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The Birth of Modern Yemen


This is a chapter from 'The Birth of Modern Yemen' by Brian Whitaker, published as an e-book in 2009.

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2. Steps towards unification

AT FIRST, the Yemeni unification initiative that began in 1988 differed little from earlier failed attempts. As with others, it came in the wake of a north-south conflict but this time, instead of gradually losing momentum, it gained pace. The conflict that provided the impetus on this occasion was a long-running border dispute in the Ma’rib-Shabwa area which flared up towards the end of 1987 and again early in 1988 [1]. The undemarcated frontier in this area was rapidly assuming critical importance because of oil discoveries [2] and accusations that both sides were carrying out seismic surveys on each other’s territory. With the American Hunt Oil company in the north and the Soviet Technoexport company in the south working little more than 100 miles apart, the situation had all the makings of a Cold War crisis. By March 1988, there were reports of military skirmishes as both sides massed troops, tanks, and other equipment in the area. Eventually, mediation efforts by Colonel Qadhafi of Libya and the Palestinian chairman, Yasser Arafat [3], led to a north-south summit meeting between President Salih and Secretary-General al-Baid at Ta’izz on April 16.

Opening the Ta’izz summit, President Salih dismissed the border dispute as a legacy of “colonialism and the imamate”, then threw down a challenge to the south:

The only solution is to attain unity … Unity will assist our people and nation because it opposes division, racism and all remnants of colonialism. Enemies of our people and our Arab and Islamic nations do not want the unification of our capabilities and resources because their interests lie in our division. It is easy for enemies to strike at us when we are divided. The enemies are doing their best to maintain the partitioning of the homeland, but we must shoulder the responsibility and take a genuine step towards the restoration of Yemeni unity. [4]

On the southern side, al-Baid, responded cautiously. He acknowledged “the keenness to make Yemeni unity a historic event” but swiftly deflected the talk away from unification and towards closer co-operation:

We emphasise the importance of paying further attention to creating economic integration, expanding trade, activating economic and social development plans, promoting the existing joint establishments and economic projects and establishing other projects that will create a great many relations and common material interests. Such relations and interests will give momentum to the issue of unity. Moreover, our coming work should pay further attention to the issues of facilitating citizens’ movement and exchanging newspapers, books and publications.[5]

In retrospect, there is no doubt that Salih’s challenge marked the first step (or the end of false starts) in the process of Yemen’s unification – though at the time that was far from clear. One commentator, writing shortly afterwards, interpreted the president’s ploy as the usual rhetoric of unification intended “to camouflage an exercise in crisis management and problem solving”, adding that “the crucial event and real achievement was the defusing of the border conflict that threatened to escalate into serious fighting”. The writer went on to suggest that the north might even have revived the border dispute deliberately so as to force progress towards resolving the southern leadership crisis and the problem of refugees from the 1986 conflict.6
When the two leaders met again in Sana’a a fortnight later, however, they had moved beyond rhetoric and reached agreement on a series of measures which swept aside the border dispute, re-activated the dormant unification talks and threw open the north-south frontier. On unification itself, they agreed to:

(1) Continue the unity steps and the implementation of what has previously been agreed upon … and reactivate the Higher Yemeni Council, the joint ministerial committee and the unity committees existing between both parts of Yemen.

(2) Enable the secretariat of the Higher Yemeni Council … to prepare a timetable for the draft constitution of the unity state and to refer it to the parliaments in both parts of Yemen so that it can be put to a public referendum …

(3) Revive the unified political organisation as stipulated in Article Nine of the Tripoli statement [a 1972 agreement on unification] … until the two sides reach a joint concept for unified political action … 

(4) Complete the efforts … to contain and deal with the repercussions of the regrettable 13th January 1986 incidents [the coup in the south] and to co-operate towards consolidating security and stability in the two parts of Yemen through all possible means [7].

