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Yemen: the lessons of history

Ginny Hill's book paints the turbulent historical backdrop to the current war in Yemen

It's difficult to imagine a worse state of affairs. Yemen has been battered for six decades, and there seems no end to it. The creation of the republic in 1962 was followed by five years of civil war, with Saudi Arabia backing supporters of the deposed Imam. South Yemen, created after the departure of the British from Aden in 1967, was soon at loggerheads with the north. The unification of the two Yemens in 1990 was followed by yet another civil war. Against a background of political turbulence and assassinations, remote areas of Yemen received little financial support from the capital, Sanaa. Oil production was in decline. Misrule and corruption made things worse. Yemen became the poorest country in the Middle East.

Since March 2015, Yemen has been caught up in yet another war-led by Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies-aimed at putting down a rebellion by the Iran-backed Houthis and units of the Yemeni army. Three years later that war drags on. The cost to the region's poorest nation has been immense: at least 5,000 civilians have been killed in bombardments from the two sides and a further 9,000 wounded. According to the UN, "disease and malnutrition are rampant".

Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the youngest and least experienced son of the king, was keen to show his mettle as defence minister soon after his father's accession to the throne. As the Houthis, having taken over Sanaa, threatened to attack Aden, he ordered the Saudi air force into action. He expected victory within months.

He hadn't done his homework. As Ginny Hill points out in a lucid and compelling account of modern Yemeni history, you go to war in Yemen at your peril. In 1933, a year after the creation of Saudi Arabia, the kingdom found itself in a conflict with Yemen. The Saudis won, capturing Asir province. But it wasn't a happy experience, and King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, on his deathbed, is said to have advised his sons to "keep Yemen weak"—meaning it was advisable to use influence to control it, rather than military power.

Since March 2015, Yemen has been caught up in yet another war—led by Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies

President Gemal Abdul Nasser of Egypt could have benefited from this advice. He was quick to back the 1962 military coup by sending advisers and, as the Saudis began supporting the deposed Imam, troops as well. Incidentally, the first president of Yemen, Colonel Abdullah al-Sallal, as Hill writes in Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism and the Future of Arabia, justified his revolution on the grounds that there was a need to fight against poverty, sickness and ignorance. That was in 1962 before the long cycle of Yemeni wars had begun.

By the end of 1963, no fewer than 30,000 Egyptian troops had been deployed in Yemen. But sending in soldiers doesn't guarantee victory. Nor does the despatch of the air force, even when it faces no aerial opposition. Early in the conflict, two Red Cross doctors wrote: "It's difficult to say how long this war will last. [This is] an example of where a modern army with aviation which absolutely controls the air is defeated by primitive warriors."

Half a century later, Saudi Arabia and its allies should have taken heed of this. Since March 2015, they've had exclusive control of the air. But that hasn't brought them victory. The deadly slogging match continues.

So what's the way out? Hill, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, has long experience of living in and reporting on Yemen. Her book elegantly weaves her own experiences on the ground with the historical narrative. The conflict, she concludes, is fraught with both complexity and contradictions. For example, while the Saudis support the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Islah movement, the United Arab Emirates is implacably hostile to it.

The outcome, she concludes "will certainly be influenced—even if not conclusively determined—by the preferences of regional powers. Riyadh might wish to play the winning hand, but the decisive cards could well be in the hands of the Emiratis", who are the dominant foreign force in the south of Yemen. They appear to support the creation of another southern Yemeni state, something that Saudi Arabia strongly opposes.

No one can predict when the war and suffering will end. But Yemenis will surely hope that any future power contemplating the use of military might to stamp its footprint on the country will, for once, learn the lessons of history. Hill, in her account of the chaos of recent Yemeni history and current turbulence, documents "corruption, revolution, civil war and squandered potential". Her book is a good place to start that learning process.

Ginny Hill, Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism and the Future of Arabia. OUP, 2017

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