This article was published first in Spanish on Jan. 3, before the U.S.-British bombing attacks on Yemen, a country with nearly the same area and population as Afghanistan. The author is a consultant, international analyst and former Director of International Relations of the Presidency of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and Ambassador for the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to Nicaragua. Translated by the author and edited by Workers World staff.
In 2015 Yemen, a country unknown to many in the West, began a war in defense of its sovereignty, which was being threatened by an interventionist alliance led by Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni people had to pay with the lives of almost 400,000 of their people to maintain their independence. Many people have wondered how it was possible that a country considered the poorest in Western Asia has been able to resist and defeat a coalition made up of some of the richest countries on the planet.
Although the conflict continued for almost a decade, it appears to have reached a situation that could lead to its possible cessation. Although a tense situation remains and war actions of different kinds continue, there has been a reduction in military actions in recent months. While there is no longer total war, peace has not come either.
Following China’s mediation, Saudi Arabia and Iran reconciled, thus paving the way for resolving several conflicts in Western Asia and North Africa. Apparently, the war with Yemen was one of them.
Now, after the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the Yemenis, together with the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and other Arab and Muslim revolutionary forces, have taken an active role in solidarity with Palestine. Once again, Yemen has surprised everyone by making decisions that have not only a local impact but also a regional and global one. Once again, the world has wondered how this could have happened.
In two installments, I am going to present some elements that allow readers to get acquainted with Yemen and learn about its historical struggle and the heroism of its people. This will help readers to understand the scope and dimension of the Yemeni decision to support, with all the resources at its disposal, the just struggle of the Palestinian people.
The Republic of Yemen is located at a strategic place on the planet, in a region where trade routes connect Asia, eastern Africa and the Mediterranean. Its territory, located on the coasts of the Arabian Sea and at the gate to the Red Sea, dominates the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, placing it in a privileged place on the globe. This is true especially since the 20th century when, on the one hand, large energy deposits (oil and gas) were discovered in the region, and on the other, the enormous economic growth and development of East Asia transformed Yemen into a country astride an essential sea route for much of world trade.
In ancient times, the cities of the territory that is now Yemen were unified into the biblical kingdom of Sheba. From that moment on, the struggle of the inhabitants of the current Yemen for their liberation and independence began, as they had to face the Roman Empire in the first century A.D. The Yemenis defeated powerful Rome’s attempt at domination.
Unlike the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen’s portion had prodigious vegetation that provided great wealth to its population, due to the possibilities for consumption and trade it offered. The Greek mathematician and geographer Ptolemy named Yemen “happy Arabia.”
In the course of history, the Yemenis had to fight with Himyarites who, from their Jewish religion, persecuted the majority Christian population until the intervention of the Ethiopians in the sixth century. Islam arrived in the region in the ninth century, beginning to shape a culture based on the merging of knowledge from varied sources and that made great contributions to humanity.
For many centuries, however, Yemen remained outside the cultural and economic development established by Islam. In the 15th century, the territory of today’s Yemen began to gain strategic value. In their desire for commercial expansion, the European rulers began the domination of territories throughout the planet. The first European conquerors to arrive in the region came from Portugal. They dominated the country in order to control the sea route, which allowed them to trade spices from Asia to Europe through the Red Sea.
In the 16th century, the Ottoman empire, whose capital was Constantinople (now Istanbul), began its conquest with the occupation of places on the Red Sea coast, while the interior of the country and the southern coast remained independent, governed by an imam. Shortly after, the English made their appearance in the area, installing a post of the East India Company in the port of Mokha on the Red Sea.
In the 19th century, the British expanded their presence by occupying the entire southwestern tip of current Yemen, settling in Aden in 1839 — the best seaport in the region. At the same time, in 1872, the Ottoman Turks managed to consolidate their dominance in the interior of the country, for which they installed de facto a hereditary monarchy in the name of a local imam. This division effectively split Yemen into two countries.
Around 1870, with the inauguration of the Suez Canal and the consolidation of Turkish rule over northern Yemen, Aden acquired new importance for British global strategy: It was the key to the Red Sea and, therefore, to the new canal.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Türkiye and Britain marked a border between the territories they controlled, which became known as North Yemen and South Yemen, respectively. In 1934, British imperialism secured control of the entire south of the country, up to the border with Oman.
During World War I, the Imam of Yemen allied with the Ottoman Empire and remained loyal to it until the end of the war, when the defeat of the Turks allowed Yemen to regain its independence in November 1918. However, Britain, after recognizing the independence of Yemen in 1928, converted Aden into a protectorate and in 1937 into a colony.
Once again, the Yemenis had to resort to an armed struggle for independence. In 1940 the nationalist movement Free Yemen emerged to fight against the control of the country by the imams, who had allied themselves with Britain.
The fighting took separate paths in the north and south. In 1962, the Yemen Arab Republic was created in the north. In the south, the National Liberation Front, created in 1963, took over Aden in 1967 and proclaimed its independence, declaring a socialist revolution.
People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen
South Yemen was renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. It closed all British bases in 1969, taking control of banking, foreign trade and the naval industry while undertaking land reform. In foreign policy, the PDRY maintained a close alliance with the Soviet Union. Likewise, it promoted an openly anti-Zionist struggle and support for the Palestinian people.
In October 1978, at a congress that enjoyed considerable support from the population, the National Liberation Front founded the Yemen Socialist Party. In December of that year, the first popular election since independence was held to appoint the 111 members of the People’s Revolutionary Council.
