Yemen’s Anti-Colonial Past and Present

Matthew J. Hunter

Most people in the West have only basic information about what’s happening between the West, Yemen, Israel, Palestine, and the Gulf States. In mainstream news, it’s dismissed as a matter of “Iran-backed rebels” upsetting the sacred tradition of “international shipping.” There’s a severe lack of understanding of Yemen’s geopolitical importance, its relation to the Palestinian resistance, and its rich history in the anti-imperialist and socialist struggle. The “Houthis,” or Ansar Allah movement, are not some backward extremist terrorist group, but a continuation of nearly a century of struggle for national liberation.

Early on Friday, Jan. 13, the U.S. and U.K. launched dozens of air and missile strikes against Yemen, and a small naval coalition now patrols the waters nearby. The Bab al-Mandab Strait is a highly significant maritime trade route. Over 6 million barrels of oil—4% of the world’s total oil flow—passes through daily, the vast majority going to the West. On top of that, 30% of the world’s natural gas supply is transported through that strait. Yemen has been waging a weeks-long campaign of drone and missile strikes predominantly against commercial and military vessels in the region to disrupt Israeli and Western trade. This campaign has provided the U.S. and U.K. with a rationale for their ongoing military intervention against Yemen.

Instead of addressing the root of the issue—Western colonialism and imperialism—escalatory moves by the West do nothing but exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in West Asia. The Biden administration is quite clear that its intervention is purely for the purpose of “​​defending international shipping….” The U.S. views the actions by Yemen as “endanger[ing] freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most vital waterways” and “jeopardiz[ing] trade.” To the U.S. and U.K., this conflict is about maintaining global capitalist trade, which is built on resource extraction from the global South to the global North. Yemeni Brigadier General Abdullah bin Amer told Al Jazeera in response to the American and British air strikes that Washington and London bear full responsibility for creating the military conflict in the Red Sea and must be prepared to pay a heavy price for their aggression. It’s vital to look at the historical roots of this potential regional conflict.

Yemen’s history is inspiring and tragic. Its people have been divided by imperialism and colonialism. The British Empire—through the British East India Company—began colonizing southern Yemen in 1839, separating it from the Egyptian- and later Ottoman-controlled north. It would take until 1918 for northern Yemen to gain sovereignty. Under the leadership of Imam Yahya Hamideddin, anti-Ottoman insurgency began in 1904. After World War I, Imam Yahya denounced the British division of Yemen into two separate states—with one lacking sovereignty still. He and North Yemen funded guerrilla fighters and feudal lords against British colonial control in the south.

In the 1920s-30s, both Imam Yahya and Ibn Saud—the autocrat of a nascent Saudi Arabia—were seen as anti-imperialist leaders by the USSR because both posed a threat to British interests on the peninsula. Eager to divert Imam Yahya from his focus on the decolonization of British-occupied South Yemen and to forestall Saudi expansion, the British instigated a conflict between North Yemen and neighboring Saudi Arabia, selling arms to both sides as tensions grew over their shared border. In February 1934, Imam Yahya capitulated to British pressure and signed an agreement recognizing British control over South Yemen. The next month, hostilities broke out between North Yemen and the Saudi kingdom, culminating in a swift and victorious Saudi invasion. At the time, communist opinion on the conflict was not monolithic, with the Daily Worker framing Ibn Saud as a British proxy while other sources assert that both Arab states were manipulated by the British. At the same time, Imam Yahya was openly allied with Benito Mussolini, the founder of fascism. In the final analysis, although the exploiting class at the head of the moribund feudal order represented the popular anti-imperialist movement on the Arabian Peninsula, it could only do so inconsistently. In due time, it would be eclipsed.

