May 11 2020

A Few Observations on Omani-Yemeni Relations since the 1960s 

Helen Lackner 

12 March 2020

This podcast has been edited for publication. Any mistakes or discrepancies with the original podcast are the fault of the Editor alone.

Nick Smith A huge welcome to Helen Lackner. Helen is one of the preeminent UK scholars on Yemen and has spent the last four decades researching the country. She is currently an Associate Researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies and a visiting Fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations. She is also the Editor of the Journal of the British Yemeni Society and a regular contributor to both Oxford Analytica and Open Democracy. Her publications include Yemen In Crisis, Autocracy, Neo-liberalism and a Disintegration of a State and Why Yemen Matters: A Society in Transition, which she also edited.

Helen, thank you so much for joining us today.  Yemen has been in the midst of a civil war since 2015, it's widely characterised as a failed state and is currently undergoing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises and a famine described as the ‘worst famine in the world in 100 years’ by the UN. As someone engaged in current affairs, but by no means an expert on the region, it feels like the recent history of Yemen has been one of internal strife, instability and political division. Is this a fair take? 

Helen Lackner I think it is a fair summary of the situation. There have been a considerable series of internal conflicts in Yemen throughout the last half century. The current conflict is far worse than all the earlier ones and far more lasting. But yes, I think it is a fair description, unfortunately so.   

Nick Smith If we go a bit farther back than the current civil war and look at the history of Yemen, can we trace the nexus of some of the issues today to the Zaydi Imamate and the subsequent division of the country by the Ottoman and British Empires in the early 20th century?

Helen Lackner I think only to a limited extent. I think the common nature of the problems is really a political struggle for power, and yes, the Houthi movement claimed the Zaydi inheritance. Houthis are Zaydis but not all Zaydis are Houthis.  I think it would be a mistake to reduce this to a sectarian issue between Zaydis and non-Zaydis in the country. If you go back to looking at the British Period, of course, in the south which used to be the Yemen Arab Republic or previously the Zaydi Imamate, you do have a different situation. I think you really need to look more at the last 30 years since unification, to understand at least the dynamics of the struggle between the Houthis and anti-Houthis rather than looking back into earlier stages. If you want to look at earlier stages, that is important to understand the problems in the south, which is a separate issue, connected but separate.

Nick Smith A lot of our audience today said that when they think of Yemen, they very much think of a North Yemen and a South Yemen, is that still the consensus in Yemen itself or do Yemenis tend to view Yemen as united? 

Helen Lackner I think it depends on who you are speaking to. I mean, a lot of Yemenis see Yemen as a single country. But certainly, the Southern separatist movement which has a number of institutions or groups do have a different vision and they certainly see them as two separate states. I think if you look at this situation culturally, there is an entity that I would call a Yemeni entity, Yemeni cultural national entity, but you have to accept that there are also differences within there. I mean, a Yemeni from Sadah has certain different cultural characteristics than a Yemeni from Hadhramaut, Al Mahwit or Al Marah. But to me, there is a certain Yemeni entity which exists throughout Yemen, which only barely, if at all, crosses the borders into Oman or Saudi Arabia. It’s not a simple question, but without going into very complex details, it is roughly what I would say.

Nick Smith So, within Yemen, is there a widely agreed that consensus on what defines Yemeni nationhood or nationality?

Helen Lackner I am not sure that if you asked a Yemeni in Yemen that he or she would be able to answer that question in a straightforward manner. But outside of Yemen, there is a very clear difference between a Yemeni and Saudi or a Yemeni and an Omani. They will have different characteristics, to some extent, forms of behaviour, regardless of the different senses within Yemen.

Nick Smith When we talk about South Yemen, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, it was the only country in the Arabian Peninsula in which communism took hold. So, my first question would be, why did this happen? Secondly, how is this connected with the Dhofar rebellion in Oman and the subsequent military campaign, which became such a defining period of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos’s early reign?

Helen Lackner I think it is important to remember, and people tend to forget, that the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen existed from 1967 until 1990. So, it was not there either before or after these two dates. And indeed, the struggle in Dhofar and to some extent, beyond that in Oman, was between 1965 and 1975. So, we are talking about a very limited period. The Dhofar struggle was against Sultan bin Taimur in the first 5 years - in fact, the first half of the 10 years it lasted, was prior to the arrival of Sultan Qaboos. So, we have two very different phases in that struggle, from the point of view of who was ruling Oman at that time. And you also have different phases in that struggle when you are looking at both the relationship with Yemen and internal developments within the revolutionary movement, because the PDRY did not exist until 1967. So it was only for the next few years that it was in a position to help the revolutionaries and at the same time, within the movement itself, it was influenced to some extent from local dynamics, but also from international dynamics with respect to the kind of complex struggle between the Soviet Union and China at that time and the internal problems within the socialist world.


