers and poor in Yemen cannot put their faith in either of these forces. Saleh’s autocratic and corrupt regime presided over decades of oppression, letting the majority of the population vegetating in misery and soaring unemployment while the President and his entourage funnelled vast amounts of wealth and power for themselves. During the 2011 uprising, his regime distinguished itself through the gunning down of scores of protesters.
Despite their anti-corruption stand and their historic reliance on a marginalised community, the Houthis do not have a genuine alternative to offer to the deep-seated problems of poverty, corruption and violence. On the contrary, their rule has been tarnished with many of the ills of the previous administrations.
Documented reports point at the Houthis’ abuses, which include laying of antipersonnel landmines, torture of detainees, as well as the killing of hundreds of civilians through the launching of rocket fire into populated areas in both Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia.
If the Houthis try to project the image of a popular movement of resistance against imperialist forces, the reality is more complex. Pushing their military advance towards the South, they have acted as an invading army, alienating many local residents. Their siege of the south-western city of Taez, a city at the heart of the 2011 revolution which toppled Saleh, was initially met with mass, tens of thousands-strong protests against them. It has since been accompanied by widespread killing of civilians via sniper fires and indiscriminate shelling of residential areas.
In the zones under their control, the Houthi militias rely on the mechanisms of the old regime’s security apparatus to repress opposition to their rule. While mobilising in mass shows of strength against the Saudi military aggressor and to demand the lifting of the siege, the Houthis remain wary of any independent struggle from the working classes, and of any movement slipping from their control.
They have banned street protests in the capital, and have used brute force, including the use of live bullets, on several protests by public servants demanding months of unpaid wages. The workers previously employed by the multinational corporations TOTAL and G4S in Sana’a, whose rights the CWI has championed in an international campaign of solidarity, have equally suffered intimidation and physical abuse by armed Houthi gangs.
The role of western imperialism
The unfolding carnage in Yemen would be impossible if it wasn’t for the massive support the Saudi-led coalition receives from the main western imperialist powers. The US, Britain, Canada and France have all propped up the Saudi regime, and have provided it with a huge and continuing flow of weapons. British and American military officials have a presence in the command and control centre of the Saudi airstrikes. The US navy actively participates in enforcing the sea blockade on Yemen, and American planes have also been providing in-air refuelling facilities to the Saudi bombers.
The arrival of Trump in the US presidency has contributed to intensify the US government’s support for the Saudi-led military campaign. Obama’s tentative “re-balancing strategy” aimed at developing better relations with Iran has for now been replaced by an enthusiastic embracement of the Saudi camp by the White House. Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh and his $110 billion worth arms sale has seemingly given the Saudi monarchy a free pass to bomb Yemen at will.
A quote from Peter Salisbury, analyst for the London-based think-thank Chatham House, sums up the absolute cynicism of the western ruling classes over Yemen: “Basically, policymakers in the West see the world as a giant game of Risk, and they see more value to maintaining their relationship with Saudi Arabia than getting rid of bad PR over Yemen.”
Passed a point, this self-interested calculation might well turn into its opposite. Some observers already refer to the war in Yemen as “Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam”. As the war drags on with no tangible end in sight, the Saudi-led regional alliance and its western backers are likely to be confronted to growing public outrage. This, along with the desire by sections of the American establishment to throw sand in the wheels of Trump’s presidency, explains why opposition against the government’s weapon sales to the Saudi regime and against its outright support for the war in Yemen, is mounting in the US Congress.
In Europe too, an important section of workers and young people understand the need to stop prioritising short-term profits for arms traders overt the lives of millions of people. This was a part of the message conveyed by the remarkable rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the recent elections in the UK.
This points to the potential of what could be accomplished in order to stop western governments genuflecting in front of reactionary dictators, and military intervening in the Middle East. The workers’ movement and the youth in western countries have a vital role to play in building a mass left political alternative carrying a powerful anti-war message, that opposes “their” governments’ imperialist adventures, and argues to break the “privileged ties” with the tyrannical regimes in the Gulf. This requires extending solidarity to the workers and poor in the Gulf countries and in Saudi Arabia, over whom the financial cost of the war in Yemen, along with the decline in oil revenues, is already being unloaded.