On the border question, they agreed to demilitarise an area of 2,200 sq km between Ma’rib province and Shabwah. This was declared a joint investment zone, to be developed under the supervision of the two (northern and southern) oil ministers. A separate agreement, intended to “facilitate movement and transport of citizens between the two parts”, provided for joint – rather than separate – border posts which would allow citizens from both parts of Yemen to cross without restriction, using only their personal identity cards. Both sides also agreed to seek finance for the construction of four new roads between north and south [8].

In terms of specific proposals, almost nothing in the agreement was new. The steps towards unification were simply a revival of what had been agreed (but not followed through) previously. The idea for a joint investment area, also, had been agreed three years earlier but abandoned. Collectively, however, their effect was powerful and, apart from bringing an immediate reduction in north-south tension, they helped to create a momentum which carried the process forward. Unusually, both sides moved swiftly to implement the agreements. Within days, a joint committee of senior military officers began the withdrawal of forces from the demilitarised zone, while the interior ministers met to work out details of the common border posts. A few months later the oil ministers initialled an agreement to set up a joint oil exploration and development company, amid suggestions that Kuwaiti finance might be available for the project. The joint investment area, though modest in scale, focused attention on the possibilities for co-operation in other areas and the futility of continued rivalry over oil discoveries.

Of all the steps agreed at the Sana’a meeting, one had an unexpectedly significant impact – perhaps because it was the only one that affected ordinary people directly. The relaxation of border controls proved immensely popular and created an atmosphere of excitement akin to the opening of the Berlin wall in Germany. When it was implemented in July, police stations in the south were besieged by citizens applying to travel north to visit relatives, friends and refugees from the 1986 conflict.9 Southerners travelling north were surprised by the comparative affluence they found, and the wide choice of goods in the shops – and many decided to stay there, increasing the discomfiture of the socialist regime and stepping up the pressure for unity. Southern leaders calculated that during the two years that followed they lost 250,000 citizens to the north – almost 10% of the PDRY’s population. According to one southern politician, Abd al-Qadir Ba-Gammal, this rapid exodus caused serious alarm among the PDRY’s leadership and helped to convince them of the need for unification [10].

Other practical measures followed the Sana’a meeting. Towards the end of 1988, the two sides agreed on a large-scale project to link their separate power grids between Ta’izz and Aden. Again, somewhat uncharacteristically for Yemen, work started soon afterwards. Early in 1989, the PDRY also took a step towards reconciliation with its former president by announcing plans to release up to 35 of those convicted of treason [11].


AS POLITICAL and economic factors drove the two parts of Yemen closer together, the south might reasonably have been expected to be the more enthusiastic party, since its difficulties were altogether more pressing. In fact the reverse was the case. By the summer of 1989, Sana’a had become committed, both politically and emotionally, to unification at the earliest opportunity and was determined to push it through, even at the price of substantial concessions to the south [see Chapter 4]. Well aware of the south’s current weakness, it had identified a window of opportunity which, if missed, might not occur again for many years. 

Aden on the other hand, because of the depth of its problems, was preoccupied with a whole range of issues and unification was not foremost among them. During the last two weeks of May, 1989, the YSP’s Central Committee held its 15th ordinary session, devoted mainly to questions of “comprehensive political and economic reform” [12]. In the 3,200-word official report of the conference, only 360 words sandwiched between domestic and foreign policy dealt with Yemeni unity. While the committee expressed its “great interest” in recent developments, the tone remained extremely cautious, expressing only a desire to move “in a direction which will create conditions for unification work and further progress towards full Yemeni unity”. 

The Central Committee’s caution was entirely prudent. There was no certainty that the measures so far agreed with Sana’a would lead to unification; indeed, the evidence of so many previous many false starts suggested the opposite. Time spent discussing ambitious plans for union with the north might easily be wasted and would divert resources from the many other questions that needed urgent attention.

