In Yemen, neither unity nor separation is a gain
By: Jamal Khashoggi
My friend Hamad al-Ammari, of the Arab Thought Foundation, invited me to their upcoming conference Morocco which will be on “Arab Integration: The dream of unity and reality of division.” I told him that if I attend, I will say that “unity is not a gain and division is not a loss.” He liked the idea and said: “Great, your opinion will be different from the dominant ones.”
Yes, it’s a common thought that “Arab unity” will resolve all our problems, liberate Palestine and achieve prosperity particularly as oil-rich countries could unite with countries that have fertile lands and a labor force. However, we failed to notice that all these factors, for example, were present in Iraq and prosperity was not achieved. Iraq is now seeking to avoid division. Yet we stubbornly refuse to admit that the problem lies in mismanagement and tyranny – the two factors which made separation a preferable option over unity – and instead we just blame our situation on conspiracy theories.
The problem is in the style of governance practiced in the Arab world. The unity of two Arab countries under cruel rule is not a renaissance project but a project that actually extends and expands cruel rule. An example is the unity of Egypt and Syria under the rule of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1958. The Syrians enthusiastically and willingly replaced a constitutional and democratic government and an elected president with a totalitarian security regime and an “immortal” revolutionary leader. Unity collapsed and Abdel Nasser died, or rather his man in Damascus Abdelhakim Amer died, and left them with the totalitarian security regime and the immortal leader until this very day. Who wants such unity?
The unity of two Arab countries under cruel rule is not a renaissance project but a project that actually extends and expands cruel rule
Lebanon is a model of separation. If it hadn’t been for God and France, it would have been under the mercy of Greater Syria. If this happened, Lebanon would have escaped the bloody civil war of 1975 because Hafez al-Assad’s state was strong enough to restrain the Palestinians and the Kataeb from that misguided adventure which they involved themselves and Lebanon in. But the same scenario of Lebanon being a part of Greater Syria would have prevented the Lebanese from enjoying the benefits of a free market economy, not just in Lebanon but also in the Gulf and its booming cities. Also the Lebanese would not have escaped the current civil war in Syria which would’ve become more complicated if the Druze, Maronites and Shiites of Lebanon are involved in it.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are two successful examples of unity, not because they’re rich in oil but because of their style of governance, which benefited their several regions that could have been small independent states and emirates. This is not only a reason to hold on to unity but also a reason to admit its benefits. On the other hand, there is Libya which is also a federal rich-oil country; however it failed due to its style of governance. Founder of modern Libya, King Idriss Senussi, is not to blame for this. He who is to blame is Muammar Qaddafi of course, and there’s no need to explain how he destroyed Libya and its unity.
Yemen is currently the headline story of “unity and separation.” People in South Yemen dream of separation and reject unity, believing that separation is the magical solution to their problems of poverty and marginalization. They met last Tuesday to commemorate the 51st anniversary of their revolution against the British occupation. They gathered to celebrate this event despite their differences and called for the separation of the south from the north. They even gave the north until Nov. 30 to gather its military personnel and employees and leave. However, South Yemen does not have an organized force like the Houthis who opened the door for these great changes in Yemen. They have not agreed on a leadership structure and they have no military power. They came together under the slogan of restoring South Yemen’s independence but failed to agree on the details and governance style of the new regime. It seems they only agreed to separate, leaving the details for later.
Yemen is currently the headline story of “unity and separation.” People in South Yemen dream of separation and reject unity, believing that separation is the magical solution to their problems of poverty and marginalization.
If the separation mechanism had been instigated via a referendum, the south with its sweeping majority would have chosen separation. The unification of 1990 failed to achieve prosperity in both the north and the south. Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime was a failure on the developmental level and this failure expanded to the south and was used to Saleh and his supporters’ benefit. Even the reasons behind unification back then were not clear. The ruling socialist party in South Yemen was falling apart and South Yemen was crumbling along with it as a result of its management and development failures, of its domestic disputes later and of the collapse of Communism across the world.
Even when the socialist party and its leader Ali Salem al-Beidh fought with the north and with Saleh, their struggle was over power and not over a developmental cause or over a plan to prosper with Yemen. The struggle in Yemen today continues to be fought over power. Therefore, unity is not a gain worthy of fighting over for northern Yemenis. The same applies to separation as there’s no good to come out of it for southern Yemenis. If Yemen continues to crumble as the mysterious march of the Houthis toward Yemen’s wider territories continues and if they provide a proper basis for the separation of the south upon some sort of deal they strike with someone, the southerners will wake up independence in their territories but with no army, no government, no national consensus and no leading figure agreed upon. They will even disagree over establishing a constituent assembly and look towards their northern neighbor Saudi Arabia for perhaps it can be their big brother and guide them towards stability.
However, so far, the Saudi kingdom does not want to send any message conveying any aspirations for any Yemeni lands. It instead is hoping for one unified Yemeni state and supports a peaceful transformation, like its Gulf and international partners do. It’s even afraid that if South Yemen separates it may be an easy target for its enemy al-Qaeda, which will be the only military power capable of filling the vacuum that will reign iin case the central government in Sanaa falls. The southerners would have thus jumped out of the north’s frying pan into the fire of al-Qaeda.
These are difficult choices, of which the best is very bitter. The horizon is very foggy and unclear. The Houthis are expanding in North Yemen, seizing one city after another. However, they maintain the state’s structure and participate in choosing a prime minister and the government’s pillars. But at the same time they cancel out the state by establishing their own checkpoints and by controlling governmental headquarters, ports and airports. Their stance on the south’s separation is not even clear.
So, what is to be done? This is the question raised by the common southern Yemeni who’s seeking security and a better life as he sees the massive changes occurring in the north. Should he seize the moment and separate, despite all threats, and thus exploit the weakness and preoccupation of the central government? Or should to prepare and self-organize? If he does this, he may lose the chance as the situation in the north may stabilize with a strong, enthusiastic, young and revolutionary government led by the Houthis.
The answer is: I don’t know.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.