Civil War: Yemen (1962-1970)

Daniel Corstange. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Certainly before the civil war but also during and afterward, North Yemen was among the poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world. Leading up to the 1962 revolution that overthrew the 1,000-year-old theocratic government system, North Yemen was, by dint of both government policy and geography, isolated to the extreme, with minimal links not only to Western states but also to Arab countries. Some little trade originated in the country’s rudimentary ports, but the economy was by and large based entirely on subsistence agriculture, which, coupled with its almost nonexistent transport and communications infrastructure, left its population in a state of severe poverty. Such government administration as existed was almost entirely restricted to resource extraction among the cities and large towns, whereas large sections of the country—primarily the mountains and deserts of the north and east—were controlled by a multitude of warring tribes and effectively outside the control of the central government.

To complicate matters, its inhabitants suffered from the singular misfortune of residing on what amounted to the battleground of the Arab cold war (Kerr 1971). Although many of the grievances that led up to the 1962 revolution were real and reflected homegrown conflicts within Yemeni society, the “civil war,” for its first five years at least, was fought mainly by Egyptian troops on the side of the fledgling republic and with Saudi funding among the supporters of the ousted royal family. What might have been yet another relatively minor armed conflict in an unstable regional backwater was transformed into something totally different by regional geopolitics, as the struggle between royalists and republicans became a battle by proxy in which “a fiery front dividing the whole Arab World” pitted the Arab monarchies against the revolutionary republics (Dresch 2000, 89-91). The war, which resulted in some 200,000 deaths and the devastation of large swaths of the countryside, was prolonged and perpetuated by external intervention. Despite multiple attempts at mediation under the sponsorship of both third parties and the participants themselves, the war itself did not so much end as die out after the departure of Egyptian troops in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the subsequent ending of Saudi subsidies to the royalist forces. The final reconciliation, achieved by Yemeni politicians under Saudi auspices in 1970, maintained the republic but produced a weak state with low levels of administrative capacity and minimal physical control over its own territory.

Country Background

Yemen as a geographic region has existed for millenia, and when the former northern and southern republics united in 1990 to form the current Republic of Yemen, they brought into political existence a country based on the model of a modern state that comprised much of historical geographic Yemen. This article focuses on the civil war waged in what was the northern republic from 1962 to 1970.

Administration of geographical Yemen has long been notoriously difficult. Its mountainous terrain provided refuge for heterodox interpretations of Islam and enabled the resident tribes to maintain a high degree of autonomy, resulting in near endemic tribal conflict. It was in this context at the end of the ninth century that several of the tribes of the north invited a well-respected Zaydi (a branch of Shi’a Islam) jurist to take up residence as imam in the city of Saada to act as a mediator between the tribes, which formed the starting point of the Zaydi Imamate. The institution and doctrine of the imamate remained essentially constant throughout the subsequent 1,000 years (Stookey 1978, 79).

During the first half of the twentieth century, Yemen remained one of the most insular societies in the world. The country’s awkward mountainous geography made it difficult for the major European powers (not to mention local authorities) to subdue its tribesmen and administer the territory. In any event, there were not sufficient incentives for the great powers to bear this cost: Yemen had neither lucrative natural resources (small deposits of oil were only discovered in the 1980s) nor key strategic sites. After the withdrawal of the Turks at the end of World War I, the contemporary imam, Yahya bin Muhammad of the Hamid al-Din Dynasty, embarked on a campaign of territorial acquisition. This campaign broke the power of the strongest tribal confederation of the Red Sea coast and brought grudging acquiescence from many of the tribes of the north and east. This expansionary drive came to a halt, however, in the 1930s. After losing a war with Saudi forces, the imam signed the Treaty of Taif in 1934 that ceded to the fledgling Saudi kingdom some of his northern territories, which would become prominent rebel staging grounds during the civil war. In the same year, the imam signed the Treaty of Sanaa with Britain, accepting the status quo and recognizing implicitly the lines of territorial demarcation agreed to by the British and Ottomans in 1905.

Government policy kept Yemen as isolated from the external world as possible. Furthermore, geography and a disinclination on the part of the imams to invest in basic transport and communications infrastructure meant that the different regions of the country were isolated from one another as well, resulting in a low volume of internal commercial and intellectual exchange (Stookey 1978, 184). Such government administration as existed was essentially extractive in the lowlands and on the coast (generally populated by Sunni Muslims of the Shafai school) but mostly nonexistent in the predominantly Zaydi highlands, where the tribes were sufficiently strong to set their own terms for taxation—that is, minimal when they were paid at all (Peterson 1982, 38-39). Fearing arbitrary tax laws and property confiscation, the small merchant class that existed avoided capital investments in Yemen proper and instead sent profits to Aden and elsewhere. The population was dispersed among approximately 50,000 small hamlets with an average settlement size of fewer than 100 people practicing subsistence agriculture, which employed at least three-quarters of the labor force (Peterson 1982, 13). No statistics were kept, and estimating the size of the economy at the beginning of the revolution would entail wild guesswork. Rough estimates from the end of the war showed the economy producing $100-$150 per capita in 1970 prices, or $350-$500 per capita at current prices, but given the sizable amount of guesswork and poor data quality, these figures should be read as indicative of magnitude.

Yemen has experienced autocratic rule of varying degrees of severity throughout the twentieth century. The prerevolutionary imamate was an absolute monarchy, with pretensions to but not the capacity for totalitarianism (polity = -6). The republican regime that took power in 1962 lurched between liberal democratic ideals and autocratic practice, varying frequently according to the strategic needs of the republic’s Egyptian allies (polity = 0 in 1962 but deteriorated to -3 by 1966). The republican regime that emerged from the civil war was subject to subsequent destabilizing events in the form of border conflicts, internal dissent, and coups, which erased any slim chance there may have been that the constitution adopted at the end of 1970 would in fact produce a democratic regime (polity = -3 in 1970, which deteriorated to -4 by 1974).