There were also concerns in the south (or, more specifically, the YSP) about the political consequences of unification. One fear was that unity would turn into “annexation” or result in one part of the country “swallowing the other part” [13] – and there was little doubt, since the south had less than one-fifth of the total population and was weaker economically, that any annexation or swallowing would be done by the north. A second fear stemmed from the first: that the south would be forced to take on the political character of the north. Despite moves towards reform, the YSP’s policies were at root still ideologically based while the northern system was essentially non-ideological. The YSP regarded northern politics as corrupt and antiquated, while socialism in the south had brought substantial benefits to the population through education, health and other services. It was important, in the eyes of the YSP, to ensure that the best characteristics of the south would be preserved in a unified state.

Hitherto, rigidly entrenched views on this issue had constituted a serious obstacle to unification. But towards the end of the 1980s, the south’s radical review of its own system indicated the possibility of compromise if the north could be persuaded to embark on a similar process. In a paper entitled “The Dialectics of Unity and Democracy”, Jarallah ’Umar al-Kuhali, who, as a socialist from the north, had links with both sides, argued for a new post-unification political order which would be different from either the northern or the southern system that existed before:

Against what is taking place in the south, can the lively political and social forces in the north within the regime and outside it be motivated to undertake a similar review ... to eliminate the old relations, unify the market, establish the central state, rehabilitate the national and democratic forces and recognise the new social and political forces? [14]

The paper went on to suggest that the best hope for success lay in creating a network of shared interests during a “transitional period” which would lead, after four or five years, to total integration. During the proposed transitional period …

… there should be work for economic complementation and integration of the national market under economic sovereignty and within the context of creating the nucleus of a national market absorbing domestic production and local manpower. There should also be work for the unification of educational syllabuses, the development of culture and scientific research, the founding of unified industrial, agricultural and extractive production projects, joint programmes for provision of various social services to the citizens, free movement of newspapers and books in the homeland and integration of some official and popular establishments where conditions are ready for that, etc … We must take practical steps, even if they are small ... in fact, forming a unified sports team in reality is far better than enthusiastic well-chosen words about unity without taking a single practical step for its realisation.[15]

This view was echoed, in June 1989, by the YSP’s Central Committee [16] and shortly afterwards by Secretary-General al-Baid:

It is unrealistic to believe that an official proclamation in a joint communiqué would, on its own, lead to the existence of unity in effect. The truth is that we must build first by taking tangible steps. Such a proclamation should be the culmination of our efforts, which in total, will lead to the establishment of unity in action, rather than in words or as a dream or aspiration. Thus, we should begin by [identifying] that which can be the subject for agreement and joint action by the two parts, in the economy, policy and culture, and transform that into unionist action. This action will inevitably form the basis for another agreement and another unionist action until we have before us all the components without which Yemeni unity cannot exist. [17]

Al-Baid also warned against hasty decisions: “When we talk of Yemeni unity, we should concentrate on unionist action and the extent to which it is realistic, sincere and appropriate,” he said. As a way of moving towards unification, this careful, gradualist approach had much to commend it, especially in the light of subsequent events. But conveniently for the YSP, it also served a number of other functions:

1. It would allow the south to retain autonomy as long as possible.

2. It was a way of maintaining consensus, equally acceptable to those who genuinely wanted to move towards unity and those who wanted to procrastinate. 

3. Its emphasis on practical intermediate steps meant that the south could hope to reap the economic benefits of north-south co-operation without committing itself to full unification, and all the political risks that it entailed.

4. It was a good negotiating position. The southern leaders were acutely aware that they had very little to bargain with. In the face of President Salih’s obvious enthusiasm for union their most effective tactic would be to appear as reluctant as possible, though without appearing so obstructive as to alienate public opinion.