Imam Yahya was assassinated in 1948. His son and successor, Imam Ahmad bin Yahya Hamideddin, was the first to forge ties with Arab nationalist states like Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. These ties to nationalist and socialist movements would eventually undermine the monarchy in North Yemen. Also during the 1950s, Yemenis in British-controlled South Yemen went to the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. They joined the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN), founded by George Habash, which would be the ideological and organizational breeding ground for most of the left-wing Arab movements in West Asia like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Both of these are currently in the united front of the Palestinian resistance with groups like Hamas leading the armed struggle against Israeli occupation and settler colonialism.

North and South Yemen in the 1960s went through revolutions and civil wars due to rising ideological and class antagonisms. Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, Korea, and China all went through significant socialist revolutionary periods that also inspired many parts of the global South. The British and French started their transition from colonial to neocolonial control over Africa, which led to many countries gaining independence in some form. In 1962, Imam Ahmad of North Yemen passed away, and his son was overthrown in a coup. The new régime was called the Yemen Arab Republic and went through a vicious civil war until 1970. Egypt funneled tens of thousands of troops, tanks, and equipment to the new nationalist state, as well as aid from socialist countries. The monarchist rebels, led by tribal lords, were supported by Saudi Arabia, the U.S., the U.K., and Israel. In effect, this civil war created a new front in the Cold War.

On Oct. 14, 1963, anti-colonial figure Rajih bin Ghalib Labuzah was assassinated in British-controlled southern Yemen. It was the spark of an anti-colonial revolution. Two different movements formed—the left-wing National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Arab nationalist Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). They would fight the British, and each other, until 1967 when news of the British involvement in the Israeli Six-Day War broke. Mass mutinies spread in the colonial army in Yemen, the mutineers siding with the NLF. The last British colonizer left South Yemen on Nov. 30, 1967. By that time, the NLF had held three congresses, the first of which had produced its National Charter, which stated its opposition to colonialism and imperialism.

Marxist-Leninists took full control of the NLF and South Yemen in 1969, renaming it the People’s Republic of South Yemen (later, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen [PDRY])—the only socialist state in West Asian history. Eventually, the NLF would evolve into the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). The socialist state would last until 1990. In its time it enacted sweeping and deep reforms in the society, economy, and politics of Yemen. It immediately nationalized the majority of corporations and enterprises.

The PDRY enacted the Agrarian Reform Law of 1970, which encouraged tenant farmers and sharecroppers to take the feudal lords’ land themselves and gave them the right to redistribution. In 1971, it developed a new constitution, which gave “all political power” to the “working people.” It called for the “abolition of all forms of colonialism, Zionism, and racial discrimination.” The constitution supported “scientific and artistic innovation” and the “protection and improvement of the environment.” It smashed Yemen’s old caste and class structures by codifying “equality between men and women,” stating that “all citizens are equal in their rights and duties irrespective of their sex, origin, religion, language, education, or social status.” It gave medical care and education as a right to all. Collective property, worker co-ops, and mass organizations such as trade unions were considered the “basis of the national economy.”

Not only did it give basic rights—rights that are lacking even in some Western democracies—but it codified “scientific socialism” and “democratic centralism” as the foundation of the state and society. The PDRY also enacted the 1972 Housing Law and the 1974 Family Law in efforts to revolutionize Yemeni society and class structures.

The PDRY during this time had been funding and supporting the National Democratic Front (NDF) in North Yemen, but by 1974 had ceased the militant, armed approach in favor of a diplomatic unification of the two Yemeni states. The North Yemeni president, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, was tragically assassinated just two days before a much anticipated meeting with the South. His assassin, Ahmad al-Ghashmi, took control of the government of North Yemen, the Yemen Arab Republic, and became a de facto Saudi puppet. A year later he too would be assassinated, launching the socialist-led South against the Saudi-controlled North in a civil war. The Saudis supported a fundamentalist group called the Islamic Front. After the civil war, it would go to Afghanistan to fight the USSR on behalf of the Saudis and the West. The PDRY would go through internal factionalism after the war with the North and eventually fall into civil war itself, weakening it past a point of no return. The fall of the Eastern European socialist bloc and the USSR led to a massive economic crisis, like in many other socialist countries.