The revolutionary regime that took power in 1962 was initially modeled closely on the Egyptian system. A revolutionary command council soon gave way to de facto presidential rule under Abdullah al-Sallal, but the strength of the president vis-à-vis his prime minister and his cabinet waxed and waned according to Egyptian needs and the plethora of “temporary” and “permanent” constitutions issued during the Egyptian period. Sallal was deposed bloodlessly shortly after the Egyptian withdrawal in late 1967, at which point a three-man republican council took over and vacillated between a collective executive and a military dictatorship.

The postwar regime was similar in practice to the republican system in place at the end of the war, with a few modifications. The settlement terms in 1970 expanded the republican council and added a royalist, as well as allocating a minority of seats in an appointed consultative council to the former rebels. The collective executive was retained in the 1970 constitution, although the appointed council gave way to an elected legislature, whose members took office in 1971. A weak and deadlocked government eventually fell to a military coup in 1974, the assassination of the new president in 1977, the assassination of the subsequent president shortly thereafter in 1978 by elements of the southern republic, and the rise to the presidency of Ali Abdullah Salih in 1978.

Conflict Background

The Yemeni civil war, which began the night of the coup against the imam on September 26, 1962, and ended formally with the negotiation of the national reconciliation pact in May 1970, was among the most destructive civil wars of the post-World War II era, in which as many as 200,000 people, approximately 5 percent of the population, were killed (Halliday 1974, 118). Although the war began with a revolution that enjoyed at least some initial popular enthusiasm, it was not a revolution to which large components of the population subscribed wholeheartedly. Meanwhile, an underlayer of religious and tribal tension certainly existed, in which many (but not all) Zaydi tribes lined up behind the ousted imam, and most Shafais supported the revolution, if not the particular republican governments in place, which tended to reproduce patterns of Zaydi dominance of key positions of power.

Finally, it was an ideological war to the degree that at least some republicans were fighting for “change” or “progress” and at least some royalists were fighting to protect a traditional religious institution they considered legitimate. What proportion of either side actually fought on behalf of a deeply held ideology is debatable, but if nothing else, Yemen provided the battleground for other peoples’ ideological wars in that it was the venue for the Arab cold war, which pitted the revolutionary republics (Egypt in particular) against the conservative monarchies (headed by Saudi Arabia). Republican forces, which began the war with approximately 6,000 poorly trained regulars and never exceeded many more than 10,000 troops (O’Ballance 1971, 86, 136, 199), were dwarfed by the size of their Egyptian allies, whose forces several times reached 70,000 soldiers (O’Ballance 1971, 155; Stookey 1978, 238; Zabarah 1982, 74). On the royalist side, the six to seven “armies” scattered throughout the north and east counted up to approximately 2,000 semitrained soldiers each (i.e., “regular” royalist forces numbered at most 14,000 troops and probably considerably less at any given time, as the constituent soldiers faded in and out of the fighting). The vast bulk of the royalist forces consisted of tribal irregulars, which constituted up to 30,000 and 80,000 fighters from those Hashid and Bakil tribes that sided with the imam, and whose services of questionable reliability were bought by funds provided almost entirely by Saudi Arabia (O’Ballance 1971, 141, 142 fn. 1). Only after key geopolitical changes in 1967 (the Egyptian loss in the 1967 war with Israel and subsequent withdrawal from Yemen, and the emergence of a revolutionary Marxist regime in the former British possessions in the south) did the Saudi-Egyptian rivalry give way to an eventual settlement as republican forces managed to outlast their royalist opponents, who melted away in the absence of Saudi subsidies.

In the leadup to the 1962 revolution, the imamate was far from a stable institution, with coup attempts in 1948 and 1955. Some religious scholars opposed the centralization of power in the hands of the royal family and the transformation of the imamate from an elected (by them) institution to a hereditary one, and members of other notable families who had previously provided key administrators and candidates for the imamate itself shared these grievances. Some army officers and disaffected intellectuals, meanwhile, despaired of the backwardness of the country and began to argue (circumspectly) for government reform. From the latter group arose the Free Yemeni Party in 1944, a socially conservative organization that began to advocate constitutionalism from its base in Aden and whose leaders would play key roles in subsequent coup attempts and in the republican regime.

By 1962, Yemen was a hot spot of tension and intrigues. The imam, having endured numerous assassination attempts, was in ill health and increasingly unable to undertake his day-to-day administrative responsibilities. The crown prince, meanwhile, had provided ineffective leadership when previously called upon. The officer corps was increasingly politicized, in part because of the increasing use of Egyptian military trainers who took it upon themselves to offer “ideological training” as well. A group of fifteen lieutenants had formed a Free Officers Organization (modeled after the Egyptian Free Officers) in December 1961 (Peterson 1982, 86), and approximately a fifth of the 400 officers were Nasserist activists (Halliday 1974, 114). The imam was subject to a venomous propaganda assault from Cairo-based radio broadcasts. The tribes were estranged, and some elements of Hashid were alienated. It was within this environment that Imam Ahmad, defying expectations, died peacefully in his sleep on September 19. Badr ascended to the imamate, but his reign lasted only a week amid the numerous conspiracies. A group of army officers moved against the imam on the night of September 26, the next day (prematurely) announcing Badr’s death and proclaiming the birth of the Yemen Arab Republic.

The Insurgents

For most of the duration of the war, two administrations—a republican one centered in the capital of Sanaa and a royalist one centered around the imam and the royal family in the mountains of the north—claimed to represent the true government of Yemen, although in practice this was a legalistic claim on the part of both administrations, neither of which actually administered much government machinery at all. Nonetheless, republican forces controlled the capital for the duration of the war, and they were recognized as the legitimate representative of Yemen by the United Nations within three months of the revolution in December 1962.