5. It was a way of buying time to explore alternatives to unification.

In the discussions that ensued, the south continued to insist on a transitional period before unification. This, according to some commentators, was the essential point of difference between the south and the north, which wanted to announce unification first and consolidate it afterwards [18]. As the talks progressed, however, the concept of a transitional period evolved towards the idea of federation. Addressing the Yemeni Authors’ and Writers’ Union early in November 1989, al-Baid called for “a transitional federal formula as a step along the road towards a subsequent merger between the two parts” [19]. The northern information minister, in a radio interview a fortnight later, suggested that federation would involve merging the armed forces and several ministries, including the foreign ministry, “within the context of a unionist government receiving instructions from the united political leadership of the two halves of the homeland.” He also indicated that the northern and southern governments would continue to exist and function locally [20].

On November 30, President Salih was due to visit Aden for celebrations to mark the 22nd anniversary of southern independence from Britain. It was a visit the southern leadership had long been seeking as recognition of their legitimacy after the events of 1986 – and Salih exploited it to move the unification process forward. In advance of the visit, northern sources began hinting that it would be the occasion for an important announcement [21]. Meanwhile, the northern parliament issued an emotional statement declaring that “working to achieve Yemeni unity is a sacred duty of every citizen”. It reminded the leaders of the two sides of their obligation to refer the draft constitution to their respective parliaments and then submit it to a referendum. Secondly, it invited members of the southern parliament to a joint meeting “so that the two parliaments can play their role and honour their historic responsibilities.” [22]

This not only created an air of expectation but increased the psychological pressure on the southern regime. As the president travelled south he made a series of speeches which stirred up popular enthusiasm for unity and, by the time he arrived in Aden, huge crowds were waiting to greet him.23 The YSP leaders plainly felt they were being stampeded into a more far-reaching agreement than they had envisaged, and when asked by journalists about the impending proclamation of unity, al-Baid replied: “Why the hurry?”

Despite his obvious enthusiasm for unification, the documents that President Salih carried with him for signing proposed a federal system rather than full union because that, in the view of the northern delegation, was as much as the YSP would be prepared to accept. The plans provided for the transitional period requested by the YSP and, in President Salih’s words …

… a merging of the international identity and uniting the foreign and defence ministries during a period of transformation, while keeping the political organisations and local governments in the two parts and forming a central government to mediate confidently. [24]

Salih arrived in Aden a day earlier than scheduled and, avoiding a ceremonial meeting with President Attas, went straight into talks with al-Baid and his deputy, Salim Salih Muhammad. Opening the meeting, al-Baid said the way was now open for “earnest unionist steps to be carried out during a transitional period which will strive to reinforce the bridges of confidence and build components of the united state”. He continued: “We can today start with confidence in national work on the basis of a common understanding of the necessity of accomplishing the tasks of the transitional federal state which we are inaugurating by this historic meeting in Aden.” [25] Almost immediately, however, al-Baid changed his mind.

The northern leaders were astonished when al-Baid, on behalf of the south, suddenly rejected federalism and instead proposed full unification. Puzzled but delighted, the north quickly accepted and President Salih embarked on a triumphal return home, proclaiming “a great victory for the Yemeni revolution and for our Yemeni people”. Speaking in Ta’izz on his way back to Sana’a, he explained: “In accordance with this draft plan, the complete merger and unity of the homeland will be realised again through peaceful and democratic means.” The meeting in Aden had differed completely from previous meetings, he said. “In the past we endorsed unionist steps within an atmosphere of tension between the two parts [of Yemen], during which the blood of the sons of the two parts of the homeland was shed. This great and advanced step comes within an atmosphere of love, amity, loyalty and democracy between the leaders of the two parts.” [26]

The south’s sudden volte face is one of the most curious aspects of Yemeni unification. Various sources agree that it was al-Baid – and not the Socialist party – who decided on full unification [27]. “There was no vote,” one recalls. “He just decided by himself, in the same way that he decided to separate again four years later.” [28] Opinions differ as to the reasons for his decision, and whether he really intended to see it through to completion.

