Political History of South Yemen: Crisis, Conflict, and Challenges Preventing Lasting Peace

May 23, 2022

Maddisson C. Zabitsky

South Yemen, known as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), has been in conflict since its inception in 1967 and to a greater extent since unification in the early 1990s. Differing political ideologies, competing power factions, and regional marginalization have resulted in a crisis that continues to the present and forms a core part of Yemen's issues. To understand the situation in South Yemen today, one must reflect on over half a century stretching from the end of British imperialism to the current conflict history, which has shaped current Southern demands for independence and future peace. In learning this history, policymakers can begin to understand how the future of South Yemen is a core issue in Yemen's ongoing conflict and that they must include Southern demands and grievances in any eventual resolution. 

British Rule

Located on the southwest edge of the Arabian Peninsula near the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait, South Yemen has a strained colonial past. Primarily driven by a desire to protect the sea route to India, beginning in the mid-19th century, Britain began establishing a foothold in areas of South Yemen. Given its strategic location and large natural harbor, the port of Aden, in particular, played a crucial role in British imperial strategy, becoming one of the most vital British positions East of Suez in the decades following World War II. However, British rule in South Yemen was overbearing, mainly consisting of attempts to tame what they deemed unruly regions. Scholar Spencer Mawby states that while the British may not have intended to, they radicalized politics in South Yemen, resulting in a rise in nationalist sentiments. This sentiment culminated in an armed campaign against British rule backed by Nasser's Egypt in the 1960s and the eventual founding of the People's Republic of South Yemen in 1967. 

People's Democratic Republic of Yemen

Following the British withdrawal, South Yemen gained independence and developed into the People's Republic of Southern Yemen. In 1970, it transitioned to a new regime, the Marxist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), also known as South Yemen. The Marxist state of South Yemen had support from various communist states, including East Germany, Cuba, and the Soviet Union, of which it was considered by some to be a client state. This support influenced South Yemen's political aims, and ideologies shaped the state's self-consciousness. The PDRY was the only communist state to exist in the Arab world. South Yemen declared itself a Marxist-Leninist state, which posed a challenge to its Arab conservative neighbors and the west.

In contrast, South Yemen progressed rapidly under communism, specifically in education, women's rights, and manufacturing. However, intense competition among state leadership and competition ultimately culminated in the South Yemen Civil War of 1986. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to financial turmoil and government collapse, which drove the country to unite with North Yemen, also known as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), to form the Republic of Yemen in 1990.

Unification and Rebellion

Marxist South Yemen supported unification with North Yemen for the better part of its existence. There were many incentives to unification, whether economic, political, or security-based. When communist subsidies evaporated at the end of the Cold War, many financial incentives were nudging South Yemen towards unification in the 1990s. Unfortunately, unification quickly turned sour between North and South Yemen, leading to instability and conflict in both countries. Although initially promising to share power, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh marginalized Southern leaders from the PDRY and rewarded his supporters with land and resources taken from South Yemen. This marginalization resulted in Southern leadership declaring South Yemen's separation from Yemen. In response, Saleh declared war on South Yemen, known as the Yemeni Civil War, in 1994. Many southerners did not fight to defend the south in 1994, while some Southerners involved in the 1986 civil war, including President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, sided with Saleh. Saleh's forces quickly overran South Yemen, forcibly keeping it as part of the Republic of Yemen. 

In the two decades following its loss in the 1994 war, South Yemen faced increased oppression and marginalization under the Saleh regime, resulting in the formation of several Southern separatist groups. In 2007, this trend culminated in the formation of the Southern separatist movement known as the Southern Hirak, or Southern Movement, which aimed to secede from the Republic of Yemen. Southern protests erupted over government oppression, systemic marginalization, and the spread of terrorist groups. The global backdrop is essential to keep in mind as it had its influences across South Yemen's provinces. In 2000, 17 U.S. personnel were killed in the USS Cole Bombing in Aden at the turn of the century, triggering an international alarm and swift reactions to the terrorist attack. The U.S.'s anti-communist sentiments and "war on terror" caused added pressure in South Yemen and allowed the Saleh Regime to exploit the U.S.'s war on terror to suppress southerners.

In 2011 the Arab Spring spread across the Arab world, protesting government mistreatment and corruption. In Yemen, this resulted in the toppling of Ali Abdullah Saleh and a potential democratic transition. However, in the chaos of the transition, the Houthi movement expanded its control in northern Yemen. In 2014, with the assistance of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthi forces took control of Sana'a, forcing Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi to flee to Aden. In 2015, Saudi Arabia became involved, launching the Saudi-led coalition backed by the U.S. to restore President Hadi to power. By 2016, discussions between the Houthis and Yemen's internationally recognized government stalled. Former and ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh withdrew support from the Houthi rebel group in December 2017, causing the collapse of the Houthi-Saleh alliance prior to his assassination by them. In the same year, the Southern Transitional Council was established by Aidarus al-Zubaidi, the former governor of Aden. The STC was created in response to what southerners viewed as abuse and neglect by the internationally recognized government of the liberated areas in South Yemen; however, the STC has been vocal about its goal of secession. 

In 2019 there was a "clash between the Southern Transitional Council and internationally recognized government," which abruptly ended any cooperation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE mediated talks between the Southern Transitional Council and the Yemeni government, culminating in the "Riyadh Agreement" signed on November 5th, 2019, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The agreement aimed to end the power struggle between the STC and the Yemeni government and create a new political settlement for South Yemen. The Riyadh Agreement has not been fully implemented to this day, with each side blaming the other for the delay. 

As of May 1st, President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi has relinquished power to an eight-member political leadership council. The Yemeni Political Leadership Council (PLC) includes four members from North Yemen and four from South Yemen, with North Yemen holding the council's presidency. The president of the Southern Transitional Council is a member of the PLC.

South Yemen Today

After over seven years of war, South Yemen is currently facing a dire humanitarian crisis on top of political, security, and economic crises. The economic situation across South Yemen is deteriorating. Most South Yemenis cannot afford essential commodities or receive basic services such as electricity, water service, medical treatment, and education. The World Bank's Economic Update on Yemen stated that the economic conditions continue to deteriorate, compounded by the crisis going into its seventh year. The World Bank also stated that "Socio-economic conditions are deteriorating rapidly, affected by declining remittances, trade disruptions, severe fuel supply shortages, and reduced humanitarian operations." Since the start of February 2021, Yemen has faced continuous depreciation of the Yemeni rial, mainly due to a decline in oil exports and scarcity of hard currency. 

The political unrest, violence, and suffering can no longer go on; southern grievances and demands need to be included in all negotiations, for lasting peace in Yemen.


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Maddisson C. Zabitsky is an international relations researcher and writer covering politics and political research in the Middle East and Europe. She holds a bachelor's degree in political science and Irish Studies.