The rebels comprised the supporters of the imam, commonly referred to as the royalists. Although it was unclear where noncombatants stood in terms of their support for the imamate or the republic, the core of the support for the imam came from the constituent tribes of the two great tribal confederations in the north, Hashid and Bakil (though a not insignificant portion of Hashid sided with the republic). Most of the tribesmen were Zaydis, and so the imam could in theory invoke religious doctrine to call upon their support. Many continued to view the imamate as the legitimate form of authority beyond the tribe, which was one of the factors that enabled the long-running effort at counterrevolution (Stookey 1978, 211-12). Although this may have been sufficient incentive for some of the tribesmen, and whereas many were opposed to what they saw as an invasion by a foreign army (the Egyptian forces), it was clear relatively early on that the large majority fought for material incentives—either for the chance to sack republican-controlled population centers, to despoil Egyptian soldiers, or usually for money or war materiel. On many occasions, the tribesmen offered their services to the highest bidder, and they often switched sides on a temporary basis to maximize their gains (O’Ballance 1971, 90). It was sometimes boasted (or decried, depending on who one asked) that the tribes were “royalist by day and republican by night” (Halliday 1974, 130, 141 fn. 18).

War: Royalists vs. republicans
Dates: September 1962-May 1970
Casualties: 200,000
Regime type prior to war: -6 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: -3 (rangingfrom-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: Less than US $500 (1996 prices)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: Less than US $500 (1996 prices)
Insurgents: Royalists (supporters of the ousted imam)
Issue: Ideological struggle for central government; proxy war between regional powers
Rebel funding: Foreign aid (principally Saudi)
Role of geography: Rebels based in the mountains
Role of resources: No significant natural resources
Immediate outcome: Saudi-brokered settlement favorable to government
Outcome after 5 years: Coup and military government
Role of UN: Failed mediation and peacekeeping mission
Role of regional organization: Arab League sporadically active
Refugees: Some internal displacement
Prospects for peace: Continued instability
Table 1: Civil War in Yemen

Although some funds and material support came from other conservative Middle Eastern and Islamic states (initially Jordan and Pakistan and later Iran), and although Britain decidedly looked the other way as major royalist supply routes emanated from the south, the vast bulk of the funds provided came from the Saudis. With no natural resources of which to speak and a rural population base living off of subsistence agriculture that produced little surplus that could be taxed, the royalist forces were almost entirely dependent on Saudi funding. The Saudi government, in turn, used this leverage to direct the royalist campaign in ways consistent with Saudi needs.

The royal family was spread loosely throughout the mountains of the north to prosecute the war but were only in sporadic contact and were, regardless, divided into factions. Although all members proclaimed loyalty to Badr as the legal imam, he was not a popular choice. Royalist inability to institute direct administration over its territory and the tribes that lived there persisted throughout the war. Taxes were collected sporadically at best, and movement within tribal territory took place only as the tribes permitted (Stookey 1978, 239-43).


Yemen’s rugged topography was one of the key factors contributing to the persistence of the civil war. Given the mountainous nature of the terrain to the north, the population was scattered and isolated, public infrastructure in the form of roads and telecommunications was practically nonexistent, and the maneuverability of a conventional army was fraught with logistic problems. During the first few weeks of the war, republican forces consolidated their hold over the Shafai-majority coastal areas (the Tihama) and the triangle between the major cities of Sanaa, Taizz, and Hodayda, where there was essentially no fighting (Dresch 2000, 96). Meanwhile, royalist forces, most often based in caves, organized themselves in the mountains of the north. From these starting points, the war swung back and forth according to whichever side happened to be waging an offensive campaign (Halliday 1974, 121), although the core republican and royalist territories were set within the first few months after the revolution.

Parallel to the Tihama, the mountains and highlands of the north and east on which the war was fought are composed of broken, difficult terrain. The sheer ruggedness of the rocky mountains throughout Yemen’s history had acted as a protective natural barrier to foreign invasions as well as a buffer against the central government. It was also here, primarily in the abundant caves, that the royalist commanders made their bases of operation, although republican forces maintained a few isolated garrisons, most notably in Saada. The imam himself, for his headquarters, chose a series of caves at Mount Qara in the northwest mountains (forty miles southwest of Saada), where he stayed until being forced to relocate in August 1964. Prince Hassan Hamid al-Din took caves near Amlah (twenty miles east of Saada) for his base, and various other princes spread throughout the northern and eastern regions of the Jawf and Marib. Najran, across the border in Saudi Arabia, became a political and military rallying point for the royalists (O’Ballance 1971, 83-84).

Despite initial successes, it became clear that the conventional army sent by Egypt was ill equipped to fight a war in the mountains. Supply routes were logistically complicated and under constant threat of ambush, and the mountains themselves provided ample shelter and hiding places for royalist forces that quickly adopted guerrilla tactics. The Egyptians turned increasingly to the use of heavy bombers, but the caves provided both shelter and concealment from aerial raids. Further, one set of caves could often serve essentially as well as another, which meant that the capture of one of the headquarters would merely inconvenience royalist leaders rather than cripple them.


The most intense fighting occurred in the initial stages of the war, as both sides attempted to achieve quick, decisive, and total victory in the military and consequently political sense. After this first period, however, the civil war evolved into one of guerrilla tactics on the part of the royalists and counterinsurgency efforts on the part of the republicans and their Egyptian allies. Traditionally, imams called upon tribal warriors for short campaigns on an ad hoc basis, sometimes against foreign invaders, sometimes under the veneer of jihad, but often with strong material inducements in the form of direct payments or license to sack enemy cities (as happened to the capital after the attempted coup in 1948).

Tribesmen followed their own shaykhs, and large forces were inevitably fractious coalitions liable to splinter in short order. Hence, absent rapid progress or other inducements, the imams could not hope to maintain the cohesion of a large body of warriors, much less a standing army. Small wonder, then, that the initial royalist strategy was to drive straight for the capital to “cut off the head of the snake,” bypassing other republican-held territory and population centers along the way. When the attempt to storm Sanaa failed, and especially after the Egyptian offensive of 1963 pushed the imam’s supporters firmly back into the mountains, the royalists turned increasingly to guerrilla tactics that, at any rate, were sufficiently familiar to the tribesmen that they could be undertaken with minimal additional military training or discipline. The terrain and the tribesmen, who were the country’s most effective fighters, determined the nature of the military tactics (Wenner 1967, 59). In general, aside from a small force assembled under Muhammad bin Hussein, the royalists had no regular army and relied almost totally on tribal forces, acting as guerrillas, the composition of which were subject to negotiation with their respective shaykhs for each contemplated operation (Stookey 1978, 243).