Under the agreement signed in Aden, the draft constitution for a unified state would be submitted to both parliaments for approval within six months, and within a further six months both presidents would form a joint committee to organise a constitutional referendum and the election of “a unified authority for the new state”. In reality, this meant either everything or nothing. Although the agreement was generally interpreted as meaning that unification would be achieved within 12 months, it did not in fact say so: it set a timetable for approving the new constitution but not for unification itself. In any case, the delays built into the agreement created a strong possibility that the process would be de-railed in the meantime.

It could be argued, therefore, that in the short term this agreement required a lower level of commitment and action from the south than the federal option. The federal proposal would have obliged the south to take steps almost immediately, some of which – such as uniting the foreign and defence ministries – would have amounted to surrendering autonomy in important areas. Acceptance of full unification, on the other hand, required no irrevocable moves for a year or so. 

There is some additional evidence that al-Baid’s intention was to buy time while exploring other options. Despite continuing progress in various aspects of north-south co-operation, including the holding of a joint cabinet meeting in late January 1990, the PDRY continued to behave as if it were less than fully committed to union with the north. After the signing of the Aden agreement, for example, it pressed ahead to establish diplomatic relations with the United States – a process which was eventually completed just three weeks before the PDRY ceased to exist. This would surely have been unnecessary if the PDRY harboured no doubts about unification, because the US already had an embassy in Sana’a. The southern leaders appear to have been hoping – almost until the last moment – that a new foreign benefactor would emerge to salvage the economic situation by replacing the lost Soviet and East German aid and relieving the pressure for union with the north. The most likely candidate for this benefactor role was Saudi Arabia, which had its own reasons for opposing Yemeni unification. There was certainly intense diplomatic activity between Aden and Riyadh, especially during April 1990.

The difficulty of interpreting al-Baid’s real motives is increased by the confusion that prevailed within the YSP at the time. There were important elements, including al-Baid’s deputy, Salim Salih Muhammad, who favoured closer economic co-operation with the north without the political commitment of full unification – and Muhammad maintains that this was the majority view in the party [29]. Others, including the southern oil minister, Salih abu Bakr bin Husaynun (who was also Deputy Prime Minister and a member of the Central Committee) adopted a firm pro-unity line, arguing that “Yemen, under the existing partition, cannot be prosperous economically, and it is impossible to bring about development in the two parts of the homeland without reuniting them in land and people.” [30] With the party deeply divided and public opinion in the south apparently in favour of unity, the approach adopted by al-Baid at the Aden summit had the advantage of being easily defensible (and possibly not requiring party approval). This was because the principle of a unified state with a new constitution had already been agreed in Cairo 17 years earlier; the only new element was the timetable for approving the constitution.

If al-Baid’s real aim was to postpone marriage to the north in the hope of being wooed by a wealthier suitor, he seriously miscalculated. The main effect of the 12-month wait envisaged by the Aden agreement was to give opponents of unification an opportunity to campaign against it (encouraged, in some cases, by the Saudis), and the threat that this posed to stability in both north and south ultimately persuaded Salih and al-Baid to cut short the timetable in order to avert disaster. 

During March and April, 1990, there was evidence of growing opposition to unity among secularists in the south who feared that Islamic law would be imposed, including veils for women, and a large anti-fundamentalist demonstration took place in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramaut province on March 26 [31]. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, a prominent northern Islamist, Shaykh Abd al-Hamid Zaydani, declared a jihad on “the tiny group of pagans within the communist party of South Yemen, who have been influenced by an imported culture and stand disgraced before the Yemeni people”. He called on Yemenis to boycott the proposed referendum because the draft constitution referred to Sharia as the “main” source of legislation, rather than the only one [32]. On May 1, an incident described as a “tribal clash” was reported in the northern province of Sa’ada, an area close to the Saudi border where there were known to be opponents of unification. Officials in Sana’a dismissed the report as “baseless” [33], while the Independent newspaper in Britain accused the Saudis of instigating the trouble (which the Saudis in turn denied) [34].