In 1990, Yemen was unified peacefully into a single country and state. Ali Abdullah Saleh was named president of the new state, and the first parliamentary elections were in 1993. However, perceived irregularities in the results favored a revitalized Islamic Front, reconstituted as the Islah Party, over the Yemeni Socialist Party. The socialists returned to the south to start a new revolution against the Yemeni state, but ultimately failed. Another opposition party was the Party of Truth, and a key figure in that party was Hussein al-Houthi.

He led the peaceful Believing Youth movement, which promoted Zaydi Islam. Al-Houthi preached the peaceful co-existence of all Islamic sects. The September 11 attacks and subsequent U.S. invasions of Arab and Central Asian countries led to the Believing Youth movement going from an Islamic social movement to a political movement. Internal discussions on colonialism and U.S. imperialism started to change the movement. In 2002, the “Houthi Slogan” was created: “God is the Greatest, death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam.” It has of course drawn criticism, but the Ansar Allah movement would continue to evolve through massive struggles.

Ansar Allah became the voice of Yemeni dissent against the Saleh government. Saleh put a $55,000 bounty on al-Houthi, arrested thousands of people, and launched a military operation in the highlands of Yemen to stamp out this opposition movement. Like a vicious cycle, the Ansar Allah movement would fight the Saleh-led and Saudi-backed forces from 2004-2010. The rebels offered a truce to prevent further civilian casualties and the Yemeni government offered a five-point ceasefire which was agreed by all parties.

Unfortunately, peace would not be in the cards for the Yemeni people. The next year, in 2011, the Arab Spring shattered West Asia and North Africa. IMF-enforced neoliberal austerity had destroyed the internal economy of Yemen. Massive debt and unemployment led to significant unrest in Yemen. Saleh resigned and escaped to Saudi Arabia, so Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi became president. The next year, a presidential election where Hadi was the only candidate took place—Ansar Allah and the Yemeni Socialist Party boycotted the election.

From 2013-2014, the Hadi government started the National Dialogue Conference. It was an attempt to get every political faction and party together to discuss the future of Yemen and its development. Through this process, and its natural alliance with the Yemeni Socialist Party, Ansar Allah reformed and opened up its movement and organization. This is the event that created the first Politburo for Ansar Allah and spokespersons like Dr. Ahmad Sharafeddin and Abdul Karim Jadban became the new democratic face of Ansar Allah. Sadly, both would be assassinated before the National Dialogue Conference ended.

The Hadi government cut oil and gas subsidies, which caused prices for the average Yemeni to skyrocket. Huge protests formed, but the state responded with massacres. By Sept. 21, 2014, the situation became too much for the opposition parties. Ansar Allah launched a full-scale revolution to stop the killing of innocent civilians. Armed units called the “People’s Committees,” with members of the Yemeni Socialist Party, stormed the capital Sanaa and captured it within hours. It did not overthrow Hadi, but compelled him to drop all IMF-induced policies and sign the UN-sponsored Peace and National Partnership Agreement, which stipulates a government inclusive of all factions and parties.

“The glorious September 21 revolution emerged as a natural extension of the Yemeni people’s struggles for liberation and progress. Today, the Ansarallah stand as the vanguard heirs to the Yemeni National Movement, embracing national issues against imperialism and Zionism, and seeking justice for historical struggles,” said Anas al-Qadhi of the Yemeni Socialist Party, describing the revolution. The YSP did split over the revolution; many of the old leadership went to Saudi Arabia and have been expelled while many of the rank and file support the Ansar Allah movement.

