A Yemen explainer
By Chris Cork

Yemen has been in dire straits for a very long time, and its recent troubles are deeply rooted in a colonial past, with the British having much to answer for. The origins of the conflict that we have thus far avoided getting ourselves into (one of the wiser decisions of parliament in recent years) go back as far as the early 19th century when the East India Company landed marines at Aden to stop attacks by pirates on ships travelling to India then under British rule. Things have gone downhill pretty much ever since. There have been periods of relative wealth and stability and Aden became an important trading hub. In 1937 the City of Aden became the Colony of Aden and Britain began to light a number of fuses. Aden itself flourished, but the Aden Protectorates did not.
The Federation of South Arabia came into being in 1963 but not all the states joined, the Hadhramaut becoming the Protectorate of South Arabia. An armed struggle against British rule began in late 1963 and in 1967 the British withdrew — an event I vividly recall from my youth.
Events took an unusual political turn with the establishment of the People’s Republic of South Yemen in 1967, transforming into a radical Marxist state called the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Communist powers of the day were supportive of the young state and the Russians gained access to valuable naval facilities in South Yemen.
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in the north. The Yemen of today was cobbled together (as was Saudi Arabia immediately after the First World War) from a complex of tribal fiefdoms, all of which continue to exist today. The north evolved into the Yemen Arab Republic which eventually went to war with its southern neighbour in 1972, laying the foundations for the conflict that is currently playing out there. Cutting a corner or two the South Yemen Civil War broke out in January 1986, lasted six weeks and saw major displacements of population. The geopolitics of Perestroika meant that South Yemen started political reforms in the late 1980s and unification talks between north and south, and in May 1988 the two Yemen governments agreed on a merger, blossoming to a full agreement in 1990 and behold the Yemen of today was born.
Little has gone right for Yemen ever since. British colonial policies served it ill, and the fading years of Communism did not do much better for the people of Yemen, and the underlying rivalries and feuds that accompany tribal life were merely held in abeyance, not resolved or addressed. Into the mix is now stirred sectarianism and the expansion of their respective spheres of influence by Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Much has been made of the sectarian elements of the conflict, but it is far more complex than a struggle of dogmas. Much has also been made of the level of support offered by Iran to the northern rebels, but this has probably been overplayed as well. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have ‘interests’ in Yemen that go beyond the desire for fraternal brotherhood, and China will be watching the conflict closely as its own maritime interests are entangled with who controls the strategic port of Aden and the island of Socotra.
All of which brings us to Pakistan and its role — and it does have a role — in the conflict. Given the background it is clear that beyond maritime security and the safety of the sea lanes, there is little in a purely military sense that would engage the interest of Pakistan. The Arab world seems aghast that Pakistan did not toe the party line and join the confederation fighting the Yemeni rebels — but why would it?
To be sure there are some hard decisions being made but there are harder decisions yet to come — and not only in Pakistan. The creation of interdependencies between Pakistan and Arab nations must be viewed both critically and pragmatically, and for Pakistan to put a toe in the water of a conflict that is very old, very complicated and none of our business would be foolish in the extreme. Yemen and the Arabs are going to shape their own destiny, and Pakistan will reshape its, regardless.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2015.