In Yemen itself, the Saudi-led regional alliance is showing growing signs of fragmentation and dissension, as the offensive against the Houthis is reaching a dead-end. The recent major breaking of relations between the Qatari and the Saudi regimes has led to Qatar’s expulsion from the anti-Houthis alliance, and has split the Muslim Brotherhood’s Al-Islah party down the middle.
But serious disagreements have also broken into the open over a wide range of issues between Saudi Arabia and its key coalition partner in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, which has its own troops and proxy forces in the south and is increasingly adopting a competing agenda from Hadi and the Saudi rulers. In May, a group of Yemeni politicians with strong ties to the UAE proclaimed the formation of a “Southern Transitional Council”. This challenges the authority of Hadi, who publically accused the UAE of acting “like an occupation power rather than a force of liberation.” This illustrates the highly charged and volatile relations between powers in the region, of which Yemen constitutes one among many moving battlegrounds.
The sectarian angle
The overriding power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in particular, has left an important footprint over Yemen’s war. The propaganda of the Saudi regime has been centred around presenting the Houthis as a sort of fifth column of Iran, against which the Saudi ruling elite is involved in a bitter struggle for regional supremacy. It is alleged that the Iranian regime has been backing the Houthis with money, weapons and military advisers, although the Houthis is a movement which has developed largely outside of Iranian influence. In any case, it is outright hypocrisy for the Gulf elites and the US government to raise a hue and cry about the Iranian involvement in Yemen, while presiding over a far greater intervention themselves.
The Saudi ruling class’ fears that Iran could acquire a growing foothold on its doorstep has invited a more assertive intervention from Iran in response, increasing the regional dimension of the conflict. As a result, the war has gravely whipped up sectarian polarization in Yemen, in great part imported from the broader battle for regional dominance raging in other parts of the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
On the one hand, the Saudis and the UAE, portraying themselves as defenders of Yemen’s Sunni majority, have sponsored a plethora of extreme Salafist groups in their campaign against the Houthis, which have aroused the anxieties of the Zaidi minority. On the other hand, the Houthis have also pushed anti-Sunni sectarian language to the fore, indiscriminately labelling their Sunni opponents as “takfirist” or ISIS supporters, with local radio stations loyal to the Houthis spreading sectarian rhetoric. This has helped the Sunni militias to use the Sunni population’s fears of invasion and discrimination to boost their own fighting forces.
As pretty much everywhere else in the region, Yemen has a long history of coexistence and tolerance between different religious communities. But the social fabric has been shattered by outside powers’ interventions and by the self-interest of various competing political factions.
In this atmosphere, right-wing sectarian groups that were relatively small in the past have gained influence. In Sunni areas of Yemen (especially the South and East), the positions of Al Qaeda, and to a much lesser extent of ISIS, have been bolstered by the war. A report by the International Crisis Group from February 2017 explains that “the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda (AQ) is stronger than it has ever been”, presenting itself as part of a wider Sunni front against the threat of the Houthis and Saleh-led forces’ expansion.
Focusing on basic services provision in impoverished areas where the state has collapsed, at times softening their edges as a way to establish roots among the local population, Al Qaeda and its parallel group Ansar al-Sharia have also put their hands on a vast amount of weaponry, sometimes directly acquired from Saudi-led coalition forces – along which they have fought on several fronts.
Saudi Arabia’s brutal campaign on the Yemeni people has played extensively on the “anti-terrorist card”. The sirens of the “war on terror” have been the ones used for a long time by US imperialism to justify its meddling in the region and to generously boost ruthless dictatorships across the Middle East.
Ironically, Saleh’s camp is waging the war thanks in great part to the massive security resources and training provided by the US to his regime when it was in power, again on behalf of the “struggle against terrorism”. Even more ironically, despite the scaremongering campaign about the military support they get from Iran, much of the Houthis’ current weapon arsenal has been manufactured in Europe and the US. Part of it comes directly from the Yemen military, having ended up in Houthis’ hands through the black market.