Meanwhile ’Ummar al-Jawwi, Secretary-General of the southern Unionist Rally Party, denounced “certain Islamist elements which owe allegiance to foreign parties, the very ones which fought against the republican regime and the revolution in our party … These Islamists, who operate from abroad, have just brandished the banner of jihad because, as a matter of fact, they are opposed to unification.” He continued: “There can be no turning back … it is absurd to delay announcing the unification …if unification is not officially announced in two months’ time, there will be trouble.” [35]

Against this general background of unrest, separate disputes within the YSP emerged into the open. In an election for the governorship of Aden, the incumbent, a protégé of Salim Salih Muhammad was defeated by the candidate from the Fataheen, a rival YSP faction named after Abd al-Fatah Ismail, the party leader killed in the 1986 power struggle. Some 6,000 demonstrators took to the streets for two nights running, claiming the election had been rigged [36]. Al-Baid himself – who was not a particularly astute tactician – suffered a personal rebuff early in April when he sought to reorganise the three top posts in the PDRY in a way that would have made him head of state – ostensibly to put him on an equal footing with Salih. The move failed when some of the Politburo objected on the grounds that the party’s secretary-general should not also be head of the presidium, while others insisted there was no reason to make the change [37]. This was a grave miscalculation on al-Baid’s part, since he had neglected to ensure that he had the necessary support before embarking on it, and it left his authority severely damaged. According to a non-YSP source who was present in Aden at the time, al-Baid was further alarmed when disputes also spread to the southern army and he became convinced that full union with the north, as soon as possible, was the only way to salvage the situation [38]. 

Al-Baid has since indicated privately that he believed his political survival was in jeopardy and that his decision on unification was intended to thwart the party machine by appealing directly to public opinion, which was strongly in favour of unity [39]. Expressed in those terms, it sounds unduly cynical – as though al-Baid opted for unification in order to save his own skin. But Abd al-Qader Bagammal, the PDRY’s planning minister at the time and a fellow-Hadrami, recalls advising al-Baid: “I told him there were only two options: we could become like Albania or we could unite with the north. I told him there was nothing the state controlled any more … not the economy, not the army. The Russians had ruined our oil fields. We couldn’t control the movement of goods and people. After the opening of the border, 250,000 people had moved to the north. We couldn’t be sure of the military because the political leaders were from Hadramaut but 70% of the army was from Lahij.” [40] The final straw, according to Bagammal, was that after his defeat at the hands of the Politburo early in April, al-Baid could not even be sure that he controlled his own party.

Faced with this rapidly deteriorating situation, Salih and al-Baid met again in Aden on May 1-2, and suddenly abandoned the year-long process they had agreed upon the previous November [41]. In order to forestall trouble, they decided there would be no constitutional referendum until after unification; the two parliaments would merge but continue to serve their existing terms, effectively postponing fresh elections for two-and-a-half years; Salih would continue as president and al-Baid would become his deputy. An announcement said formal union would take place just over three weeks later, on May 26. In the event, even that proved a little too long and the new Republic of Yemen was born four days prematurely, on May 22. For Salih it was a triumph, but for al-Baid it was the hasty decision he himself had warned against only 11 months earlier.

© Copyright Brian Whitaker 2009


Links to chapters



Chapter 1 
One nation, two Yemens 

Chapter 2 
Steps towards unification

Chapter 3 
Origins of political pluralism

Chapter 4 
Mechanisms of unification

Chapter 5 
The multi-party system

Chapter 6 
Freedom of the press

Chapter 7 
The international dimension

Chapter 8 
Problems of the transitional period

Chapter 9 
The first multi-party elections

Chapter 10 
Coalition and opposition

Chapter 11 
From crisis to conflict

Chapter 12 
The outbreak of war

Chapter 13 
The Democratic Republic of Yemen

Chapter 14 
Muddling through



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Last revised on 07 June, 2009