From the first years of its existence, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen faced the permanent hostility of Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy aspired to control parts of the territory — precisely those in which oil deposits had been discovered. Tensions were aggravated by a growing U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, in the north, the National Democratic Front (FND), which had brought together all the progressive forces in the country, was developing an armed struggle against Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ascended to the government in 1978.
Just as the FND was about to take power, Saudi Arabia intrigued to divert the conflict into a war against the Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen. The mediation of some Arab countries led to a ceasefire and an agreement by which negotiations for reunification, suspended since 1972, were resumed.
Finally, on May 22, 1990, both republics united to form the Republic of Yemen and established that the political capital was Sana’a, former capital of the Yemen Arab Republic. Aden, former capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, was designated the economic capital.
A joint session of the Legislative Assemblies of both states, held in Aden, elected a Presidential Council led by General Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabia’s rulers were hostile to the unification of Yemen, which is why they began a policy of supporting secession. In May 1994, secessionists proclaimed a Yemeni republic in the south of the country but were defeated by forces loyal to the government.
Emergence of Ansarallah movement
Between June and August 2004, a movement emerged that expressed the beliefs of a specific branch of Shiite-oriented Islam: the Zaidites, whose leader was the cleric Hussein al-Houthi. To honor him after his death in combat in September of that year, the movement assumed the name Houthi, Huthi or Ansarallah: supporters of God.
Although this current is the expression of a minority in Yemen, its history is not recent but dates back to the mid-eighth century. Zaidism is identified by the greater preparation of its members and is associated with the fight for justice and the defense of Muslim ethics. This ideology, added to the position of marginality to which they were subjected after losing power in 1962, would form the substrata from which Houthi thought would develop in the future.
The Houthis’ fight against the pro-Western and pro-Saudi government of Ali Abdullah Saleh was long and bloody. They had to resort to arms on five occasions between 2006 and 2008 in defense of their territory in the north of the country, until they began to expand their support base and the geographical space under their control. In 2009, Saleh, trying to stop the Houthis, turned to Saudi Arabia for support.
For the Houthis, that a country like Saudi Arabia, ruled by those in an extremely conservative Wahhabi current, was present and interfered in the country’s affairs was seen as a threat to the sovereignty of the Yemeni nation in general and its minority current in particular. From that moment on, their struggle, which up to then had a strictly internal character, became a confrontation with foreign intervention.
Although the Houthi fighters at first suffered heavy defeats, including (as mentioned before) the fall of their top leader, they grew stronger over time and from 2011, under the new leadership of al-Houthi’s younger brother Abdul Malik, began to inflict significant setbacks on the enemy. The anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist rhetoric was strengthened by identifying Saudi Arabia as the partner of the United States and Israel and executing their plans in the area.
The so-called “Arab Spring” had a special influence on the growth of support for Houthi thought in their fight against Saleh’s repressive government. In Yemen, the earthquake that shook an important part of the Arab world had a much more organized response than in neighboring countries.
Faced with the strength of the protests, Saleh fled the country and took refuge in Saudi Arabia. He was replaced by his vice president, Abdo Rabu Mansur Hadi, who tried to restore order in the country by reaching an agreement with factions opposed to Saleh “to change everything in order to change nothing,” leaving the Houthi movement out of the government.
At the end of 2014, the Houthis began an offensive on the capital. In this context, Saleh — surprisingly in an attempt to regain power — established an alliance with the Houthis to confront Hadi. The Houthis, who had not supported the peace agreements signed by Hadi, allied themselves with their greatest enemy to take the capital.
Saudis enter Yemen’s civil war
The Republican Guard, a force loyal to Saleh, favored the entry of the Houthis into Sana’a. Hadi fled to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, from where he “runs” the territories not yet controlled by Ansarallah, in reality acting as a puppet of the Wahhabi monarchy.
Once in power, the Houthis formed a Revolutionary Committee to run the country. Likewise, they were forced to fight simultaneously with the terrorist forces of Al Qaeda and with Saudi Arabia, which protects them.
Saleh considered that the Houthis had not fulfilled the agreements which, according to him, meant that he should assume power again. With Saudi support, Saleh turned against the Houthis. When the betrayal was consummated, the Houthis attacked Saleh’s house, executing him on the spot.
From Riyadh, Hadi called for Saudi intervention in Yemen. Faced with this request, the Saudi monarchy organized a Sunni-majority coalition that in 2015 launched the “Decisive Storm” operation, structured around air attacks on the main enclaves controlled by the Houthis, which resulted in thousands of deaths.
This action was planned as a definitive offensive to take control of the country in order to launch a second operation, called “Restore Hope,” focused more on a diplomatic rapprochement. In reality, the war activity did not cease at any time. On the contrary, the alliance’s land, air and maritime actions were reinforced by a naval blockade that prevented the entry of international aid.
These actions plunged the area into what became the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, until the current Zionist actions in Gaza were unleashed. Both crimes had explicit support from the United States.
The Houthis, making use of a wide margin of maneuver, supported by greater and better knowledge of the terrain and using guerrilla warfare tactics, inspired — according to them — by the liberation struggle in Vietnam and “the resistance movements in Latin America,” demonstrated great capacity to hit an invading army that has low morale and lacks a drive for combat and discipline.
Likewise, the broad origin of the soldiers in the Saudi-led coalition, which has included the participation of a very large contingent of mercenaries hired by private companies, has reduced the alliance’s combat capacity.
Riyadh received forceful blows, even in its own territory, when Ansarallah’s combative operations moved deep into the Saudi area through an advanced attack system using drones and long-range missiles. It reached armed forces barracks, oil refineries and critical infrastructure at distances far from the common border.