Monday, September 24, 2018

Arabia Felix?

This is a book in the old “Marxist Regimes” series. This volume deals with South Yemen or the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. This Communist-style state existed from 1967 to 1990 on the territory of the formerly British-controlled Aden Protectorate and Aden Colony. After the British withdrawal, the Marxist-inspired “National Front” took power after a brief civil war with a competing group (backed by Egypt and North Yemen). The National Front subsequently fractured into several different factions, who all seem to have oscillated rather wildly between “moderate” and “militant” positions, often resorting to force to settle scores. The book was published in 1986, shortly after the bloodiest internecine conflict of this kind.

South Yemen was beset with all the usual problems of “really existing” socialism. The economy essentially collapsed after independence in 1967, when the British, the East Indians and educated Arabs left Aden en masse. 25,000 jobs disappeared, 80,000 people left the country and the national income decreased by about 20%. The GNP seems to have dropped by about 45% in just a few years. While most foreign aid came from the socialist bloc and the Arab nations, most trade was still with the capitalist West. An agrarian reform destroyed the feudal-slavery conditions in the hinterland, but created new problems typical of command economies. It's interesting to note that the most productive farmers were those affiliated with “first order cooperatives”, the members of which still worked their own land. The “second” and “third” order co-ops (roughly equivalent to kolkhozes and sovkhozes in the Soviet Union) were much less productive. The regime initially taxed the farmers in a way penalizing the most productive ones, while artificial government prices for agricultural products created a huge black market. The regime oscillated between Maoist-style “socialist experimentation” and Soviet-style bureaucratic control, with occasional bouts of pragmatic reforms.

Politically, South Yemen was a one-party state with a large military, secret service and “committees for the defense of the revolution” spying on the population in their very neighborhoods. At the same time, the ruling party (renamed several times) was more faction-ridden than usual. Many party leaders could appeal to old tribal loyalties to mobilize support, suggesting that the Communist regime never really transcended the tribal divides that have plagued South Yemen since time immemorial. The book gives the impression of a heavily militarized society constantly at war with its neighbors: North Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman. These nations had a vested interest in overthrowing the National Front and therefore financed various anti-NF insurgent groups. South Yemen repaid by backing insurgents in North Yemen and Oman. Curiously, South Yemen also had a conflict with Iraq, another radical regime in the region. Apparently, South Yemen supported the Iraqi Communist Party, banned by the Baath Party. It's also interesting to note that South Yemen actively backed Ethiopia and sent troops to aid Mengistu's regime against Somalia. On the Israel-Palestine conflict, South Yemen supported the PFLP and the DFLP while nevertheless calling for unity within the PLO, in contrast to Iraq, Syria and Libya which wanted to remove Arafat or otherwise conspired against his leadership.

The book is written by two broadly pro-South Yemenite authors, which makes some chapters sound pretty surreal. The authors often adopt the terminology of the regime! They seem to hope that the civil war of 1986 will lead to positive changes in a more “technocratic” direction. They couldn't know that world Communism would collapse 1989-91, just a few years after this volume was published…

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