Royalist forces subsisted primarily on small arms, usually Saudi-supplied rifles, supplemented by whatever heavier weapons they could capture from the Egyptians or extract from the Saudis. Meanwhile, republican forces, which up through 1967 essentially meant the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (Yemeni republican troops were generally acknowledged to be ineffective, while tribal auxiliaries were notably unreliable), had access to the full weight of the Soviet-supplied Egyptian armed forces, which included tanks, armored troop carriers, MiGs, and heavy bombers. The nature of the terrain and the enemy they faced, however, substantially nullified the advantage in arms. The tribesmen learned to ambush the tanks and troop carriers in the mountain passes, which regardless were difficult to traverse. Fighter jets were an unnecessary luxury against an insurgency that had no air force. And although bombing raids frightened the tribesmen (initially) and devastated fields, there was little of intrinsic military value to target, and royalist forces could take cover in the caves and move about by night.

Despite initial successes, it became clear as the war dragged on that militarily the Egyptians were unable to cope with Yemeni conditions, as the increasing reliance on air raids attests (Halliday 1974, 127). Although the Ramadan Offensive of 1963 was a military success, it was precisely so because it was the campaign that most closely approximated a conventional ground war. Once they had pushed the royalists back into the mountains, however, their conventional superiority lost much of its edge, and the Egyptians soon began resorting to counterinsurgency tactics. Troops directed fire into the countryside “at the least excuse” and relied on “vicious air strikes” to deter attacks from hostile tribesmen (O’Ballance 1971. 108). In pursuit of the same goal, the republicans reinstituted a new version of the hostage system (imamic practice for keeping order in the countryside included taking hostages from shaykhs as pledges of good conduct) by encouraging the shaykhs to send their sons to Sanaa for school, whereas Egyptian forces sometimes dispensed with the euphemisms and simply took hostages to keep local tribes docile (O’Ballance 1971, 90-93). As the war continued, however, an uneasy stalemate set in, in which republican forces could disrupt royalist supply lines and vice-versa. It was in this context that Egyptian commanders began signing unauthorized local truces with royalist forces to allow supply chains through, which was highly embarrassing to the Egyptian high command (Wenner 1967, 212).

Causes of the War

The revolution of 1962 and subsequent civil war was brought about by domestic conflicts and enabled by external intervention. Internally, Yemen suffered from a number of growing conflicts: between liberal reformers and defenders of the status quo, between the urban population and the rural tribesmen, and between Zaydi and Shafai Muslims. Although Yemeni in origin, these conflicts were magnified by regional geopolitics, and it is almost certainly without question that these external influences transformed what might have been a relatively limited event into a highly destructive and long-lasting civil war.

Laying aside the relatively small Ismaili and Jewish communities in Yemen, the population was divided almost evenly between Sunni Muslims following the Shafai school of law and Shi’a Muslims following the Zaydi branch. Although doctrinal differences exist, divisions between the two sects were primarily political, as “the average person in Yemen understands very little, if anything, of the doctrinal differences” (Wenner 1967, 35). Zaydis, as cosectarians of the imam, received preferred status over Shafais, who were not recruited for responsible positions in the administration or the armed forces (Stookey 1978, 172-73) and suffered from discrimination and harassment by Zaydi officials (Peterson 1982, 77).

Overlying the sectarian cleavage was the tribal system in Yemen, which tended to reinforce Zaydi dominance. Tribalism was particularly robust in the mountains of the north, where most of the tribesmen were Zaydi. The tribal system became much weaker in the lowlands and along the coast, where most Shafais lived. Although Shafai tribes existed (constituting approximately one-fifth of the tribes in Yemen), they were generally much weaker and less able to act collectively than the Zaydi tribes of the north, particularly those of the Hashid and Bakil confederations. Further, many of the inhabitants of the cities in the lowlands and the coast did not participate in the tribal system, so political divisions between the sects were further strengthened by this urban-rural division (Wenner 1967, 38-39). What small merchant community existed did so in the cities and was primarily Shafai. Yemen under the imams was far from a developmental state, and taxes and duties were designed to extract resources rather than encourage industry or commerce. It is therefore unsurprising that prominent Shafai merchants were among the key financial backers of the reformers and later the revolutionaries.

Yemen had long been poor and had long been tribal, yet the imamate had persisted for a millenium. What was different was the rest of the world, which had continued to develop and had left Yemen behind. The imams had long maintained a policy of isolationism, perhaps out of unaffected concern for the spiritual well-being of their subjects, but also certainly to preserve their (legally, if not practically) absolutist prerogatives. Yet, following a pattern that repeated itself throughout the Arab states, the imams in the twentieth century began to open Yemen very cautiously to the outside world, seeking to borrow selectively from the military and technological progress that occurred beyond its borders while keeping out cultural and political influences that could upset the status quo. As was the case in the other Arab states, however, it proved a practical impossibility to import science and technology without its attendant political and intellectual baggage.

It was within the context of the Imam’s campaign to build up the power of the central government against domestic opposition (i.e., the tribes) and the power of the state against stronger regional entities (i.e., Saudi Arabia and Britain) that Yahya sent the first group of cadets to Iraq for military training in 1936, although the military coup that erupted shortly thereafter caused him to recall the cadets before the end of their training period—despite this cautionary step, these students produced “an inordinate number” of participants in the 1948 and 1955 coups, the assassination attempt of 1961, and the president and several ministers of the first republican government (Peterson 1982, 78; Stookey 1978, 190-91). There had been some mild interactions with outside powers previously, but this mission was to mark the beginning of a long and ambivalent attempt by the imams to enhance their coercive capabilities by building up the army, but with the incompatible aim of keeping the army too weak to challenge their authority. The imams would later acquire military hardware from outside powers but then leave it languishing to rust in crates at the airport or disassemble and hide key components for fear that it could fall into the wrong hands, presumably those of the military, for whom it was ostensibly intended.

