The September 1962 revolution in the Yemen transformed it from an isolated and archaic survival from the Middle Ages which even imperialism was content to let slumber, into the fulcrum of the liberation struggle in the Arabian peninsula throughout the ensuing decade. The embattled Yemeni Republic became the testing ground of Arab nationalism and the supply base for liberation in the South. The final conclusion of a cease-fire agreement between royalists and republicans in May 1970 brought this period to a close. Saudi Arabia and Britain now recognized the Republic they had fought so bitterly to destroy. The Economist hailed it as ‘the best news to come out of the Arab world for many a month’. The perspective of a workers’ and peasants’ revolution in the Yemen, which had been placed on the agenda by the civil war, has been extinguished by the cease-fire, if only temporarily. The port workers of Hodeida, the Yemen’s largest port, went on strike in opposition to it, and three of them were killed in the repression which followed. But though the Republic survives only in name, the revolutionary process which its proclamation in 1962
The forces that provoked the 1962 revolution were the result of the gradual contraction and entropy of Yemeni society under the weight of the Imamate and the parasitic and exploitative institutions surrounding it. Yemen had had a prosperous past, based on organized agarian production. The under-development of the Yemen was not the result of any static ‘primitiveness’ nor of the crushing of a pre-capitalist society by the irruption of capitalist imperialism. Its primary cause was the internal social formation of Yemeni societyfootnote2.
The Yemen has an area of about 75,000 square miles and a population of 4.5 million. Unlike the rest of the peninsula it has a tropical climate and a settled agrarian population. For this reason it was known to the Romans as ‘Arabia Felix’. Its major division was by religious denomination. In the mountains of the north lived the Zeidis, followers of Shi’a Islam and ruled by an Imam. In the coastal plain, the Tihama, and in the south the population were Shafeis, followers of Sunni Islam.
Historically both Yemen and what is now South Yemen had been united under the Imams, but the South had broken away in 1728, and this division was reinforced when the British occupied Aden and much of the South in 1839. The Yemen proper fell for a time under Turkish occupation later in the century, but the Turks were unable to conquer the Zeidi areas. When they were defeated in the First World War they withdrew, and left the Yemen as an independent area. The Imam, Imam Yahya of the Hamid ed-Din family, was then able to unify the country under his rule. He had been made Imam in 1904 and ruled until his assassination in 1948. He was then succeeded by his son Ahmad, who ruled until 1962.
The Hamid ed-Din Imams aimed to consolidate their power by two policies: by strengthening traditional social relations underneath them, and by excluding all foreign influences—political, economic or intellectual. Isolation was not a haphazard or aberrant individual quality of the Imams. It directly served to preserve their position. Imam Ahmad was clear on this point: ‘One must choose between being free and poor and being dependent and rich. I have chosen independence’. As a result, Yemen in 1962 had not a single Yemeni doctor, modern school, railway, or industrial factory. Its average per capita income was $70.
Under the Imams over 80 per cent of the Yemeni population were peasants. In the Tihama the majority of them were share-croppers working on the estates of landowners who were either merchants, notables or Zeidi Sada. In the mountains the peasants tended to be small independent farmers, clustered in villages. Apart from these two main forms of ownership a significant portion of the land was held by the Imam himself—either as state lands, or as religious endowment given to him as Imam by landowning families. The income from both of these went to his treasury. Finally, a few relics of collectively owned land remained among the Ismaili minority, descendants of an early Muslim primitive communist sect.
Within this system the surplus was extracted in several ways. First, share-croppers working on the lands of the big owners paid between one-quarter and one-third of their crops (in the mountains) and up to three-quarters (in the Tihama) to the landowner. If the peasant provided his own tools he was entitled to a larger share of the crop. These share-cropping relations were made annually, and the relationship between peasant and owner was not institutionalized in the way in which that between serf and feudal lord was in Europe. In the absence of any other social or ethnic class of moneylenders, usury was controlled by the landowners.