The Gulf and Western governments’ references to the war on terror cannot hide the fact that their policies have had the practical effect of helping terrorist and other reactionary armed groups to mushroom every step of the way.
A recent investigation by the Associated Press has brought to the open a network of secret prisons across southern Yemen, run by the United Arab Emirates with the full knowledge of US defence officials, where widespread torture has been applied on hundreds of detainees suspected of terrorism. The US has, for over a decade, been bombing Yemen with drones, killing scores of innocent civilians in the process. Trump has escalated this campaign, with one drone strike every 1.6 days on average under his rule -compared with Obama’s average of one every 5.4 days.
These abuses and the civilian deaths invariably resulting from the drone attacks, coupled with the extended unemployment and social despair among the youth, continuously provide ammunition to the recruitment campaigns of Al Qaeda, ISIS and other similar outfits – that is, unless a viable political alternative can emerge from the ashes of the war.
The foreign powers and the capitalist and tribal ruling elites of Yemen have not only shown themselves totally incapable of improving the fate of the millions of Yemenis suffering daily under their rule. They have consciously played on various divisions, exploiting nationalism, tribalism and religion, in order to maintain their riches and power, to the point of driving Yemeni society to a breaking point.
Working people and poor have absolutely nothing to gain from these internecine wars, from the tribal divisions, from the spreading sectarian scourge. A solution can only emerge from a principled and united struggle from below by poor peasants, workers, unemployed, women and youth, against their common enemies, in the form of all the profiteering gangsters and their political servants, in Yemen and internationally, who have spent much of the past decades bleeding the country dry.
The first and most urgent demand, affecting millions of Yemenis in their daily life, resides in the lifting of the siege and economic blockade, to let in goods and urgent assistance to the starving populations. An immediate end must be put to the Saudi-led bombing campaign, and all foreign imperialist forces need to be kicked out of the country’s affairs.
But forces like the Houthis, who brandish the anti-imperialist banner with one hand while brandishing the stick to beat workers with the other, offer no serious road to salvation. Handing over the leadership of the anti-imperialist struggle to such forces is a recipe for disaster. To fight for a sustainable peace and for a radical transformation of their conditions of life, the poor and working people will need to organise independently from all the current domestic warring factions.
For example, grassroots defence committees, democratically organised in the neighbourhoods, the workplaces, the villages, are vital for people to resist the widening sectarian and tribal schisms in the communities, and to prevent further bloodbath. Cross-tribal, cross-sectarian unity can be further cemented if class demands are boldly put to the fore: adequate local services, clean water, health facilities, jobs for the unemployed, decent wages etc. Local popular committees could also be set up to organise a fair distribution of food aid and the democratic control of prices, against widespread hoarding and speculation.
The permanent revolution
The main protagonists in this war are in effect embedded in and defenders of the existing property-owning structures which are keeping the Yemeni masses in a state of despicable destitution and social and economic backwardness. These structures combine capitalist relations with the persistence of a powerful feudal elite class, and the still heavy influence of tribal and religious ties, in particular in the North and in the rural areas.
In his ‘Theory of the Permanent Revolution’, based on the practical experience of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and then 1917, the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky observed that in countries suffering under the yoke of foreign domination and of pre-capitalist influences, as is the case with Yemen, all political forces basing themselves on the perpetuation of capitalism would be irremediably incapable of even ridding these countries from their feudal vestiges and of introducing the basic features of a so-called “advanced” capitalist nation: land reform, the unification of the country, the establishment of a parliamentary democracy etc.
This directly relates to the fact that capitalism, based on the private ownership over the means of production and exchange, has reached its historic limits as an economic system capable of driving human society forward. Hence the task of leading a consistent struggle against imperialism, against the feudal and semi-feudal remnants, and against the unmitigated misery experienced by the Yemeni masses, falls upon the shoulders of the working class.