This action wasn’t a sectarian decision, but one agreed upon by all progressive forces and parties in Yemen. Thirteen opposition parties came out instantly to support this “revolution”: the Ummah Party, the Justice and Development Youth Party, the Yemeni Dignity Party, the al-Ahrar Organization, the Yemeni Labor Party, the National Accord Party, the Yemeni Progressive Organization, the Peace Party, the Future Party, the Arab Spring Party, the Liberation Front Party, Freedom and Justice, and the National Democratic Front Party. They said the revolution “represents all the Yemeni people.” A Revolutionary Committee was formed from all the revolutionary parties, creating the foundation for a new united front for a national liberation struggle for Yemen. Hadi resigned and fled to the southern port city of Aden to foment another Yemeni Civil War. The Revolutionary Committee announced a Constitutional Declaration and formed a new government for Yemen in response to Hadi’s counter-revolution.

From 2015-2022, the new Yemeni state, led by a coalition with Ansar Allah at its head, fought off the Hadi-led rebels in the south and a Saudi invasion in the north, which were completely backed by the Western imperialist powers. At least 233,000 people would be killed in a conflict some scholars called a genocide. Nearly 10 million Yemenis faced famine during this period of Western and Saudi intervention, and Human Rights Watch documented at least 90 unlawful air strikes against civilian targets.

In this conflict, the Saudis started to paint Ansar Allah as a tribal group and proxy of Iran. The nomenclature of “Houthis” is used to paint them as a tribe and not a big tent organization. The reality is the Ansar Allah movement developed into and continues to develop a united front with all the progressive parties and now a majority of the population of Yemen are in Ansar Allah controlled–territory. This isn’t some minor terrorist group or a tribal rebellion that is secretly Iran meddling in the region. Even the Washington Post admitted, “Tehran’s support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal. It is simply inaccurate to claim that the Houthis are Iranian proxies.” As Yemen aims to take control of the majority of the country from the Saudi-backed rebels, it has begun to launch offensive operations. In 2019, Yemen’s missile attack on facilities owned by Aramco, Saudi’s largest oil-producer, cut the kingdom’s oil production by 50%.

The development of the united front in Yemen propelled Saudi Arabia to pursue a peaceful resolution with the new de facto state of Yemen. The U.S. would even delist Ansar Allah as a terrorist group after years of pressure by progressive forces within Yemen and internationally. The main mediator, Oman, was able to broker a ceasefire between all Yemeni factions in December 2023. Peace talks between Yemen and Saudi Arabia are continuing and both sides still are posturing towards peace regardless of the escalation in the Red Sea.

As previously stated, the birth of Yemeni socialism has the same roots as the resurgence of Palestinian socialism. The PDRY was always in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and even non-socialist factions in Yemen still are mainly nationalistic and Pan-Arab in orientation. Zionism as well is rightly viewed in the region as a form of European settler colonialism, and the Zionist project of Israel has always been a de facto client state of Western imperialism—first the British and then the Americans.

Yemen has reached a point of internal peace and stability it has not seen in decades, while its spiritual and cultural brothers and sisters in Palestine are facing the worst escalation of genocidal attack by Israel since the Nakba. Since Oct. 7, over 20,000 Palestinians have been killed, nearly 60,000 wounded, 1.9 million displaced, and 90% facing starvation. The numbers are truly horrific. South Africa is taking Israel to the International Court of Justice for genocide, and Yemen has decided it must use its revolutionary military in solidarity with Palestine.

Whether it’s Zionism or U.S. interventions in West Asia, the result is clear: perpetual blowback and the rise of national liberation movements. We have seen in real and dual time, a broad united front in Palestine and Yemen form in recent years, for the express purpose of pushing imperialist forces out of their native lands. Perhaps the most significant development is a return to Arab socialism. The PFLP, the DFLP, and the Palestinian People’s Party have been working together and with other factions in a more organized manner for Palestinian liberation. The Yemeni Socialist Party and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen have risen from the ashes within the Ansar Allah movement. The U.S. and Western imperialism have spent the last century trying to diminish Arab development, unity, and sovereignty. It’s time to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and colonized peoples of the world, demand a ceasefire, end the occupations, and get the U.S. and the West’s hands off Yemen.