The unification took place in 1990 due to several factors. Yemeni unity has long been the most popular political slogan among officials in both parts of the country. In Yemeni schools, the children got up every morning and declaimed the customary slogans. Of the three elements, the Yemeni entity was the most popular; the other two were “defending the Yemeni revolution” and “implementing the five-year plan.” That was very ingrained.
People also usually had relatives in the other part of the country. Enormous numbers of southern Yemenis migrated to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States via the North for work because the YAR had a special agreement with the Saudis, which meant their citizens did not have to go through the usual regulations for foreign workers and could come and go go as they wanted and work without a sponsor. Entry with a North Yemeni passport was very convenient for everyone, so many southerners went to Sana’a to apply for a YAR passport, which was allowed.
In my view there is a Yemeni nation, although there are differences between someone from the far east and someone from the far north. There are certain similarities that most Yemenis share. For decades, when people talked about Arab unity, I thought it was a joke — I never thought it could happen — while I always felt that Yemeni unity was a real possibility because of that cultural and historical connection of people within the country gave end to end of it — including a few bits that are currently not a part of it.
There were, of course, a number of political elements. On the one hand, both the PDRY and the YAR ran into internal crises. At this point, Ali Abdullah Saleh had been in power for almost ten years. His regime consolidated and caused considerable popular discontent. Oil revenues had only just started in 1986–87. In a western region there was an uprising against his regime. Saleh struggled with his problems.
The PDRY regime after 1986 was basically discredited to the populace because the January 13 fight was perceived by all as nothing more than a murderous power struggle in which at least 5,000 people were killed. There had been a massive exodus of the number of defeated factions. This regime failed to restore popular credibility, despite a number of very positive efforts it made – for example by allowing much more freedom of speech and allowing other parties to exist.
One of the things that sparked unity was the discovery of oil at a specific location that lay on the border between the two Yemeni states and Saudi Arabia. It was rightly assumed, I think, that if the two Yemenis started fighting each other in this case, the Saudis would just take the lot. Forming a unitary state was certainly the better option.
Saleh was for it. He thought – and I think history proved him right – that he would manipulate it and be the stronger element. At the time of unification there were about nine million Yemenis from the YAR and about two million from the PDRY, so the population balance was very much in favor of the northern element.
There is still much debate today as to what the unity agreement was because the Yemen Socialist Party believed they had agreed on a federal system and their leader at the time, Ali Salem al Beidh, was tricked by Saleh into promoting full unity to use . That’s the common story, and it may be true – I have no idea.
Unity was welcomed with great enthusiasm by Yemenis everywhere at the time, as the people had aspired to be able to travel freely and allow southerners to access the material goods available in the north. Many people had two main hopes for unity that are worth remembering.
Khat, as you may know, is a mild drug widely used in Yemen. There were regulations in the PDRY that it could only be consumed on weekends and public holidays. In the YAR it was allowed all along and had spread enormously – it’s spread even more since then. Many people in both parts of Yemen hoped that the southern khat rules would be enforced across the country.
Another element that many women were certainly hoping for was that PDRY family law would prevail. This gave women a much better position. Compared to the situation in the YAR, it officially granted them full rights.
What happened, of course, was the opposite. The khat laws of Sana’a spread throughout Yemen, and now afternoon and evening chewing can be seen across the country. Northern family law was introduced. Women from the South, and indeed women across Yemen, found their living conditions to deteriorate significantly afterwards.
There was a brief civil war in 1994 as some Southerners attempted to restore their independence. They were defeated militarily by Saleh’s forces, with support not only from a number of Islamists and “Afghans,” as they were called – people who had returned from jihad in Afghanistan – but also from those who had been defeated in 1986. That is relevant today when looking at the situation regarding the Southern Transitional Council and Southern separatism, as pro-Saleh forces included current President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was on the losing side in 1986.
After 1994, the regime that Saleh operated in the YAR spread throughout Yemen. This was a regime in which there was formal democracy and the presence of other parties, but decisions were essentially made by a small military clique, and benefits accrued to a similarly small clique of kleptocrats. This, of course, caused a lot of dissatisfaction in the south. It wasn’t much appreciated in the north either, but they were used to it.