Skip to main content

See also:

Yemeni separatist movement: harbinger of other Middle East reconfigurations?

Protesters in southern Yemen are threatening to break the country into two pieces.

Yemen, at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, has a history stretching to antiquity, but like most countries, its current boundaries are of recent vintage. Britain occupied Aden on the southern coast in the nineteenth century, while the northern portion of the country was under nominal Turkish rule. The Aden Protectorate remained part of the British Empire until 1967, becoming the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Meanwhile, after six years of civil war, the northern regions coalesced into the Yemen Arab Republic in 1968.

The two Yemens didn’t get along, and fought a war in 1972. This ended with an agreement to merge, which was finally implemented in 1990. But many in the former PDRY continued to feel marginalized and brutalized by the larger former YAR. Uneasy relations between the two unequal halves persisted. In May-July 1994 there was a civil war, which the north won.

In February 2014, a post-“Arab Spring” committee voted to divide Yemen into a federation of six regions—four in the north, two in the south. This sparked protests in the south, during the 20th anniversary of the 1994 war. Led by the aptly-named Southern Movement, thousands of protesters in the city of Mukalla demanded secession. The government squashed a planned protest in Aden and harassed one in Sa’ana.

A statement read at the Mukalla demonstration said: “Southerners are determined to continue with our revolution until independence is achieved, the Southern identity is restored and a sovereign government is put in place. Southerners must stand up to the arrogant rulers and end the occupation at minimal cost. Southerners also want to maintain friendly and fraternal bonds between the people of the South and North.”

This is a reminder that the borders in the Middle East were not drawn by God—in most cases, it was the British and the French carving up the carcass of the Ottoman Empire. These post-World War I borders often bore no relationship to local demographic or political realities. As a result, they attempted to lump together ethnic, tribal and/or religious groups that had no cohesive connections. The resulting countries lacked coherence, sometimes amounting to small empires of dominant and subservient peoples. These colonial borders therefore bear some responsibility for the tumultuous history of the Middle East in the twentieth century, until today.

Therefore, one might view the prospect of peaceful adjustment of those border with equanimity, even approval. Creating countries in which national self-determination is more readily achieved, while not solving all the myriad ills of the Middle East, could help.

It’s certainly a target-rich field:

• First and foremost, the Kurdish people deserve statehood. The Kurdish portion of Iraq in the north is the most peaceful, best-run part of the country. Let it go its own way.
• The Shia and the Sunni in Iraq are not getting along, after a long history of Sunni domination of the Shia minority. Why should they be forced to stay together?
• Iran is only about half Persian. The Azeri north-west could join Azerbaijan. The Baluchi south-east could link with the other half of Baluchistan, now in Pakistan. Khuzestan’s Arab majority is tired of discrimination, and may want autonomy, independence or to join neighboring Iraq.
• Syria is being torn to pieces, partly because an Alawi minority has ruled a Sunni majority for decades. A smaller Syria would make sense: There could be an Alawi state in Latakia, where the bulk of the Alawi live. The Kurdish east could link up with Iraqi Kurdistan.
• Saudi Arabia has a repressed, restive Shia minority. Saudi Arabia could afford to be a smaller country.
• The Nubians of southern Egypt face discrimination at the hands of the Arabs. There’s no obvious reason that they should be part of the Egyptian state.
• Across the Maghreb, the Amazigh or Berbers have been submerged in countries that are officially “Arab.” They deserve better.
• Libya is an artificial country that is splitting in two as we watch.

Now, this speculation is premised on the fundamental principle that borders must only be altered peacefully, not by violence or warfare. And adjusting the frontiers is obviously no substitute for a political and legal culture that respects the rights of minorities. The hope that either of these conditions will obtain in the Middle East as we find it today seems chimerical. (And I’m not discussing Israel/Palestine, where Palestinian nationalism is almost entirely negative, simply a desire to eliminate the Jewish state.) But trying to hold together political entities that suppress national aspirations is untenable in the long run.