The close intertwining of land ownership and capitalist property in Yemen means that for any chance of success, this struggle will have to be not only anti-imperialist in content, but also anti-capitalist, aimed at nationalising and planning, under working people’s hands, the main industries, banks, gas and oil fields, and other important assets. Yemen’s heavy economic dependence on other countries means that this struggle’s chances of success is also closely linked to its international extension, and to the workers and poor’s efforts to overthrow capitalism on a global scale.
The working class in Yemen
Thanks to their collective experience of exploitation and to their indispensable place in the functioning of the economy, workers have a critical role to play in uniting the urban and rural poor in a struggle for radical economic, social and political change. Whereas the majority of the Yemeni population continues to live in rural areas, urban labour has gained in influence over the years, becoming, since the turn of the 21st century, the primary source of income for Yemeni households.
Yet it is a fact that the workers’ movement in Yemen has been profoundly affected by the war. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimates that some four million private sector jobs have been destroyed as a result of the recent conflict, while hundreds of thousands of public sector workers have not been paid for months.
Despite the horrendous conditions generated by the war, and largely because of them, workers have been pushed to fight back, offering a lighthouse in the storm of atrocities engulfing Yemen. In the past months, thousands of workers have taken part in strikes, rallies and sit-ins to demand the payment of their wages. An employee at the Ministry of Finance in Sana’a explained earlier this year that “There are protests and widespread anger in the majority of governmental entities.” Workers’ protests and anger are not exclusively taking place in Houthi-controlled areas; in Hadi government-controlled provinces like in Aden, Zinjibar, or Attaq, a similar situation has developed.
These battles can be regarded as levers to rebuild the workers’ movement, and to give some hope and confidence to broader sections of the population about the need for renewed collective action.
These disputes have mostly erupted on immediate economic questions, in a context of a widespread struggle for survival; they sharply pose the need for the working class to develop fighting and really representative trade unions, and to engage a resolute and uncompromising battle against the corrupt union officials who are trying to block workers in their tracks.
But it is obvious to all that these economic battles are organically connected to the broader picture, i.e. the unfolding war, foreign imperialist interventions, and with the multipolar power-battle raging in the country. They highlight the urgency of building a viable political alternative against the horrors of war and capitalism.
At the peak of the mass revolutionary protests in 2011, the potential for building an alternative society was revealed. Even religious and tribal divisions were on the back foot, as a deep sense of unity for revolutionary change was prevailing in the streets. This movement is not so distant in people’s minds, and the barbaric violence unleashed on Yemen also has the intent of eradicating the spectre of a revolutionary re-awakening that could contagiously threaten the ruling order prevailing in the Gulf.
The reasons for the failure of the 2011 movement need to be assessed. Above all, what was profoundly lacking was a party able to organise the working and poor masses and the revolutionary youth around a class-based program of action. A program calling, of course, for Saleh’s fall and for democratic rights, but also stressing the need for dismantling the old state machine, campaigning for the seizure and nationalisation of the land and key resources, guaranteeing full rights to all oppressed groups and minorities, and advocating an international struggle against capitalism, landlordism and imperialism.
Such a program could have appealed not only to the downtrodden across Yemen, as well as to the millions in revolt across the region; it could have also appealed to the rank-and-file of the state forces and to the poor tribesmen fighting on the side of the regime, helping cutting across Saleh’s support base and uniting all the poor, regardless of their religious or tribal background, under the socialist flag.
The return in Yemen of previously eradicated epidemics such as cholera, a “disease of poverty” resulting primarily from the lack of access to clean water, highlights how capitalism is forcing society into reverse. The costs of the Saudi air campaign, which acutely aggravates such a process, have been estimated at around $200 million a day. If used to improve people’s lives rather than to destroy them, such resources would make of Yemen a paradise on earth.
