The Self-Imposed Exile that Can Save Yemen

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share in Email Print article
Written by Asher Orkaby

Yemen is currently facing yet another unsuccessful ceasefire and short-lived peace conference in Kuwait. This is the most recent in a string of ceasefires and peace talks that have been unable to provide even humanitarian relief for Yemeni civilians living in the crosshairs of an international conflict. As the civil war proceeds and additional political and insurgent groups jockey for position in the growing power vacuum, the continuation of hostilities despite well-intentioned UN-brokered resolutions is hardly surprising. Communication, particularly in remote areas of the country, is difficult even during peacetime. Receiving the ceasefire message is no guarantee of compliance, particularly when continued aggression against opponents observing a ceasefire carries significant potential rewards. If history is any indication, a peace conference will not be truly successful as long as foreign powers populate the list of aggressors.

The modern Yemeni republic was founded in September 1962 when Muhammad al-Badr, the last Imam of Yemen was overthrown during a military coup. A local civil war between the fledgling republic and the deposed Imam and his northern tribal followers was drawn into an international arena of conflict dominated by a fierce Egyptian-Saudi rivalry. From very early in the conflict, the U.S., UN and Arab League worked towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict which entailed at its core a withdrawal of foreign powers from Yemen. International conferences, which produced few tangible results, were followed in 1965 by two local conferences in Yemen which establishment the groundwork for the future government of Yemen yet could not bring the civil war to an end.

Intermittent ceasefires and peace conferences failed, mainly because the deposed Imam al-Badr was not invited. The Yemeni people had grown tired of al-Badr’s Hamid al-Din family rule. His father and grandfather had ruled the country since 1904 with a repressive authoritarian hand and there was little hope that Al-Badr would be an improvement. Once known as the “Red Prince”, a nickname he earned from frequent visits to Moscow and Cairo, al-Badr had since been fallen out of favor with both the Soviets and Egyptians and reluctantly allied himself with the Saudi monarchy to the north and the British colony of Aden to the south. The reluctance was mutual as both Britain and Saudi Arabia supported al-Badr only as long as he could continue to challenge Egypt’s military predominance in Yemen. Despite being equally shunned by his dissenters and even some of his own tribal supporters, al-Badr remained one of the most powerful men in the country. Along with his close relatives, he maintained the allegiance of the tribal armies which constituted the largest fighting force in the country, aside from the occupying Egyptian army. Rather than abide to a negotiated cessation of hostilities to which he was not invited, Al-Badr took advantage of international-mandated ceasefires and launched small-scale offensives to recapture territory that had been lost in previous bouts of the fighting. Al-Badr’s actions helped perpetuate the cycle of violence that characterized 8 years of civil war in Yemen.

In 1970, following the near complete withdrawal of foreign interests, local Yemenis seemed close to reaching a peace agreement to end the war and form a new representative government. Al-Badr admittedly realized that his continued presence in Yemen served as an impediment to peace and would continue to tear the country apart. In an act of great humility, he stepped down from power and cast himself out into exile to live the rest of his years in a quiet British suburban neighborhood in Kent. His self-imposed exile was shortly followed by a declaration of peace and the formation of a coalition government that remained in place until the Houthis assumed control of the government in Sana’a in 2015.

The historic lessons from Yemen’s founding civil war are clear. No stable resolution of the conflict between the Houthi movement and the deposed Yemeni republican government can be reached so long as Saudi Arabia maintains a dominant military presence.  The absence of central authority in some of the southern and eastern areas of the country has opened increasingly large segments of the population to the political authority of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other disparate splinter groups who promise a semblance of stability to an impoverished and ailing populace. These groups will not abide by a ceasefire and have the most to gain from seeing their opponents lay down their arms. Finally, similar to al-Badr during the 1960s, the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is simultaneously the most reviled and most powerful man in Yemen. Although technically allied with the Houthi movement, with whom he was at war only 3 years earlier, Saleh’s allegiance lies with none other than himself. He has been shunned by powers both international and domestic, yet maintains the loyalty of 75% of the Yemeni army, arguably the most decisive military force in Yemen. Perhaps Saleh can muster the courage and humility of al-Badr, and remove himself from the Yemeni conflict entirely thereby joining the extended family of the last deposed Yemeni ruler in exile. Which leaves us with one final question: How is the real estate market in Kent?


About the author: Dr. Asher Orkaby is a research fellow in Near Eastern Studies at Harvard University and is the author of a forthcoming book with Oxford University Press, Beyond the Arab Cold War: The International History of the Yemen Civil War, 1962-68.