Red Star over the Arabian Peninsula - III

Raza Naeem on the experience of Yemen's Arab Jacobins - understanding today's conflict in the context of past revolutions, state formation and ideologies

Red Star over the Arabian Peninsula - III
The 1986 bloodshed, in which Abdul Fatah Ismail was killed, and Ali Nasir Mohammad was forced to flee the country, marked in effect the end of the South Yemeni revolution, depriving it of any remaining legitimacy in the eyes of the Yemeni people and greatly reducing its credibility with its foreign backers. In January 1987, at a conference of the Soviet communist party in Moscow, Fidel Castro – who had visited Aden in 1977 in a fruitless attempt to put together a federation of Ethiopia, Somalia, the PDRY and Eritrea! – asked the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) leaders: “So what are you going to use next time? Nuclear weapons?”

As for the main supporters of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the Russians, they were sticking to the now dominant policy of Gorbachev and others: to disengage from the Third World and urge ‘national reconciliation’, i.e. compromise, on their allies. This involved Moscow urging the South Yemenis to find an accommodation with North Yemen. On the last important meeting between a leader of the PDRY and that of the USSR, in 1988, Gorbachev informed Ali Al-Beidh that the Soviet Union could not continue to provide economic and military aid to Aden as before. This was to be an important step, along with the general international easing of Cold War tensions, that was to lead to the decision in 1989-1990 for the two Yemens to unite. In May 1990, the two Yemens duly federated. In 1993, the unification process went badly wrong and in May-July 1994 the North defeated and absorbed the South: power then moved decisively to the northern capital Sana’a. Thus ended the South Yemeni revolution and, more broadly, the Yemeni revolutionary process begun in September 1962.

An aistrike - part of the Saudi kingdom's ongoing war in Yemen

Finally, and in keeping with their own radical internationalist ideology, the South Arabian revolutions were located within a broader regional, and global, context that both formed and directed them and, in the longer run, constrained them. The whole history of social, political and intellectual change in the Yemens over the twentieth century is one that is marked by the interaction of local with regional and international forces. Thus the conflicts that dominated the first two decades of the century, between British and Ottoman colonialisms, and, in the north, between the Hamid al-Din Imams and the Ottomans, were part of a broader context – the decomposition of the Ottoman empire that was also taking place in the Balkans, and was to be completed by the defeat of the Empire in World War I: Yemen became independent because the Russians and the British defeated the Ottoman armies. The political evolution of both countries in the ensuing decades was greatly influenced by intellectual and political trends elsewhere in the Arab and Muslims worlds: the Free Yemeni movement of the 1930s and 1940s was influenced by ideas of Islamic modernism: ‘salafi’ in the usage of that time, indicating a reformist trend, while the movements that emerged in the 1950s in North and South Yemen – as in the interior of Oman – combined traditional forms of tribal resistance to the central state with ideas taken from the Arab nationalism of that time, following the Egyptian revolution of 1952.

The global atmosphere of that era, one of anti-colonialism and Third World revolt, as well as the more specific regional question of Palestine, shaped the demands of the new political forces. This was to become even more evident with the 1962 revolution in North Yemen and the outbreak of armed nationalist revolt in the South from 1963. Influential too was the overall Cold War context, into which the Yemeni events of the 1960s fitted, while the insurrection in Dhofar was shaped initially by the radicalisation of the Palestinians – through which there emerged, in Dhofar as among the Palestinians in Jordan, a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ trend and a broad sympathy for the radicalism of Mao’s China.

Allies of the Soviet bloc - Fidel Castro visits South Yemen's president Salem Rubai Ali

Conventional myths depict the Arabian Peninsula as being insulated from the outside world and governed by the norms of a timeless desert and nomadic culture. But throughout the 20th century, global trends shaped this region and its peoples

Later developments were equally shaped by the international context – the gradual crushing of the South Arabian revolutions by the newly enriched conservative monarchical states, and their allies, the rise from the late 1970s of an alternative form of social radicalism and anti-imperialism in the form of Islamism, and, from the mid-1980s onwards, the decline of the Cold War and the ending of Soviet support, material and ideological, for Third World movements. Contrary to conventional myths about the Arabian Peninsula being insulated from the outside world and governed by the norms of a timeless desert and nomadic culture, the history of the twentieth century showed how far global trends, in strategy, ideology, inter-state conflict and, not least, oil extraction, were to shape this region and its peoples.

