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Yemen Civil War


The long, bitter, and costly struggle in North Yemen fought by the republicans and royalists between 1962 and 1970.

The Yemen Civil War began with the 1962 revolution and dragged on intermittently until 1970. The second half of the war coincided with a long drought, and the two forces in combination caused hunger, economic hardship, social dislocation, and many deaths in most parts of the country. Without a doubt, the struggle remains as one of a few defining memories of one if not two generations of Yemenis.

In addition, the civil war forced the deferral of most major efforts at political and socioeconomic development in what would become the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) until the 1970s. Indeed, it was not until after reconciliation that the Yemenis could really begin to take the destiny of Yemen into their own hands. At the height of the struggle, the republicans, who were committed to creating a modern state and using it to overcome the weakness and "backwardness" of Yemen, controlled little more than the third of the country defined by the triangle formed by the roads connecting Sanʿa, Taʿiz, and Hodeida (al-Hudayda)and much within the triangle was outside their effective control. Another third was controlled by the royalists and their tribal allies, and the last third by tribes and others either concerned with their own autonomy or willing to go either way if the price were right. If anything, the balance between the tribes and the state during these years was more in favor of the former than had been the case under the imamate just before the revolution.

The young imam Muhammad al-Badr survived the revolution on 26 September 1962, escaped from Sanʿa, and went on to rally many of the northern tribes and other allies of the imamate for an assault upon the new republic. The civil war was quickly regionalized when Egypt came in strongly on the side of the republicans and Saudi Arabia sided with the imam and the royalists; it was internationalized when the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe supported Egypt and the new YAR, and the United States and the United Kingdom deferred to the Saudis and their interests. As a result, the Yemen Civil War became a microcosmic battleground for the "Arab cold war" between revolutionary Arab nationalist republicans and conservative monarchists and, to a lesser extent, between the Soviet Union and its socialist bloc and the Free World.

The Egyptians, who clearly saved the republic in those first years, took control of fighting the civil war and came to look over time more and more like an occupier; bogged down, they came to call the Yemeni civil war "our Vietnam." Seen as a puppet of Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the regime headed by President Abdullah al-Sallal lost credibility and legitimacy. When Nasser withdrew his forces from Yemen on the occasion of the Arab-Israel War of 1967 (the Six-Day War), the Sallal regime collapsed in a matter of weeks, opening the way to the republican-royalist reconciliation that took another two years to consummate.

Although it put much state-building as well as socioeconomic development on hold and exacted a terrible price in human suffering, the civil war did open up an isolated and insulated Yemen to a flood of new ideas, institutions, and practices. The Yemen of the 1970s and later was able to grasp and utilize many of these new elements in a way that was impossible in the 1960s.

see also badr, muhammad al-; yemen; yemen arab republic.


Burrowes, Robert D. The Yemen Arab Republic: The Politics of Development, 19621986. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987.

Dresch, Paul. Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

robert d. burrowes

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