Those Yemenis who were able to go abroad— the military cadets, but also those who evaded emigration restrictions to work in the Gulf or Aden—were exposed to startling contrasts provided by life outside the imam’s jurisdiction. The comparison was not even with the industrial countries of Europe, but with the developing countries of the Arab world. Yet this may have made the contrasts all the more troubling: The economic, social, and political conditions in these countries were significantly better than those found in Yemen and furthermore had been built up in other Arab and Muslim societies (Stookey 1978, 191). Many Yemenis, especially Shafais who had migrated for work, returned frustrated at the stagnation in Yemen and began to participate directly in political dissent, and those Yemenis who were able to leave the country for education were particularly likely to join the various opposition movements that began sprouting up (Peterson 1982, 72). There was an increased demand for reform among the young and educated, which the old adminstrative apparatus could not absorb. The country lacked basic infrastructure, and there were no tangible economic developments; and “since the Imam seemed unwilling to move in the direction of reform, the entire system appeared inert” (Zabarah 1982, 43).

It was in this domestic context that the revolutionary movements that had been springing up in the Arab world began to exert influence. Essentially begun by the 1952 Free Officers coup in Egypt, revolutionary Arab nationalism made “remarkable inroads” in Yemen during the reign of Imam Ahmad (Zabarah 1982, 37). Yet Yemen as the regional backwater was far from the locus of the geopolitical struggle, which was focused in the north between “progressive” and “conservative” regimes (Kerr 1971, 1-10). Yemen was certainly counted among the conservative states, and Imam Ahmad was subject to varying degrees of vilification by the Voice of the Arabs broadcast from Egypt. Despite this, the imam in 1956 signed the Arab Solidarity Pact, designed to counter the 1955 Baghdad Pact between Britain and several regional states, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia (both of whom cited the pact as justification for their intervention in the civil war), which among other things sent Yemeni cadets to Egypt for training and brought Egyptian instructors to Yemen. Although the older, Iraqi-trained officers might have been willing to reform the imamate, the new junior officers were exposed to more revolutionary ideas by their instructors, and at least some of the new officers were receptive to these ideas (Stookey 1978, 255). After Egypt and Syria united to form the short-lived United Arab Republic in 1958, Imam Ahmad confederated with them. Yet once Egypt terminated the confederation at the end of 1961, the imamate was targeted again.

After Imam Ahmad died in his sleep on the night of September 19, Badr took over the imamate and appointed himself prime minister in order to undertake a series of reforms. Whether or not he seriously intended to reform the imamate, and whether or not these reforms would have been more successful than his earlier disastrous attempts, turned out to be a moot point when a group of army officers moved against him a week later on the night of September 26. Had this particular group not done so, however, it was likely that another eventually would have; there were several cliques of officers contemplating a coup, as well as subversive groups among Hashid and Bakil (most of which did not know of each other) (O’Ballance 1971, 68). The revolutionaries were comprised of a loose coalition of the urban population: army officers, Shafai merchants, young intellectuals, Free Yemenis, and dissident expatriates. The army officers of course provided the coercive capacity, whereas the merchants provided planning and funds and and helped smuggle arms and ammunition (Stookey 1978, 225-28).

Within this context, Egyptian influence proved quite important. A large body of the officer corps had formed a Nasserist society, and many were attempting to emulate the Free Officers model that had overthrown the Egyptian monarchy (Halliday 1974, 114). An Egyptian foothold in the Arabian peninsula would be geopolitically advantageous, as it would put Egypt in a position to threaten the conservative regimes there or to take control of the vast oil wealth on the peninsula. Whatever the motive, the Egyptian ambassador was either involved in, or at least had intricate knowledge of, many of the various plots against the imam. Egyptian paratroops were landing in the capital within a day of the proclamation of the republic, and war materiel was landing in the port of Hodayda within two days, and these ships must have been at sea while the coup was taking place (O’Ballance 1971, 67, 84).


The civil war that followed the 1962 revolution lasted until 1970, although the outcome was basically established after the republican government was able to survive the departure of the Egyptian armed forces that had done most of the fighting and to break the siege of Sanaa in 1968, which turned out to be the last major push royalist forces were able to muster. After the loss in the 1967 war with Israel, Egypt withdrew its troops from Yemen and left the republican government to fend for itself (although timely assistance from the Soviet Union, the newly independent South Yemen, and Algeria helped to fill part of the gap). With the Egyptian withdrawal, the primary rationale for continued Saudi subsidization of the royalist campaign disappeared. Replacing it was a concern over the radical regime that took power upon independence in South Yemen, and Saudi interests now dictated a rapproachment with whatever government existed in the north in order to contain the south.

Conflict Status

As part of the agreement reached at the Arab League summit meeting at Khartoum in August/September 1967, the Egyptians agreed to withdraw from Yemen, while the Saudis agreed to cut off funding to the royalists, on which both governments made good (in contrast to numerous prior agreements). After the failed last campaign to seize the capital, royalist forces disintegrated quickly as no more funds came in to pay for the tribal irregulars. Sporadic fighting continued for another two years, but republican and royalist representatives (excluding the royal family) were eventually convened in Jiddah in March of 1970, where they were able to reach an agreement on national reconciliation on March 28.

The agreement amalgamated the two governments, but on an unequal basis. Members of the royal family were barred from participating, and the republic survived, with approximately the same governing institutions as had existed since shortly after the Egyptians withdrew. The appointed National Assembly was expanded from forty-five to sixty-three seats, with the additional eighteen seats going to royalist appointees. The republican council, which served as a four-man collective executive under its chair, was expanded to include a royalist. Royalists took up a minority of positions in the council of ministers and ambassadorial postings, and some provisions were made for local administration staying in the hands of whichever side controlled the territory at the time. A conference of “tribal and national” authorities was to be convened, and one of its tasks was to adopt provisions for regional autonomy. After the reconciliation agreement, a permanent constitution was drawn up, submitted for public comment, and promulgated on December 28, 1970. It sought to erect effective barriers against autocracy, provided a bill of rights, stressed the importance of Islam, and made mention of “custom” in an attempt to reassure the tribes (Halliday 1974, 138; Peterson 1982, 130; Stookey 1978, 254; Zabarah 1982, 108).