Today little apparently remains of the revolutionary fervour, optimism and regional vision of those years. North and South Yemen, united in one state since 1990 as the Republic of Yemen, is ruled by a militarised family elite that has no relation in ideology or policy with the revolution of 1962. The main party, the General People’s Congress, established in the early 1980s, is a government apparatus, espousing a form of diluted Nasserism and acting as an instrument of control and cooptation. The President is hailed in slogans across the country as mowahhid al watan, ‘the Unifier of the Country’, but under his rule Yemen has been the scene of great corruption, factionalism and social decline. The YSP retains a tolerated existence, as one of the three main parties in Yemen, along witgh the GPC and the Islamist Al Islah, but it lost nearly all its assets in the war of 1994, and has failed to win support among younger people. Its leaders, divided in 1978 and 1986, split again in 1994: some remain in exile, some have been absorbed into the Sana’a regime and some have, like the Sandinistas and many former members of the ruling communist elites in eastern Europe, become businessmen.

Southern separatists today still recall the socialist revolutionary era

In Aden there is a memory of the revolutionary years. Partly in order to counter and discredit the YSP, the Sana’a government has encouraged the popularity of Salim Rubai Ali, now presented as the victim of some communist plot, into which the British are also inevitably woven. Thousands of professional people recall their years of training, often very happily, in Moscow and Leipzig, Kiev and Havana. Among the two dozen or so districts of Aden two retain names of another era, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. But on the streets of Aden where, decades before, under socialism as under colonialism, many women went without the veil, now covering is compulsory, alcohol is no longer on sale and social mores, in employment, family and education have been turned to more conservative ways. In Salala and in Muscat one can easily meet former revolutionaries of the PFLOAG who have returned from exile and who have, by all accounts, been well treated: some are in government, others are in business.

Yemeni demonstrators from the revolutionary era of the 1960s

Yet occasionally the past casts its shadow in unexpected ways. On Professor Fred Halliday’s legal visit to Oman, in 1999, he was taken to meet a senior minister, himself a former member of the Dhofari guerrilla movement. When Halliday came into his office, the minister, in flowing white robes and with his official khanjar or dagger in his belt, rose to greet him. “We would have invited you sooner” he said, “but the British would not let us. However, before you sit down, I have one question: is Communism really finished?”

“Yes, minister” Halliday replied, “it really is.” International communism may be over as an ideology, global movement and state system, but various forms of social unrest and protest most definitely are not. In all of these countries, and despite the passage of the years and the defeats of the revolutionary left, the issues that were confronted in the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s remain. Of course, there are now alternative forms of social and political radicalism available – ones that appropriate a language of social justice, popular and honest government and anti-imperialism. They do have their own enthusiastic, brutal and destructive forms of military action.

Women soldiers in Aden during the revolutionary era

On the streets of Aden, under colonial rule and socialism, many women went without the veil. Now covering is compulsory, alcohol is no longer on sale and social mores in employment, family and education have turned conservative

But only when the questions of state, ideology, social organisation, and independence raised by the Yemeni and Omani upheavals have been addressed will it be possible to draw a line under the memory and lessons of these remarkable years in the history of Arabia and of the modern Arab world.

Raza Naeem is a social scientist and an award-winning translator currently based in Lahore. He has been trained in Political Economy from the University of Leeds in the UK and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He has been engaged with Yemen since the last sixteen years, travelling in, and writing and reporting on the country in various national and international publications. He is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in Lahore. He may be reached at


Paul Dresch, The Modern History of Yemen, Cambridge University Press, 2002
Fred Halliday, Arabia Without Sultans, Penguin, 1974, reprinted with new preface in 2000
Fred Halliday, Revolution and Foreign Policy: the Case of South Yemen, 1967-1987, Cambridge University Press, 1990
Helen Lackner, PDR Yemen: Socialist Outpost in Arabia, Ithaca, 1984
Vitali Naumkin, Red Wolves of Radfan, Ithaca, 2004
Noel Brehony, Yemen Divided: The Story of a Failed State in South Arabia, I.B.Tauris, 2011

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979