Nick Smith If we come back to modern day Yemen and the current civil war since 2015. Could you just give us a brief overview of why it all started, who were the key players and why it is often regarded as a proxy war by outside powers? When we spoke about South Yemen, we talked about the infiltration of Soviet ideology, has that got any parallels in terms of proxies, with what is going on now?

Helen Lackner That is a lot of questions! Why did the war start? The war was the outcome of a number of political, economic and social difficulties that arose. As we just said, Yemen was united in 1990 and it was rapidly taken over entirely by the ruling mechanism of Ali Abdullah Saleh, which he had already implemented since 1978 in what the Yemen Arab Republic was then. And this was a very much a patronage system, a personal rule, aided by his closest acolytes and based on a simple patronage system. I have described an autocracy, but I think that is a slightly different aspect. I think at the moment, when we are talking about patronage, I'm trying to talk about the reason why it had a lot of support. If you were living in a village in Yemen anywhere, you actually wanted Ali Abdullah Saleh to come and visit because he will turn up with bags full of money  which would be distributed and most people would likely get some outcome from it. If he decided you were going to have your school, your health centre, your road - it would happen. So, in that sense, he was popular, and in that sense, there are certain areas where he is still popular. But it was a system which was completely erratic. If he turned up, you got something. If you happen to be somewhere else, where he does not turn up, you did not get anything. There was not much logic to that.

The autocracy element was really the personal rule, the rule of the group and also the overall mechanism which focused on a small minority gaining most of benefit at the expense of society as a whole, whether in the north or the south. You had a political paralysis because Ali Abdullah Saleh, despite Yemen being more democratic than anywhere else in the peninsula - you had a multiparty democracy, you had other parties represented in the Parliament, you had different views. But ultimately, Ali Abdullah Saleh was the one who made the decisions. So, you did not have a situation similar to Tunisia where elections were won with 99.8% of the votes. You got something much more realistic. But it was always only Abdullah Saleh's party who won and that was organised. So, you had a political paralysis because in 2009 he was trying to change the Constitution so that he would be allowed to stand one more time. The plan was to eventually get his son to inherit the presidency. Very much the Syrian model, what was originally considered also as the Libyan model, that was very unpopular with the other parties. So you had political paralysis, you had the economic situation, which basically was a significant deterioration in living conditions for the majority of the people because oil income and production was going down, which was already low by any Gulf standards, it rose to 400,000 barrels a day at the peak production. By the time we're talking about in the late 2000s, it's 200,000 barrels a day which is something, but it's nowhere near the production of Saudi Arabic which has a similar size population, so the potential for patronage was seriously deteriorated.

This combination of social, political and economic deterioration led to the uprisings in 2011. In 2011 Yemen had characteristics which are really far beyond those of many other countries. It happened everywhere in the country, even the capitals of governorates. Some in places which were little more than villages had demonstrations, and you then had the transition set up under the name of the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement, which was supposed to last two years, and was supposed to bring in fundamental reforms to the system and to expel Abdullah Saleh clique. But in reality, what happened is that Ali Abdullah Saleh was so strong that he was not excluded. He had to give up the Presidency, yes, but he remained the head of his party which was the biggest political institution in the country, and therefore, during the transition and through the whole transition process, he had the ability to undermine it, which eventually led to the Houthi uprising and to the Houthi takeover in 2014/2015. And just for those who do not realise this, Ali Abdullah Saleh had been having six wars against the Houthis between 2004 and 2010 and then you had this new alliance and because they didn't like the direction in which the transitional government was going. They basically jointly took over and the war started at the end of this transition, give or take a few months.*

*Editor's note. Mansour Hadi was chosen as President for a two year transitional period in Feburary 2012. His mandate was then extended for another year until January 2014

Nick Smith So, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. It was a disintegration over a sustained period of time?

Helen Lackner It was disintegration but eventually the straw that broke the camel's back. In that particular instant, the moment that did it, was the promulgation of what was intended to be the new constitution. And that was the excuse for Houthis to say 'this is it, we're not having this',  so that was I suppose you could say, the trigger moment, but the fundamental issues had been building up for well over a decade.

Nick Smith When we talk about proxy war, can you just explain a bit more about that and the regional effects?

Helen Lackner What happened in 2015 is that once the Houthis had taken over Sanaa and the official transitional regime, particularly the President Hadi’s escape to Aden* , the Houthis were about to basically defeat him and expel him from Aden. He appealed to the Saudis to come and help. And so that is when you had the coalition, developed by the Saudis with primarily the Emiratis and about nine other states, to bring back the Hadi regime into power. You had the attempt at that point and that really was the beginning of a war. Now, the extent to which you can call it a proxy war, I think personally, I do not really think it is a proxy war. I think it is really a situation where you had the Houthis and Saleh supporters and then after 2017/2018, the Houthi War versus the coalition. The coalition is the Yemeni officially recognised, internationally recognised government fighting the Houthis. When people talk about the proxy war, they are really thinking about Iran and the involvement of Iran on behalf of the Houthis. I think one needs to look at that into some detail because, that definitely, as I think we all know, is a serious problem between the Saudis and the Iranians but to what extent is Yemen part of this? It is part of this, but only to a much more, very much more, limited extent. It is not the focus. It is not that when the Saudis are fighting the Houthis, they are fighting the Iranians because the Houthis are not Iranian servants, or even Iranian proxies.