Duration Tactics

Internal strife may have caused the 1962 revolution, but external intervention enabled the civil war. Had the events of September 26 occurred without subsequent Egyptian support, it is entirely possible that the imam could have rallied the tribes against the coup plotters, as had happened in 1948 and 1955. Yet, given the Egyptian intervention “to protect the revolution” and the Saudi counterintervention, the 1962 overthrow of the Imam occurred in a fundamentally different political context.

The civil war itself went through three major stages. The most intense fighting occurred from 1962 to 1965, when both sides sought a complete political and military victory. From then until the 1967, the war was in stalemate, with numerous attempts to negotiate an Egyptian-Saudi understanding (the Yemenis were consulted only minimally), and growing dissidence among republicans. The final stage began after the Egyptian defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, after which Egypt withdrew from Yemen and Saudi Arabia ceased funding the royalists. After the last major royalist offensive failed to capture Sanaa, sporadic fighting continued (without serious threat to the republican government) until the reconciliation agreement of 1970 (Halliday 1974, 121).

The country went back and forth between offensive and counteroffensive, and meanwhile, the republic itself went through a large number of constitutions, where institutional changes tended to follow from Egyptian dictates. Although Nasser and Faysal attempted to settle the civil war between themselves on a number of occasions, the agreements generally came to little. The war had certainly reached a stalemate by February 1966, when Britain released a defense white paper that announced that it would withdraw from Aden and the Federation of South Arabia (i.e., its protectorates in what would become South Yemen) by 1968. Whereas an attempt at a settlement (possibly in good faith) was then under negotiation, the British announcement caused Nasser to redouble his commitment to the republic in order to be well positioned to influence whatever new political entity took shape there (O’Ballance 1971, 157). Only after the loss of the war with Israel did Nasser decide to withdraw from Yemen, and then only in a package deal in which Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would cover revenues lost due to the closure of the Suez Canal. As Saudi interests shifted from maintaining a buffer against the Egyptians to containing the radical regime that emerged in South Yemen, attempts at settlement increasingly began to favor conservative trends in the republic as a more realistic option than continuing to prop up the imam.

External Military Intervention

The Yemeni civil war was indelibly linked with foreign intervention. Even had the September revolution caught all outside parties unawares, the rapid deployment by Egypt (and subsequent counterintervention by the Saudi-led conservative monarchies) ensured that what might otherwise have been a relatively mild affair became a long-running, extremely destructive proxy battle (Zabarah 1982, 72, 95). The Egyptian intervention protected the nascent republic from what probably would have been rapid defeat by the northern tribes (Halliday 1974, 120), and only overall Egyptian direction of all levels of the republican government and military held the country together in the early days of the revolution (Peterson 1982, 89).

Though the civil war in Yemen pitted revolutionary republics against conservative monarchies in broad terms, in practice it meant a war fought by Egyptian troops on one side and Saudi money on the other. Nasser seized on the September revolution as an opportunity to regain the initiative in Arab affairs in the wake of the Syrian secession from the United Arab Republic: “ [H]is army intervened as the champion of revolutionary progress, while Saudi Arabia and Jordan … were put in an an ultra-reactionary light in the eyes of their own peoples. Both Syria and Iraq recognized the revolutionaries, but could exert no influence on Yemen and could take no credit” (Kerr 1971, 40-41). Whether or not prestige or ideology really were the key motivating factors, the vast oil wealth of the sparsely populated peninsula certainly added to the appeal of a foothold in Yemen.

The Saudis, meanwhile, decided that an Egyptian-backed revolution on their borders constituted a mortal threat, especially given early republican pronouncements that “Yemen considers itself at war with Saudi Arabia” and proclamations of intent to create a Republic of the Arabian Peninsula (Dresch 2000, 91; Wenner 1967, 194). Saudi forces were incapable of defending the kingdom’s border against the Egyptian army, and Egyptian aircraft made unopposed bombing sorties into Saudi territory. Saudi counterintervention, in other words, was essentially defensive, and it soon developed that their only effective buffer was the ability of the royalist forces to stave off the Egyptian military, which at times bombed Saudi towns and cities (O’Ballance 1971, 87; Stookey 1978, 247; Wenner 1967, 200 fn. 22).

Events in Yemen did not fail to arouse the interests of the superpowers. The Soviet Union and the eastern bloc countries supported the republic with arms shipments, training, and economic assistance (Zabarah 1982, 79). Although most of this aid did not actually trickle down to the Yemenis themselves—having first been filtered through their Egyptian allies—Soviet aid became relatively more important after the Egyptian withdrawal beginning in late 1967 and was instrumental in helping republican forces withstand the siege of Sanaa.

The United States was uneasy about Soviet aid to the republic and expressed concern about threats to Saudi Arabia, with which it had a special relationship due to the massive oil reserves found in the kingdom. Early in the war, the Kennedy administration promised to support Saudi territorial integrity, and this promise was later backed up by shows of force and military aid, as when in early January 1963 the United States dispatched jet fighters, a destroyer, and paratroopers to Saudi Arabia in response to Egyptian bombing raids on Saudi territory (Wenner 1967, 205), and later in 1965, when both the United States and Britain began shipping large consignments of fighter jets and other military equipment to the kingdom (Zabarah 1982, 99). Despite these shows of support for Saudi Arabia and concern over increasing amounts of Soviet aid flowing to republican forces, the United States recognized the republic on December 19, 1962 (United Nations recognition followed the day after), possibly in an attempt to disassociate itself from “feudal regimes,” possibly to scare its conservative allies into reform, and possibly to grant Nasser the option to withdraw gracefully. In any event, it became clear later that American recognition was part of a tacit agreement with Egypt in which the latter was to withdraw from Yemen in return for recognition of the republic and cessation of Saudi aid to the royalists, although the sincerity of Egyptian intentions was subsequently put to doubt (Wenner 1967, 203).

