The territory of South Arabia, with Aden as crown colony, was under British colonial rule for 129 years. Since the 1950s, people had been resisting the British. Aden became the center of the South Arabian independence struggle, and numerous political movements formed there. On October 14, 1963, armed conflict against the British began, which ended with the independence of South Arabia on November 30, 1967. The National Liberation Front (NLF), which together with other liberation movements led the fighting against the British, signed the independence treaty with the British in Geneva. According to the treaty, the NLF took control of the country. Influenced by Arab nationalism and the idea of Arab unity, the NLF proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of South Yemen, with Aden as its capital. This was the first time in the history of South Arabia that the former British protectorates were designated as “Yemen” and no longer as “South Arabia”. Thereby, the NLF tried to detach the region from its colonial heritage.
The People’s Republic of South Yemen was the first independent and internationally-recognized state in South Arabia. On December 14, 1967, the republic became a member state of the United Nations. The NLF was a socialist-, Communist- and partly Maoist-oriented liberation movement. After independence, forces that were considered conservative and local representatives of the colonial power were excluded from the political developments and expelled from the country. The NLF, which renamed itself the National Front (NF), took the same political approach as the Eastern Bloc countries and took the political centralism of these states as its form of governance. The Corrective Move in 1969 helped the radical left wing to assert itself against the smaller moderate wing, and it was decided to rename the state the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). In June 1978, the NF evolved into the state’s unity party, the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). Conflicts within the party about foreign policy, economy and power sharing led to a bloodbath in the Politburo on January 13, 1986. The attack on one faction inside the Politburo resulted in a military struggle lasting ten days. Thousands died. The defeated faction of Ali Nasir Muhammad, among them President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, fled to the Yemen Arab Republic.
On November 30, 1989, on the occasion of the anniversary of South Arabia’s independence, North Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih visited Aden. Together with the General Secretary of the YSP, Ali Salim al-Bidh, he conducted negotiations about a unification of both countries. After much criticism was raised on both sides, the heads of the two states agreed on unification while riding in a car. The reasons for this rushed agreement lay in the events of 1986 and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. The PDRY was weakened by the armed conflict in 1986 and the ensuing emigration of 30,000 supporters of Ali Nasir Muhammad. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the loss of its international partners led to the definitive marginalization of the PDRY and its political elite in the region.
The rushed unity agreement contained in total ten paragraphs, leading to Yemeni unification between the PDRY and the Yemen Arab Republic on May 22, 1990. Only with this unification in 1990 did the Republic of Yemen emerge, having never existed in this shape before. The term “Yemen” is a pre-Islamic designation for all territories south of Mecca. In like manner, the territories north of Mecca were historically designated as al-Sham, which today includes four countries (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine).
Both rulers tried to expand their sphere of influence into the other part of the country, which led to a political crisis shortly after unification. Amongst others, the following issues had not been resolved: (1) unification of the military and security forces of both states, (2) agreement on a common civil and criminal law, as well as (3) the establishment of a joint financial and monetary system. Moreover, the electoral system was not adequately adjusted according to the enormous population imbalance between the two states. In 1990, the population of South Yemen consisted of approximately 2.5 million people, while the population in the north was four times higher. In consequence, the YSP became the third most prominent political party in the parliamentary elections of 1993, after the General People’s Congress of Ali Abdallah Salih and the North Yemeni Islamist Islah-party, even though the YSP remained the strongest party in the south. Furthermore, between 150 and 200 southern politicians fell victim to Islamists in the first years after unification. The Sanaa regime has allied with these Islamists, particularly with the returnees from Afghanistan. Islamists considered the South Yemeni population to be unbelieving Marxists.
The situation provoked a serious political crisis. King Hussein of Jordan organized major mediation efforts to overcome the crisis. The two leaders, Ali Abdallah Salih and Ali Salim al-Beidh met in Amman and, on February 20, 1994, signed an act named “Document of commitment and agreement” in the presence of King Hussein, the Secretary General of the Arab League, representatives of Yemen’s political parties and of other Arab countries. Despite the signing of a reconciliation treaty between both leaderships, war broke out between the north and the south on April 27, 1994. On May 21, 1994, Ali Salim al-Bidh declared the independent Democratic Republic of Yemen on the territory of the former PDRY with its borders before May 22, 1990. However, the war ended with the victory of Ali Abdallah Salih’s forces on July 7, 1994. The aspirations towards southern independence were defeated. The leading members of the YSP had to leave the country. Some of them were sentenced to death in absentia. With the capture of the south by the north, many South Yemenis have perceived this time as under occupation by the regime of the north, characterized by the planned and premeditated destruction of the South’s identitiy but also of its infrastructure that has already been existant before unification.