Yemen: are we asking the right question?

Over the past years, policies have focused solely on the question of how to unite North and South, instead of also taking into consideration the real needs of Yemenis. The unification of Yemen without considering the true needs of the people has created greater inequality and violence within the population.

Two Yemen

In Yemen there is an imaginary line that divides the North from the South: it reflects their divergent histories and cultural differences. Up to the twentieth century, the coastal cities of the north Yemen were part of the Ottoman Empire. Internal regions continued to be governed by Zaydism – a branch of Shiism which colored the culture and politics of the north for over a millennium. Conversely, the south was less centrally controlled and was divided into smaller political entities and tribal territories. In the mid-19th century, Great Britain established itself in the hinterlands of the Aden’s port and in other areas of the South through financial and military aid to the various sultanates, sheikhs and emirates in the area.

The Unification

North and south Yemen enjoyed a pendulous relationship with independence until their unification with one another. The discovery of oil in the border regions between the two states provided both sides with a financial incentive to strengthen their relations. In addition, the collapse of the former Soviet Union deprived the South of its most significant political and economic partner, encouraging them to agree to the “shotgun marriage” with the North. The unification of Yemen came to fruition in May 1990, but there were already problems showing on the horizon.

The Escalation of Violence and Inequality

The achieved unity could not mask the cultural, institutional and political division between North and South. Many Southerners complained about the imposition of the “tribal” and “religious” culture and customs of the North. There was also a marked imbalance in the way northern institutions agglomerated southern activities. On the economic side, the “planned” economy of the South was the opposite of the “capitalist” economy of the North, so a state intervention to level the two economic systems seemed inevitable. This option was, however, discarded. Political violence escalated as the 1993 elections approached. While the southern leadership viewed the election results as an argument for a federal system, the northern leadership considered the opportunity for federalism to have elapsed. In this context, the international community, in particular the US, insisted on Yemen’s territorial integrity. Thus, Yemenis’ unity was imposed, not chosen.


The southern and northern parts of Yemen had economic incentives to cooperate and be at peace, due to the border region between them being rich in oil. This need to work together eventually led them to unify the two countries, which were fundamentally different in history and ideology. Considering this economic incentive, it is likely that there might be a better chance for a sustainable peace as a unified Yemen than as a split one. As it appears to be, what broke the unity was not the difference in history and ideology per se, but rather the perception of the political representation as being unbalanced. Moreover, one of the last peace processes, the Stockholm Agreement (2018), failed to be implemented because the framework of the discussions had been agreed upon under international (rather than internal) pressure and therefore responded to the needs of sponsors rather than to those of the Yemenis.

Policy Recommendations – What can be done for peace?

Firstly, the search for common ground in Yemen should be driven primarily by local initiatives. Understanding the interests of both sides, and highlighting similarities, should allow different communities to live in a single Yemen, instead of two new-born states – especially when considering the economic link to oil resources. In this way, a sustainable peace should focus on popular acceptance of cohesion and coexistence.

Secondly, to avoid the ‘problem of unbalanced representation,’ a federal system which considers the major political and cultural differences between southern and northern Yemen could be a key to solve the current crisis. The creation of complete state-like institutional structures, each with a broad political and administrative autonomy, can guarantee a high degree of sovereignty to both north and south Yemen.

Thirdly, at central level, a multi-headed presidency, like in Bosnia Herzegovina, could be a solution which includes all political parties of the country and to consequently foster peace between the warring groups. This institutional structure is one of those founded on the principle of ‘power sharing,’ which, recognizing the impracticability of implementing any form of integration and communication between different national groups, provides for their separation in distinct territorial entities endowed with political and administrative autonomy.

The advantage of such a model is, in the first place, an equal participation of each part over the government that, in this case, is guaranteed through the multi-headed presidency and the rotation of its chair. Moreover, this system, including also warring groups in the national institutional bodies, would limit the risk of a potential escalation of violence.

On the other hand, as experienced in Bosnia Herzegovina, this model could lead to the creation of ethnic homelands and therefore to a greater cultural division within Yemen. However, as we have already observed, socio-cultural differences were not the main trigger that led to the breakdown in Yemeni unity. To prevent this possible consequence, a system of ‘checks and balances’ is necessary to avoid the monopolization of power by any one group, in addition to the provision of a series of civic counterweights that prevent the system from degenerating into an ethnic democracy.



Noemi Maragioglio is currently pursuing her last year in law at the University of Milan-Bicocca. During 2020 she was an exchange student at the Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, focused her studies on peacebuilding and peacekeeping in South-Eastern Europe and in MENA regions.