*Editor's note. On 22 January 2015, Hadi was forced to resign by the Houthis is the midst of mass protests. Subsequently, the Houthis and supporters of Saleh seized the Presidential palace and placed Hadi under house arrest. The Houthis named a Revolutionary Committee and a month later, Hadi escaped to his hometown of Aden.

Nick Smith Does that tend to be overplayed in Western media?

Helen Lackner I think that is very much overplayed. The Iranian involvement has increased since the war started. It was barely in existence in 2015/ 2016. It's increased over the period of time and yes, indeed, for the Iranians, the Yemen situation is a really cheap win, compared to Syria, compared to Iraq, compared to anyone else, Yemen is cheap. The Houthis are pretty positive about them ideologically, even though there is a very big difference from a sectarian perspective.  In a way they are following some of the Iranian ideological positions in the sense of basically wanting a theocracy. So, the Iranians basically handover some fuel, which financially is not a major contribution. They help with some fancy technology, military technology. But basically, thanks to that rather limited involvement, they are causing a lot of inconvenience and hassle to the Saudis. In that sense, you can say that there is a connection. But the point that really is important to understand is that the Houthis would continue and will do what they want to do, regardless of what the Iranians say, or do, or want. You cannot really say they are a proxy because they’re not - they are not taking orders from the Iranians.

Nick Smith So, if the Iranians were to withdraw their involvement tomorrow, it would continue in its current form?

Helen Lackner If the Iranian involvement and unfortunately, to a large extent the Saudi involvement, ended tomorrow, you would still have the Yemen Civil War. We would still have the conflict. They are relevant, of course, extremely relevant but their removal from the scene would not end the struggle.

Nick Smith If we steer back to Oman, Oman has stayed clear of any direct involvement in the conflict, and it plays a more discreet and useful role as a peace broker. How do you assess this and its impact?

Helen Lackner I think Oman has played an extremely useful role and continues to try and play an extremely useful role. Oman is the only GCC country that did not join the anti- Houthi coalition, so that gave them an advantage in terms of acting as a facilitator or a mediator. But I think very importantly, it also demonstrated that this isn't the GCC versus the Yemenis. Omanis in previous occasions, in other conflicts, have demonstrated their independence.  I think that’s been a very important element and what it has allowed them, and made it possible for them to do, is to facilitate dialogue because the Houthis are limited to northern Yemen. The Sanaa airport has been closed since the summer of 2016 which means that if the British government or the French government, or anyone, wishes to talk to the Houthis, it is not easy. But the Houthis now have a permanent delegation and the head off the negotiating team is sitting in Muscat for at least two or three years. This means that if people wish to talk to the Houthis and to some extent most states do, they can easily reach them by turning up in Muscat. This facilitating role is extremely important and a significant contribution towards what we hope, one day, will be a solution to this problem. They are also facilitating travel for many Yemenis in and out of Yemen because again, with Sanaa airport being closed, the only operational airports are what used to be the south, still technically the south geographically but politically. Also, particularly, Aden is an area where the Southern Separatists are very active and make life extremely unpleasant for people from the north. There is a level of hostility between southerners and northerners, which is a much more important and fundamental social issue than the question of sectarianism. 

Nick Smith Do you have any short-term hope for the end of hostilities and really the beginning of a new era of peace and reconstruction? Or is there really no end in sight at the moment?

Helen Lackner Unfortunately, I don't, what I find particularly depressing is that I don't think I've spoken to a single Yemeni or other expert on the region in the last 12 months, last two years who had seen any prospect of an end to this. The situation seems to be very intractable. There is an absolute lack of willing to compromise on the part of both the Houthis and the so called internationally recognised government. I think it is very clear to me that the Saudis would like an end to this. It is an expensive operation and not providing any benefit. The Emiratis have officially withdrawn, they are still there in certain specific locations in small numbers and in certain strategic positions that they have maintained. So, I think the international element is getting smaller or less important. And it suddenly looked towards the end of last year as if things were going to reach some kind of an end, whether formally or informally. I had not envisaged necessarily that there would be an agreement. But what I had envisaged was that the thing would just fizzle out in a way on the grounds  that signing agreement means you have to make certain statements but the recent offensives that have happened from the Houthis have clearly demonstrated that that hope was premature.

Nick Smith That's been a phenomenal insight into Yemen. Thank you for so eloquently taking us back through the recent history of Yemen and up to the modern day. It's been a real privilege.

Helen Lackner Well, thank you for giving me the opportunity. I would just like to say and what I believe, millions of Yemenis are thinking and saying daily, that we do wish there were a solution and an end to this fighting. 

You can find all the British Omani Society podcasts here 

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