Today in Middle Eastern history: the North Yemen Civil War begins (1962)

The hottest conflict of the "Arab Cold War" gets underway.

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Historians of the 20th century Middle East have to reckon with the impact of not one, but two cold wars. The main one was of course the Cold War, in which the United States and Soviet Union jockeyed for power and influence all over the world and particularly in the oil-rich Greater Middle East. The second was a more insular affair, often called the “Arab Cold War.” It pitted the forces of republicanism, led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, against the forces of traditional monarchy, led by the Saudis. The Arab Cold War mapped on to the wider Cold War to some degree, as Nasser gravitated toward the Soviets and Washington’s devotion to the Saudis is, like death and taxes, a timeless certainty. But it also had its own causes and dynamics independent of the big superpower stare-down.

In a sense, the Arab Cold War boiled down to old versus new. Initially (meaning when Nasser came to power in 1952) playing for Team Old were the Saudis, the Gulf Arab monarchies (Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar), the Hashemite monarchies of Jordan and Iraq, Morocco, Libya, Syria, and the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, which will become particularly important in a couple of minutes. Perhaps you’re seeing a common thread here in that these countries were all monarchies (save Syria) and all therefore invested in maintaining the status quo across the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood also eventually wound up on Team Old, though this was a reactionary move after Nasser purged the group in Egypt.

Team New, as of 1952, included…well, just Egypt, pretty much. And, I guess, the Palestinian resistance that would eventually coalesce into the Palestine Liberation Organization. But a funny thing started happening as, thanks in no small measure to the Suez Crisis, Nasser and his message gained potency outside Egypt. A 1954 coup in Syria brought a vaguely Nasser-friendly collection of parties to power there, and after some more political shuffling the Syrian government agreed to enter political union with Nasser’s Egypt, known as the United Arab Republic, in 1958. Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956 as a republic, not a monarchy, and Algeria’s war of independence, which began in 1954, was led by a republican insurgency. More significantly, an Iraqi coup in 1958, very much modeled on Nasser’s 1952 coup in Egypt, took down the Hashemites there. Although the leader of that Iraqi coup, Abd al-Karim Qasim, decided quickly that he was not interested in Nasserism, the loss of one of the region’s established post-colonial monarchies was a shot across the bow at the rest of them.

For the Saudis and their allies, the most objectionable thing Nasser was offering wasn’t his Arab socialism, it was his republicanism. Presumably that doesn’t require an explanation. They didn’t appreciate Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism either, since the thing about a single pan-Arab state is that it can only have one leader—and I’m pretty sure Nasser intended that to be him. Several of the governments on Team Old had (or at least pretended to have) their own ideas about Arab nationalism, but they didn’t envision that nation as a republic and they certainly didn’t envision Nasser at the head of it.

Nasser’s secularism did play a role in the Arab Cold War, but more as a second-order issue. It’s not that any of the region’s monarchies were particularly devout, but they saw religion as a powerful wedge they could use to undermine the Egyptian leader’s popular support. And so the Saudis, who only achieved political power as part of their alliance with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his fundamentalist interpretation of Islam back in the 18th century, rededicated themselves (at least publicly) to the faith. They founded the Muslim World League in 1962 as a way to combat Nasserism and along the way became the focal point for Wahhabi proselytizing around the world. To absolutely no detrimental effects whatsoever, by the way. It’s really quite amazing how awesomely that’s all turned out.

The North Yemen Civil War was the most serious case of the Arab Cold War turning hot. In that sense it could be considered analogous to the Vietnam War, though much shorter and with a much lower body count. It began, as so many republican revolutions in the 20th century Arab world did, with a military coup against the reigning Mutawakkilite imam, Muhammad al-Badr (d. 1996).

I suppose we should briefly mention something about the Mutawakkilites, and to be honest there’s really not that much to say. They were a continuation of the Zaydi Shiʿa leaders who’d struggled going back to the 17th century to keep the northern Yemeni highlands out of direct Ottoman control. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, the Zaydi imam at the time, Yahya Muhammad Hamid al-Din (d. 1948), declared northern Yemen independent and later declared himself king. He went by a lengthy title that in English is something like “his majesty the commander of the faithful, the one who relies upon God.” In Arabic, “one who relies” is a mutawakkil, hence the name of the kingdom. His dynasty is also sometimes called the Rassid dynasty, because they came from a clan called the Banu Rassi, or the Qasimis, after their ancestor and the man considered the founder of the resistance against the Ottomans, al-Mansur al-Qasim (d. 1620). The Mutawakkilites clashed with Britain and its Aden protectorate to the south and the emerging Saudi kingdom to the north and didn’t do so well against either. And then they were gone.

The 1962 coup was not the first attempt that Yemeni military officers had made at ousting the Mutawakkilites from power. A 1955 attempt against Muhammad’s father, Ahmad bin Yahya (d. 1962), failed when the king, fairly cleverly, distracted the coup leaders with negotiations over a handover of power while going behind their backs and bribing their supporters to abandon them. Later, when Nasser formed the UAR with Syria in 1958, Ahmad and Muhammad pledged their support for the project but stopped short of full union with it. While Ahmad was perhaps just playing along to stay on Nasser’s good side, Muhammad seems to have been a genuine Nasser fan, because when he succeeded his father in September 1962 he appointed a Nasserist army colonel, Abdullah Sallal, as the head of his palace guard. This turned out to be kind of a mistake.

