Sana, North Yemen — It is an ancient land of 20th-century mountain warriors who carry automatic rifles and wear plastic beach thongs. It is a land where women are veiled and most men wear thick, curved daggers. And where houses - built three and four stories tall of carefully chiseled stone , with stained-glass windows and whitewashed ornamentation - resemble a type of ''gingerbread'' architecture.
It is Arabia preserved.
North Yemen has for 2,000 years been little more than an isolated way station on the road to someplace else - frequently someplace richer, more prosperous, more important. Through the centuries this has colored the country's development. In biblical times the Queen of Sheba built her kingdom near the present-day village of Marib partly on the wealth that came with the caravan trade between Asia and the Mediterranean.
Today, North Yemen, as it emerges into the modern world, is again an important way station. It is an ideological way station between two conflicting systems. And it is a cultural way station between the rapidly developing Gulf states and the Arabia of the past. This has helped make the political landscape almost as rugged as the country itself.
Located at the strategic southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula between conservative, oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Marxist South Yemen, this rocky, mountainous country is geographically and politically halfway between the pro-Soviet South Yemenis and the pro-American Saudis.
With no oil, an illiteracy rate of 80 percent, a history of despotic, isolationist rulers, and lingering domestic unrest, North Yemen is one of the world's poorest countries. In the past decade it has managed to begin moving toward becoming a modern state.
It is doing this in part through a policy of nonalignment that allows it to balance the influence of competing nations and ideologies against one another while appealing to a wide spectrum of potential sources of economic and military aid.
''We have been clever in standing where we are,'' Prime Minister Abdel Karim al-Iryani told the Monitor. ''We look at South Yemen, for example, and we see that we have benefited a great deal more from our nonalignment.''
Officials hope this strategy will keep the country comfortably at peace with the Marxists in Aden, while not jeopardizing the significant economic aid coming from the Saudi royal family in Riyadh. In addition, leaders have kept an eye on maintaining good relations with the heavily armed autonomous tribes in the country's northern region who are wary of expanded government authority in their areas.
Political analysts here see the North Yemen government at the center of a complex web of competing and interrelated forces that include Saudi Arabia, the northern tribes, South Yemen, the Soviet Union, and a guerrilla group called the National Democratic Front.
Observers say that despite the different currents and interests at work in Yemen at any time, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ''shown himself to be a survivor'' largely through his ability to balance and thus offset the powers that be in North Yemen. (Two of Saleh's predecessors were assassinated in October 1977 and April 1978. He himself survived a September 1978 assassination attempt, as well as an attempted coup in October 1978.)
His current balancing act includes five major powers:
* The National Democratic Front seeks a more representative form of government and claims the current regime is a pawn of the Saudis. A conglomerate of Marxists, Baathists, Nasserites, nationalists, and disaffected Yemenis, including 500 Army defectors, the NDF has in the past six years fought an on-again, off-again guerrilla war against the government. Its estimated 5,000 guerrillas have been armed and supplied with Soviet weapons provided at various times by South Yemen, Libya, and Syria.
* South Yemen has in the past pushed to unite North and South Yemen under a Marxist government. It has used its support of the NDF to counter Saudi pressures on the North Yemen government. More recently, however, the South Yemenis have been taking a more moderate stance in an effort to open up possibilities for economic assistance from the Gulf oil producers, including their longtime enemy, Saudi Arabia.
* The Soviet Union continues to follow a long-range policy of maintaining a quiet foothold in North Yemen with an eye to establishing better relations with the Gulf oil producers. At present the Soviets supply and train 11 out of 12 brigades in the North Yemen Army. (The United States supplies and trains the remaining brigade through a Saudi-funded program.) This Soviet involvement in the military worries the Saudis, but analysts say it is a result of a natural Yemeni desire to reduce as much as possible their dependence on the Saudis, who dominate Yemen's economy.
* The northern tribes are interested in maintaining the tribal system and thus their independence. They will continue to resist wherever possible the expansion of government authority, but in the long run their power will diminish as the country modernizes. These tribesmen account for about 2 million of Yemen's total population of 6 million.
The tribesmen are heavily armed, fiercely independent, conservative, and anti-communist, and Saudi Arabia pays them regular bribes and subsidies to remain so.
* Saudi Arabia has followed a policy of maintaining a strong but not too strong central government in North Yemen. It wants to ensure that the North Yemen government is strong enough to resist pressure by South Yemen or the Soviet Union and strong enough to put down the occasional uprising by the NDF. But it does not want North Yemen to be strong enough to pose a threat to the Saudis themselves.
''The Yemenis have always said that if any other states in the peninsula had had the troubles that they had here, those states might well have collapsed, and I think that is probably true,'' says an observer in Sana. ''It's a tougher nut, they are a tougher people.''
Another observer characterizes Yemen politics as ''a five-way game with the poor old central government stuck in the middle.''
Indications are, however, that in the future this ''game'' might get a bit easier for President Saleh and his Cabinet of technocrats.
Last spring and summer the government dealt a significant blow to the NDF during a major Army offensive that is believed to have greatly reduced NDF influence in its strongholds in the south. Although there are still pockets of NDF support in the central and southern regions, analysts say the group is now ''dormant'' and is no longer receiving the outside supplies that had helped sustain it.
The more moderate stance South Yemen has taken recently is seen as an attempt to end the isolation from the rest of the Arab world that resulted from its Marxist ideology and its ties to the Soviet Union, Libya, and Ethiopia.
