Al Jazeera World

Yemen: The North-South Divide

The ongoing war in Yemen and chronic humanitarian crisis are deeply rooted in the country’s turbulent history.

The current crisis in Yemen, a country crippled by war, took a dramatic turn on December 4 with the assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh by Houthi rebels. But the political and sectarian divisions that dominate Yemen today – and which ultimately led to Saleh’s death – go back hundreds of years.

When Islam came to Yemen, the Zaidis, a Shia Islamic sect, became dominant in the north, and its imams were in full control there by the 9th century. The Shia presence would remain in the north for the next thousand years.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the northern kingdom of Yemen was ruled by a Shia imam while the south of Yemen remained divided, run by different local sultanates – until the British eventually established their own southern state, the Federation of South Arabia.

North Yemen became a republic in 1962 but it was not until 1967 that the British colonial rule ended in the south and The People’s Republic of South Yemen was formed, with Qahtan al-Shaabi as its president.

Independence did not stop the southern infighting. The National Liberation Front took power in 1969 and formed a Marxist republic, leaning heavily on support from the Soviet Union. The push-pull between north and south also continued.

Some analysts now see this as tension part of the slow process towards the eventual unification of the two halves of Yemen.

“The conflict between the north and south has always been about Yemen’s unity, the 1972 and 1979 wars,” explains journalist and historian Abd al-Bari Taher. “Those two wars between the north and south were all about achieving Yemeni unity.”

But the path to unification was, predictably, plagued by disagreements and setbacks.

The conflict between the north and south has always been about Yemen's unity.

by Abd al-Bari Taher, journalist and historian

All parties signed up to an agreement to stop the north-south fighting in Cairo in 1972. They formed a committee to draft the constitution of a unified state. But it took an upheaval in the south 14 years later to bring the painful process to a head.

1986 was a turning point. Infighting between two factions of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party in the south turned violent. At the same time the south’s great supporter, the Soviet Union, began its gradual disintegration. This had the effect of pushing the north and the south closer together.

Three years later, the key players at the negotiating table were the President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south, Ali Salim el-Beidh, and the President of the Yemen Arab Republic in the north, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“Ali Abdullah Saleh and the General People’s Congress proposed three options,” says Taher. “The first was coordination among the Ministries of Defence, Information and Foreign Affairs. The second was a confederation. The third was a federation. The south rejected the last two options and proposed the coordination option.”

A united Yemen was declared. In a filmed interview from the period with Ali Salim el-Beidh, he says “We had to move quickly towards unity to serve this noble goal sought by all Yemenis and the Yemeni national movement. We’ve always sought to avoid a third war among Yemenis.”

“It [unification] could have gone right,” explains to Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas, a former prime minister who served from 1990-1994. “But we found out that our brothers in Sanaa, especially Ali Abdullah Saleh and his regime, didn’t seek real unity. That’s what builds a system, a state, a homeland for everyone and good relations with your surroundings. He wanted to dominate and control the entire region for purposes and projects that went beyond borders.”

A unified Yemen

In 1990, Yemen was finally united, with Sanaa as the new capital. But Yemen had been divided along sectarian lines for centuries; and the cracks that began to appear soon after unification cast doubt on whether Ali Abdullah Saleh could build a government to bind the different tribes and factions together.

It was soon apparent that the new state did not have a framework for a practical government or how power would be shared between north and south.

Elections were held in 1993 but instead of building on the newly unified state, the results simply exposed the traditional divisions and led to a coalition government of the ruling parties of the old north and south.

WATCH: A cry for help – Millions facing famine in Yemen (2:28)

“The first election after unification was shocking,” says Ahmed Omar bin Farid, from al-Hirak southern movement. “It was a binary election. The People’s Congress won a majority, the Yemeni Islah party won a majority in the north and the Socialist party left no seats for anyone else in the south.”

Six months later, civil war broke out.

A so-called Document of Pledge and Accord was signed in Jordan in 1993 as a last desperate attempt to rescue unification. But it failed.

Ali Salim el-Beidh withdrew to Aden, claiming the south was being marginalised – and declared a new state in the south, the Democratic Republic of Yemen.

In May 1994, Ali Abdullah Saleh declared a state of emergency and crushed the southern rebellion within three months.

Saleh’s north had dominated a unified Yemen from the start. After ending the rebellion in 1994, the south declined, feeding resentment. It was the north that prospered and Saleh and his supporters clung to power until 2011.

That year, Yemeni protests followed the so-called Arab Spring. The protests were against unemployment, economic conditions and corruption, as well as demands for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign for failing to deal effectively with corruption and poverty.

Eventually, Saleh was forced to hand over power to Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in November 2011. Hadi was, however, unable to impose his authority.

The Saudi-led coalition

The Houthis, an armed Shia Islamic group from the north, and Saleh supporters who were previously at odds with one another, joined forces to fight those loyal to Hadi’s government.

In September 2014, the Houthis took over Sanaa. At the start of 2015, the rebels tried to take over the entire country, eventually forcing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.

The perception in the Gulf that the Houthis were funded, armed and supported by Iran caused a regional coalition led, by Saudi Arabia, to launch Operation Decisive Storm which aimed to re-capture Houthi-held areas and restore Hadi’s government.

But the military situation in Yemen has remained in a deadlock. The tactical alliance between Saleh and the Houthis recently began to splinter, both highly suspicious of each other’s motives but united by the fighting against the pro-Hadi, Saudi-led coalition.

READ MORE: The ramifications of the death of Yemen’s Saleh

A week ago, in November 2017, that fragile alliance came to end, with Houthi and Saleh loyalists turning against each other.

During his presidency, Saleh was a close ally of the Saudis and fought the Houthis in six different confrontations between 2004 and 2011.

On December 2, Saleh publicly said that he is willing to engage in talks with Saudi Arabia if the latter would stop the fighting and end the blockade.

“We will open a new page for them, a new dialogue. What is happening in Yemen in enough,” he said. “We vow to our brothers and neighbours that, after a ceasefire is in place and the blockade is lifted…we will hold dialogue directly through the legitimate authority represented by our parliament.”

A statement by the Houthis described Saleh’s actions as “a coup against our alliance and partnership … and exposed the deception of those who claim to stand against aggression”.

On December 4, Saleh’s long and dominant presence in Yemeni affairs came to an end when he was killed at a checkpoint outside Sanaa. Houthi sources said Saleh was killed by the rebels in a rocket-propelled grenade and shooting attack on his car, but others have told Al Jazeera that he was executed.

It’s possible that in a country as unstable as Yemen, Saleh’s assassination might throw the country deeper into chaos.

“The Yemen that we are experiencing today is not the Yemen of yesterday, and the question remains whether the Yemen of tomorrow will look like the Yemen of today,” analyst Adam Baron told Al Jazeera, after news of Saleh’s death broke out.

“Saleh was not just an actor in this conflict. He was someone who effectively, for better or for worse, constructed modern Yemen in his own image and centred it around him as the leader. So now that he is removed, I think in many ways all bets are off.”