NO more than two years have passed since the world managed to extinguish the fires in Kuwaiti oil fields; similar fires may engulf another Arab country, Yemen. As was the case in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, oil is at the heart of this war. Southern Yemeni forces have been shelling the northern capital Sana with Scud missiles and bombing its main airport. The forces of northern Yemen have made similar attacks on the southern capital Aden and its airport. The war could widen as refugees flee to neighboring countries; no neighboring countries are prepared to handle an influx of refugees that could destabilize and strain the resources of the host countries.
Until May of 1990, North and South Yemen were two countries with different types of government and political ideologies. The north, led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was conservative and tribal. The south, led by Ali Salem al-Baidh, was Marxist. After the unification of the country, the northerners dominated the government because the north's population is about four times that of the south. Thus Mr. Saleh was appointed president, with Mr. Baidh as his vice president.
Although the two Yemens united in part because the political leadership responded to the sentiments of the people, the main reason for unification is the oil discovered in the disputed areas of Marib and Shabwa. These areas were the scenes of several clashes between southern and northern troops: in 1972, 1979, and 1982. From the beginning of the dispute, the best of the southern and northern troops have been stationed by the Marib and Shabwa oil fields. Unification was the only way out of a direct clash. Furthermore, the south's Socialist Party was weakened by the disintegration of its sponsor, the Soviet Union, and by an intra-party blood bath in 1986. The northerners felt that southern Yemen could disintegrate, leading to a civil war between the tribes that would require northern Yemen to intervene. Unity was northern Yemen's way of preventing such an eventuality.
Although unity helped to ease the dispute over the Shabwa-Marib oil fields, the discovery of oil in the southern region of Hadramawt has prompted southern Yemenis to demand a bigger say in government. Both the prime minister, Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas, and Vice President Baidh are natives of Hadramawt.
By 1992 Yemen was producing some 400,000 barrels of oil a day. The prospect of a unified, oil-rich, and democratic Yemen worried Yemen's northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis currently are seeking hegemony in the area after Iraq's defeat and United States containment of Iran. Saudi Arabia has border disputes that affect both northern and southern Yemen. Before unification, the Saudis succeeded in delaying serious border discussions involving the oil-rich area north of Shabwa by claiming that since the area was disputed, the Saudis did not know which Yemen to negotiate with. Unification denied the Saudis this ploy.
Northern Yemen's leaders have accused Saudi Arabia of exacerbating the conflict. They point to King Fahd's meeting with Baidh as evidence. The war started after this meeting. Northern leaders claim that the Saudis are adamant about punishing President Saleh for his support of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war. In a recent memo that the Yemeni Ministry of Foreign Affairs leaked to the Arab press, Yemeni officials claim that Saudi Arabia is using southern Yemenis who live in Saudi Arabia, especially those from the Hadramawt region, to push for the separation of north and south Yemen. The oil entrepreneurs from Hadramawt would like to separate because there is more oil in that region. Furthermore, there were hints that leaders from Hadramawt agreed to let the Saudis use the area for access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. This is why the Saudis are secretly supporting southerners to separate from the union, the northerners claim.
The Saudis also have expressed displeasure with the April 1993 democratic election in Yemen. As an absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia may consider democracy next door as a threat to its internal stability.
The conflict in Yemen could be long and bloody. A civil war erupted there in 1962; it lasted eight years. Although northern forces are reported to be a few miles outside Aden, no one familiar with Yemeni terrain expects the crisis to be solved militarily. Northerners may take Aden, but taking Hadramawt would be far more difficult.
President Saleh says that he ``will not allow the union between the two Yemens to dissolve at all costs.'' Given the internal dynamics of Yemen and the interests of states surrounding it, the war is likely to escalate. Yemen is a tribal society with sectarian (Shiite Muslim north and Sunni Muslim south) and regional differences. Almost all Yemeni tribes are well armed. In fact some of them own tanks, artillery, and American-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. More ominous is that those who own these arms are the militia of the Islamic Islah Party. Its power base, the Hashid tribal federation, is under the leadership of the current speaker of the house, Abdalla al-Ahmar. If the organized armies of the north and south are weakened by prolonged fighting, the traditionalist Islamist Ahmar and his militia could seize power, creating a radical Muslim state.
A regional solution is unlikely. Although Egypt intervened in Yemen in the 1960s to help defeat the royalist forces, Egypt is currently coordinating its foreign policy with Saudi Arabia, which may have a vested interest in maintaining a weak and divided Yemen.
Egypt can move only if the US asks it to do so, although this would offend the Saudis. The Yemen civil war is likely to continue until both sides have suffered enormous losses or until Hadramawt is a separate sultanate like Oman.
Yemen may loose Hadramawt, but the real loss is that the anti-democratic forces in the Arab world will have exploited existing tensions inside Yemen to kill the first Arab democracy. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.