South Yemen has supported the NDF against the North Yemen government since the NDF was formed in 1976. This cooperation culminated in a joint February 1979 invasion of North Yemen that was halted as a result of a cease-fire negotiated by the Arab Leaque. Subsequently, North and South Yemen made a public pledge to work toward unification.
Observers say South Yemen, hit hard in some regions by torrential floods last spring, is no longer content to rely exclusively on the Soviet Union for economic aid. Soviet economic aid has become particularly meager in recent years.
South Yemeni officials and citizens have seen North Yemen use its strategic location to reap benefits - both military and economic - from the Soviet Union and Eastern-bloc countries as well as Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf oil producers , and the Western nations.
Forces within South Yemen, particularly the educated classes such as the Hadhramis (many of whom migrated to Saudi Arabia, where they hold key business posts), are pushing for more rapid economic development even at the expense of compromising the South's strict ''scientific socialism'' and traditional anti-Saudi line.
This is believed to be part of what is behind the signing two months ago of a Kuwaiti-negotiated peace accord with Oman. South Yemen has long supported anti-government guerrillas operating in and around the Dhofar region of Oman across South Yemen's eastern border. That support has contributed to tensions between South Yemen and its rich, conservative neighbors in the Gulf.
Now these tensions and those between North and South Yemen may be easing. It is still too early to tell what effect such an easing might have on Soviet-Yemeni relations.
In North Yemen, the Soviets have maintained relations since 1928, with military ties dating from 1956. The Soviets have constructed a long line of capital projects, including the Red Sea port at Hodeida, the Sana airport, the road between Hodeida and Taizz, and a cement plant at Bajil. But since the early '70s the Soviets have cut back in their economic aid, concentrating instead on military-related assistance.
The current Soviet foothold in North Yemen stems primarily from a $1 billion to $1.5 billion 1979 arms deal in which the Soviets sold the Yemenis, at cost, everything they asked for - from MIG and Sukoi jet fighters to battle tanks. The deal was completed shortly after the 1979 invasion, when the Yemeni government was feeling particularly vulnerable.
Ironically, it came shortly after an emergency $390 million Saudi-funded US arms deal that was designed in part to ease North Yemen's dependence on the Soviets.
''That is politics,'' explains Prime Minister Iryani, who took office in 1980 , a year after the deals were made. ''If the American-Saudi arms deal was planned to completely expel the Russians, like what happened in Somalia or Cairo , . . . I would say all sides were unrealistic.''
Some analysts say the United States missed an opportunity in 1979 to erode the Soviet influence in the North Yemen Army. They say Soviet prestige was at a low point and that the Americans might have weakened the Soviets' dominant position had they acted more independently of the Saudis.
The United States has been criticized for acting as an ''agent'' of the Saudis in North Yemen, rather than charting its own diplomatic course.
The primary reason the Yemenis turn to the Soviets for weapons is that they can be obtained free of Saudi influence - particularly since the Saudis don't have formal relations with the Soviets. This provides the Yemenis with a counterbalance to the pervasive Saudi involvement in North Yemen's economy.
The cost to North Yemen of this military counterbalance is that the country now owes the Soviet Union approximately $700 million. It is Yemen's largest outstanding debt to any single country.
The Yemenis deny this has any effect on decisions or policies, but the country has repeatedly abstained during votes at the United Nations criticizing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Despite this posture at the UN, North Yemen did support a resolution critical of the Soviets in Afghanistan drafted by the Islamic Conference Organization, based in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.) If the Saudis had their way, as the Sana cliche goes, they would prefer to see the North Yemenis armed with guns that only shoot south.
One Saudi fear is that a too-strong North Yemen might eventually resurrect irredentist claims on the Asir region, which the Saudis invaded and annexed in the early 1930s. On the other hand, the Saudis perceive North Yemen as a series of potential buffers against what they see as a communist threat to the Arabian Peninsula originating from Aden.
The Saudis' estimated $400 million in annual economic aid to the North Yemen government is one means of ensuring the government is strong enough to withstand serious challenges, particularly from the political left. In addition, the Saudis pay an estimated $300 million per year directly to tribal sheikhs in the northern region. In part, this helps maintain their autonomy from the central government and ensures they are strong enough - both politically and militarily - to continue to exert pressure on the central government against any shifts toward the political left.
Longtime analysts here say that, although the North Yemenis are aware of the size and import of the Saudi aid, they are extremely protective of their independence and will not permit the Saudis or others to dictate policy. A Western observer in Sana says the Yemenis consider Saudi financial assistance as rent for the Asir region. He is only half joking.
Nonetheless, if the Saudis withdrew this ''rent,'' it would have a devastating effect on North Yemen's economy.
In addition, though diplomatic relations between the Saudis and Yemenis are good, most Yemenis are not particularly fond of the Saudis personally. This stems in part from the poor treatment many of them received as migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. Also, in the past 50 years they have watched the Saudis go from desert Bedouins to rich businessmen, while they have been left behind. It is a jealousy they share with other non-oil Arab states.
These feelings are quite strong in some areas. A hospital in the northern region, funded and constructed by the Saudis, had to change its name from the Saudi Hospital at Sadah to the As-Salam Hospital because of local protests against mentioning the Saudis.
In fact, the North Yemenis in general are more emotionally attached to South Yemen and its people than to the Saudis. This tie exists despite the relatively recent political enmity between South and North Yemen. And it, in part, explains the importance and popularity of announcements by political leaders calling for economic coordination and eventual unification of the two states.
Next: The role of guns in Yemeni society