Nasser seems content to have had North Yemen’s support in 1958—he’d still been interested in engineering regime change there, but it doesn’t seem to have been that high on his list of priorities. But by 1962 he was in a much different place. A coup in Syria the year before had yanked that country out of the UAR and suddenly the whole pan-Arab project looked like it was on the rocks. Nasser, who plaintively retained “United Arab Republic” as Egypt’s name even though there was no union anymore, cast around for a new partner and settled on Yemen, where Sallal was already in place to make some magic happen. He also appears to have seen North Yemen as his gateway to South Yemen, which was at the time still a patchwork of British protectorates. Liberating those protectorates would have bolstered Nasser’s anti-imperialist credentials and given him a chance to work out some of his hostility toward Egypt’s former colonial overlords.

As I mentioned above, Imam Ahmad died in September 1962, and when Muhammad al-Badr succeeded him there were already at least four plots underway to overthrow him. One involved a group of disaffected royals and is irrelevant to the story. Two involved Yemeni military officers, and Nasser—who’d already begun supporting and promoting a “free officers movement” under Sallal like the one he’d led in Egypt—convinced these two efforts to merge into one under Sallal’s leadership. The fourth was a tribal uprising by northern Yemen’s very large and very powerful Hashid confederation. That movement also combined its efforts with Sallal’s. The coup plotters struck on the night of September 25, rolling tanks up to the royal palace in Sanaa and opening fire. By morning most of the capital was in rebel hands, and Sallal was about to become the new president of a republican North Yemen.

For most 20th century Arab coups this would have been the end of the story—the republicans would have taken over and Nasser may well have had a new partner for his UAR project. Two things make the North Yemen case different. For one thing, Muhammad al-Badr survived and managed to escape, living to fight another day so to speak. For another, the Arab Cold War meant that the Mutawakkilite ruler would have considerable foreign support to bolster his royalist resistance. The Saudis took the lead here, despite the fact that the Mutawakkilites were Shiʿa. For as intolerant of Shiʿism as Wahhabi Sunnism can be, what the Saudis have always opposed is revolution, whether from Iranian Shiʿa, Yemeni Shiʿa, or Egyptian-backed republicans. Muhammad al-Badr was a king, one of the old guard in the Arab world, fighting for his life against a revolutionary threat that might roll over Saudi Arabia next, and so the Saudis supported him.

It would be impossible to cover the twists and turns of the ensuing eight year war without turning this post into a book-length recap. Nasser poured an honestly ridiculous amount of Egyptian blood and treasure into the war, losing thousands of soldiers and running up billions of dollars in debt. Various diplomatic initiatives failed, including several US attempts to coax Nasser out of the conflict by ratcheting up (temporarily) support for the royalist side. Nasser also used his foothold in North Yemen to funnel aid to the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen, one of two groups (along with the Marxist National Liberation Front) that ultimately drove Britain out of that region. Britain tried to counter by funneling support to the royalists in North Yemen, but by the mid to late 1960s British officials seem to have decided that the whole business in Yemen was more trouble than it was worth.

Two events in 1967 proved decisive. One was the Six Day War, and specifically Egypt’s humiliating and costly defeat. That conflict forced Nasser to recall some of his forces from North Yemen, and on top of that it badly damaged Nasser’s aura as a pan-Arab leader. But when it began to look like the royalists might be able to take advantage of the reduction in Egyptian support and knock the republicans back on their heels, their failed Siege of Sanaa (November 1967-February 1968) resulted in a decisive republican victory and—though it continued to battle for another two years—broke the back of the royalist movement. With Nasser badly weakened and Saudi Arabia’s proxies no longer able to win the war, the Egyptian president and Saudi King Faisal finally agreed to stop fighting one another using the North Yemeni people as proxies. The result was a North Yemen republic, but one whose political ties to Nasser and Egypt were not nearly as strong as originally envisioned.

The Six Day War really proved to be the zenith of Nasserism as a geopolitical force in the Arab world, and the Saudis’ Islamist revival movement began to eclipse it. Libya would join the ranks of monarchies-turned-republics in 1969, and Algeria had of course become a republic upon its independence in 1964, but the threat of republican revolutions bringing down the other Arab monarchies of the Middle East and North Africa mostly dissipated because Nasser and his movement had been so badly weakened and because those remaining monarchies for the most part enjoyed hefty US support. Nasser’s death in 1970 ended the Arab Cold War in any meaningful sense. His successor, Anwar Sadat, gradually began to embrace religion, and the United States, in part to distance himself from his predecessor. The final, albeit pretty lame, epilogue in the conflict was the Gulf War, and the failure of Saddam Hussein’s republican Iraq to hold on to Kuwait.