After Egyptian troops began arriving in republican-held territory, Egyptian officers quickly took control of most substantial elements of the military campaign, as well as administration of the country. Almost from the beginning, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force “fought the war as foreign invaders rather than as allies of the young republic” (Halliday 1974, 127), which caused considerable resentment among the erstwhile tribal forces they used as irregulars as well as among more independent-minded politicians, who increasingly joined dissident groups and attended conferences aimed at national reconciliation convened independently. Egypt maintained control of aid inflows, which meant that most of what was earmarked for the republic by other Arab or Soviet bloc countries was actually used or distributed by Egypt itself (O’Ballance 1971, 107, 163-64). The president of the republic, Abdullah al-Sallal, was called to Cairo frequently for “consultations” and was sometimes detained there when his presence in Yemen was problematic for Egyptian strategy (as, for instance, when he was kept in Cairo for approximately a year in 1965-1966). Other key politicians were frequently detained in a similar fashion, to be released when it served Egyptian interests.

Royalist forces, meanwhile, were heavily dependent on Saudi funding and support, and this aid varied in volume according to whether or not an attempted settlement was in the works or if royalist maneuvering displeased the Saudi government sufficiently. Aid came in “massive doses” of money and arms when it appeared necessary, but supplies tended to slack off whenever Saudi Arabia believed it necessary to permit Egyptian forces the opportunity to extract themselves from Yemen (Stookey 1978, 247; Zabarah 1982, 75-76).

The war dragged on longer than Nasser may have calculated initially, and insofar as Yemen was “a testing ground for the struggle for influence between the forces of revolution and conservatism,” Egypt became mired in what was sometimes called “Nasser’s Vietnam” (Kerr 1971, 111). Egyptian troop totals expanded and contracted over the course of the war in line with changes in Egyptian strategy. More than 3,000 troops had landed within a few days of the revolution, and by the end of 1962, 15,000-20,000 soldiers were stationed there. The number climbed to 30,000 by the middle of 1963 in the context of the Ramadan Offensive and by mid-1964 reached 50,000. More than 70,000 Egyptian soldiers were in Yemen in August 1965, after which Egyptian troops began to withdraw under the stipulations of the Jiddah Agreement. After the British announcement in February 1966 that it would be evacuating the south by 1968, Egyptian strategy again changed as its reduced force of 20,000 soldiers mostly withdrew into the Sanaa-Taizz-Hodayda triangle to wait out the British (and the royalists). Troop totals again rose and by the end of 1966 reached 60,000-70,000. Egypt began withdrawing its soldiers in the leadup to the war with Israel in 1967 and just before the war in June had perhaps 15,000 troops in Yemen. After the loss, troop levels rose again slightly to 25,000 at the beginning of July but were finally withdrawn according to the conditions of the Khartoum Agreement beginning in October 1967. Troop figures are scattered throughout a wide variety of sources. The strengths of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force were not published, and given its dispersion through Yemen and troop rotations, the total number was often difficult to assess accurately (O’Ballance 1971, 97). Figures cited (and intervening totals) can be found in Dresch (2000, 90), Halliday (1974, 118), O’Ballance (1971, 84, 97-98, 128, 155-57, 168, 182-83), Wenner (1967, 198, 206-207, 210), and Zabarah (1982, 74, 99).

Saudi policy at this point began to shift. The Soviet Union, Syria, and Algeria began to fill some of the gap left by the departing Egyptians in terms of arms and money; the Federation of South Arabia had collapsed, and the radical National Liberation Front had taken over in what became South Yemen (and in fact began sending volunteers to fight alongside the republicans and to help in forming increasingly radicalized popular militias). The imam and the royal family were becoming liabilities, and Saudi policy shifted from support for the royalists to willingness to deal with conservative elements among the republicans to help contain South Yemen (Stookey 1978, 252).

Conflict Management Efforts

Initial mediation efforts took the form of a letter from President John F. Kennedy to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the republican government (but not to the imam, whose government still enjoyed official American recognition) in late November 1962, proposing that Egypt would withdraw all its troops and materiel from Yemen, while the Saudi, Jordanian, and British-protected South Arabian Federation governments would cease all assistance to royalist forces. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt rejected the initiative the next day, however (Wenner 1967, 199-200). This initial effort thwarted, Kennedy sent a mission under Ellsworth Bunker to the region in March 1963, while the United Nations sent its own mission under Ralph Bunche. Neither made any attempts to see royalist representatives, and it was within this context that Egypt drastically increased the number of troops in Yemen during the Ramadan Offensive (probably to present a fait accompli to the missions). By mid-April, however, Bunker was able to extract a commitment from both Saudi Arabia and Egypt to establish a “disengagement.” The secretary-general of the United Nations, U Thant, was subsequently able to announce the agreement to the Security Council on April 30, 1963, in which Saudi Arabia pledged to cease all aid to the imam, and Egypt agreed to a phased withdrawal of its troops and not to take punitive action against royalist forces or breach Saudi territory. The two countries and the republican government consented to the creation of a team of United Nations observers, the costs of which would be born equally by Egypt and Saudi Arabia (Wenner 1967, 206-207).

An advance team of the United Nations Yemen Observer Mission (UNYOM) arrived in mid-June, although actual operations did not begin until the beginning of July. It was to be constituted as a 200-member force, although it was significantly smaller in practice, with as few as twenty-five members. It was “far too small to carry out even an observation role properly,” especially since it was tasked with ensuring that no Saudi aid crossed the long Saudi-Yemeni frontier and that no new Egyptian troops entered to replace those departing (O’Ballance 1971, 103-105; Wenner 1967, 208). In mid-August, the commander of the force resigned, complaining of inadequate support, managerial incompetence of the Secretariat, neglect of his reports, and an unrealistic attitude toward UNYOM’s capabilities (UNYOM, for instance, was prohibited from any contact with royalist forces until late August). In early November, U Thant announced that Egypt and Saudi Arabia were willing to continue funding an extended mandate, and regular two-month extensions under a series of commanders followed until the mandate was finally allowed to expire in early September 1964 (Wenner 1967, 208-10).

