On America’s troubled relationship with Yemen

On America’s troubled relationship with Yemen

he United States has usually not had a Yemen policy—rather, its policy toward Yemen is a subset of its policy toward Saudi Arabia. This is especially true today with the war in Yemen. Two U.S. administrations have backed the Saudi intervention in the civil war in its smaller and much poorer neighbor.

President Harry Truman sent the first American diplomatic mission to Yemen in 1946. It was led by Bill Eddy, a former Marine who arranged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous meeting with Saudi King Abdul-Aziz al Saud in Egypt a year earlier. After an arduous trip to reach Sanaa, Eddy spent weeks negotiating a treaty of good will and commerce with the Mutawakkilite Kingdom.

Eddy reported that the kingdom was the most backward nation in the region: no roads, legal system, or medical facilities. The Yemeni monarch did not want foreigners in his country unless they were doctors to treat himself. No permanent U.S. mission was set up, instead the American ambassador in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia served also as the non-resident ambassador to Yemen. Truman facilitated Yemen’s admission to the United Nations in 1947.

In September 1962, the army staged a coup against the Mutawakkilite Imam and set up a republican government. Civil war followed. Egypt backed the republicans with tens of thousands of troops and aircraft. The Soviets provided airlift for the Egyptian intervention. The Saudis backed the royalists, with help from Jordan and Israel. The British clandestinely coordinated the support for the royalists.

President John F. Kennedy recognized the republican government and refused to support the Saudi-backed insurgency. He did send American jet fighters to Saudi Arabia to deter any Egyptian cross-border meddling in Saudi Arabia. It was a rare display of America breaking mildly with the Saudis over Yemen. Kennedy believed the royalists were hopelessly out of date and incapable of reform. He also pressed the Saudis to implement reforms in the kingdom.

The Egyptians withdrew from Yemen after their defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. The republican government survived, however, and ultimately reconciled with the Saudis. A series of military coups ended when General Ali Abdullah Saleh took power. Saleh famously said that ruling Yemen was like dancing on the heads of snakes.

An American company found modest deposits of oil in Yemen, which funded some development in the 1980s. Saleh united the north with southern Yemen in 1990. The south had been a British colony until 1968, when a communist government took power. When the Soviet Union collapsed, its impoverished protégés in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south had no choice but to take Saleh’s offer of union.

Saleh tilted Yemen toward Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. The Saudis were convinced that Yemen was secretly conspiring with Baghdad to partition their country and restore territory that the Saudis had won in a war with Yemen in 1934. President George H.W. Bush backed the Saudis—aid was cut off, and Yemen isolated.

To punish Saleh, the Saudi government expelled a million Yemenis living and working in Saudi Arabia. When President Bill Clinton came into office, he kept Saleh at arm’s length, but he did not support a Saudi-funded southern secessionist movement in 1995 that Saleh crushed in a short civil war.



You can read the full article on the Brookings Institute here 

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