The same story is true with the massive wealth stolen over decades by the country’s kleptocratic ruling elites, and by foreign multinational corporations. Taking into public ownership the natural resources, major industries and large land holdings would provide the basis to democratically plan the economy, with the aim of satisfying the majority’s needs for decent jobs, adequate housing, nutrition, to guarantee access to clean water and electricity, to develop infrastructure and public services, etc.
The “People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen”
The mass democratic involvement of the workers, peasants and poor would be imperative for these economic steps to be sustainable in the long run. This has been dramatically demonstrated by the failed experience of the “People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen” (PDRY), the regime that ruled South Yemen from 1967 until 1990, and came to power as a result of the revolutionary uprising against British colonial rule. Although it was calling itself “socialist”, it was an authoritarian, one-party military regime aligned with Stalinist Russia, that had placed the means of production and exchange under state control.
Despite that, under mass pressure this regime went a long way in challenging capitalist and feudal interests in South Yemen at the time. A number of social reforms were imposed, such as important investments in infrastructure, healthcare, housing, literacy programs and education, sustained by the nationalization of large parts of the economy.
In that sense, a deformed and limited glimpse of what would be achievable through a genuine, democratic socialist plan of production was shown. However, it was not based on the democratic participation of the population. All reforms were strictly controlled from above and there was a ruthless repression of any form of dissent.
Victim of bureaucratic mismanagement, isolated and deprived of the USSR’s support from 1989, the PDRY collapsed and was subsequently “unified” (in reality, annexed) by the Northern Yemen regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 1990. This meant the bringing back of South Yemen into the orbit of the so-called “free market”. It translated into mass privatisations, the liquidations of the social reforms that had been implemented in the south, a sharp decline in living standards and the revival of tribalism.
During that time, Saleh’s regime also helped disseminate reactionary Wahhabism and propped up Sunni fundamentalist militants, in order to crush the vestiges of “socialism” and counteract any left-leaning opposition to his rule in the southern part of the country. This offered an important boost to Al Qaeda and other similar groups.
The territories that constitute Yemen today, having experienced centuries of colonial rule and strong tribal structures, and having gone through separate paths and paces of developments, have never known a genuine nation-state building process. They were forcefully put together via the strong fist of Saleh’s rule, against the backdrop of capitalist and imperialist plundering. Today, the unification of the country, arguably Saleh’s “historic achievement”, is clearly exposed as an abject failure: Yemen is ripped apart by sectarian and tribal infighting, by terrorist armed groups and warlords, and under the blows of a savage imperialist-backed intervention.
In the South, the 1990’s had seen IMF-induced plans to push for the privatization of public utilities, reduce fuel subsidies, dismantle social budgets and slash government jobs. This process was rightly perceived by the people of the South as a takeover of South Yemen by a handful Northern capitalist and feudal elites who were, by and large, the main beneficiaries of this economic neo-liberal turnaround, seizing on privatized land and other assets, and syphoning the South’s oil revenues for their own profits.
Hence the 1990’s “unification process” aroused, from the start, strong opposition in the southern regions, whose populations have considered themselves victims of state discrimination and marginalisation ever since. In this context, demands for self-rule for South Yemen have understandably found an echo among large sections of the southern population.
Socialists cannot ignore these sentiments – nor can they ignore the fact that right-wing politicians, such as the members of the newly established “Southern Transitional Council”, are trying to take advantage of these same sentiments to carve up parts of the country for themselves, or simply to cynically boost their support.
Championing the rights of self-determination of southern Yemenites, and linking this demand to a resolute and concrete program for jobs creation and a living wage, for housing and education, for land rights, for full access to water and electricity etc, can build a bridge able to unite the workers and the oppressed against the wealthy ruling elites from both sides. In this way, the mass of the people can be won over to the idea of revolutionary socialist change, and the support for the reactionary elites and armed groups, who are using the poor as foot soldiers in their war games, can be fundamentally undermined.
A voluntary and fraternal alliance of South and North Yemen, as part of a democratic socialist confederation of the Arabic Peninsula, whereby the economy is democratically planned and managed by and in the interests of working people, is the only way to eradicate the region from the scourges of armed conflict, famine and misery.