After the failure of the UNYOM mission, attempts at negotiation came either from within the Arab world or from within Yemen itself. Unfortunately, the Arab League, at least early on in the civil war, was unable to play a useful role in conflict mediation because it was itself rent by the geopolitical jockeying of its various member states:

By the end of January 1963 … members of the League had fallen into a long and complex pattern of quarrels. Iraq refused to recognize Kuwait, and on this account had recalled its ambassadors from all other League members. Egypt had never recognized the Syrian regime, and had broken off diplomatic relations with Jordan. After the Yemeni republican revolution, diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt were broken off as well. Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon recognized the Yemeni republicans; Saudi Arabia and Jordan still recognized the royalists (Kerr 1971, 40).

Yet inter-Arab relations appeared on the mend by the time of the Arab League summit meeting in Cairo in January of 1964, and then direct Egyptian-Saudi negotiations at the second summit meeting in Alexandria in September produced a plan similar to the United Nations disengagement plan but with a joint Saudi-Egyptian force playing UNYOM’s role. The two countries agreed to “replace” the leaders of the opposing factions and create a new government. As a result of this agreement, representatives of the two factions met at Erkwit in Sudan from October 30 to November 4. The participants announced that a National Congress would take place in late November, to be attended by tribal, religious, and military leaders (O’Ballance 1971, 131; Wenner 1967, 215). None of these steps had any practical effect, however, and the cease-fire broke down almost immediately (Wenner 1967, 214-15; Zabarah 1982, 97).

The civil war continued in the wake of the failure of the Erkwit Conference, punctuated by growing republican dissent and occasional attempts to convene peace conferences outside the reach of the republican government or the Egyptian forces. The next attempt at outside mediation, again between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, occurred in late August 1965, when Nasser flew to Jiddah to meet with King Faysal. The Jiddah Peace Plan, announced August 24, contained a number of points that, at least initially, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia appeared intent on implementing. As before, there was to be an Egyptian withdrawal (this time phased over a ten-month period) in exchange for the Saudis withholding all military assistance to the royalists. A transitional council comprised of fifty members of all national interests would decide on a temporary system of government and prepare a national plebiscite to determine which form of government Yemenis wanted. A joint Saudi-Egyptian committee would supervise the borders and ports to ensure that no further military assistance reached either side (Wenner 1967, 219-21).

The council, composed of twenty-five royalist and twenty-five republican representatives (with liasons from Egypt and Saudi Arabia), convened in Harad on November 23 and deadlocked almost immediately. Part of the problem, again, was that this was a peace plan authored at the behest of the Egyptian and Saudi heads of state and designed to meet their objectives first and foremost. “Nobody consulted the Yemenis at Jiddah. No one even seemed to consider what the Yemenis might think, except to assume that whatever Nasser and Faysal agreed upon would be acceptable to republicans and royalists” (Kerr 1971, 108). The conference broke for Ramadan in late December and adjourned until February 20, 1966, though in fact it never reconvened. More Egyptian troops and equipment began to arrive in early January, and in late February Nasser announced that Egypt would stay as long as necessary (O’Ballance 1971, 154; Wenner 1967, 221-23).

The Yemeni civil war again reverted to a stalemate, which ultimately was not broken until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War in June. At the Arab League summit begun in late August in Khartoum, Nasser agreed to withdraw his troops, after which Faysal agreed to end the subsidies paid to the royalists. Egypt began its withdrawal by mid-October and completed it soon thereafter. The last Saudi aid to the royalists had ceased by March of 1968, after the failure of the siege of Sanaa (O’Ballance 1971, 186-87, 200).

Over the course of 1968 and 1969, conservative elements within the republic were able dismantle leftist power bases and began to negotiate a final rapprochement with some of the key tribal shaykhs (Halliday 1974, 137). Yemeni republican delegates to an Islamic Conference being held in Jiddah in March 1970 were subsequently able, under Saudi auspices, to meet with senior royalists (excluding the royal family) to reach agreement on national reconciliation, which was announced March 28 and which was to mark an end to polemics and a final cease-fire (Halliday 1974, 138; Stookey 1978, 255; Zabarah 1982, 108).


By the time the civil war was over, Yemen had been relegated to the familiar position of regional backwater—the Saudi-Egyptian geopolitical struggle had ceased, and the rest of the world had long since ceased to care. The new government inherited a wasted economy, a weak security apparatus, and minimal administrative capacity. The state remained impoverished, and the government was unable to meet its own budgetary needs without foreign assistance (Peterson 1982, 16; Stookey 1978, 258-62).

Given its poverty and weakness, it was little wonder that Yemen suffered from significant political instability, including a coup in 1974, an assassinated president in 1977, and another one in 1978. Though Yemen did achieve some degree of political stability under President Ali Abdullah Salih from 1978 on, it only rarely entered Western consciousness as something other than a political curio as “one of the two Yemens.” Although Yemen did attain positive coverage when the northern and southern republics united in 1990 and subsequently held reasonably respectable parliamentary elections in 1993, the short civil war of 1994 served as a reminder that Yemen was a far from stable place. The country lapsed into the background again until the bombing of an American destroyer in Aden in 2000 and the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center put Yemen back on the map as a potential ally in (or site for) the “war on terror.”

The contemporary campaign against extremist groups—either transnational or homegrown offshoots—is often fought in poor countries that are either failed or in danger of failing. The focus has expanded beyond particularly salient sites, such as Afghanistan, to include less well-known countries, for example, in and around the horn of Africa (Burrowes 2005), where the focus has shifted increasingly to state building: improving the capacity of governments to actually govern the territories they claim. Many people, particularly those tasked with selling the war on terror to their own publics, cite poverty and lack of freedom as the key sources of militancy. To the degree that this claim is true, a policy of propping up friendly dictators is unlikely to produce long-term security gains. Countries such as Yemen—impoverished, insecure, and difficult to administer—will continue for the foreseeable future to be venues for the war on terror. Success will probably be defined in terms of security outcomes, but whether this security comes from police crackdowns or from tangible economic and political development will likely determine how long this security will last.