Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Kennedy Administration and the Egyptian-Saudi Conflict in Yemen: Co-Opting Arab Nationalism

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Kennedy Administration and the Egyptian-Saudi Conflict in Yemen: Co-Opting Arab Nationalism

Article excerpt

In September 1962 a coup d'etat in North Yemen set the stage for a bloody and prolonged civil war in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia intervened militarily--Egypt supporting the republicans and Saudi Arabia backing the royalists. Furthermore, as the Yemen war escalated, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia attempted to internationalize the contlict by seeking external support and by urging their great power patrons to get actively engaged on their behalf.

These extemal influences led to the escalation of the Yemen war. For the next five years, 1962-67, the conflict was one of the dominant features of Arab politics. As a result, the inter-Arab state system became highly polarized and fell further under the influence of the great powers, becoming more dependent on them for economic, military, and political support. Ironically, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the main antagonists in Yemen, had initially preferred a political environment in the Arab world free from foreign interference, but their intervention in Yemen and the escalation of the conflict produced the opposite effect. Whether it was the Egyptians or the Saudis who first intervened in Yemen is an academic question.(1) From the onset, both President Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir of Egypt and King Sa'ud ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz of Saudi Arabia were motivated by domestic, regional, and international considerations.

This article argues that the Egyptian intervention in Yemen was related directly to the 1961 breakup of the United Arab Republic (UAR), a union established between Egypt and Syria in 1958. Syria's secession from the union struck at the very basis of Nasir's political legitimacy--his claim to the leadership of the Arab nationalist movement. It threatened to reverse Cairo's hard-won international achievements and to jeopardize the internal stability of his regime. Nasir quickly had to demonstrate, to friend and foe alike, that he was still a force to be reckoned with. He soon realized that the only way to salvage his tarnished reputation was to take the offensive and carry the banner of revolution to the rest of the Arab world and beyond. The republican coup in Yemen provided Nasir with just such an opportunity. Here lay the main reason behind Nasir's decision to break one of his own cardinal rules, by using deadly force against fellow Arabs.(2)

It is argued further, in the article, that Saudi Arabia would have become actively engaged on the side of the royalist forces in Yemen whether Egypt had intervened or not. For Saudi Arabia, the overthrow of the ruling Imamate in Yemen and its replacement with an Egyptian-style revolutionary regime endangered the survival of the kingdom. King Sa'ud and his premier, Crown Prince Faysal ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, saw the dispatch of Egyptian troops to Yemen--in response to the request of the republican regime in Sana'a--as further evidence of a direct threat to the kingdom. They were worried not only about the extension of Egyptian power and influence, but also about the subversiveness of Arab nationalist and republican ideas. To eliminate this threat to their security, the Saudi ruling elite urged the Western powers, particularly the United States, to take a firm stand against Nasir's intervention in Yemen.

The administration of US president John F. Kennedy, however, was not receptive to Saudi wishes. It viewed the coup in Yemen as an internal rather than as an external concern: the Yemeni revolutionaries were inspired by nationalist and reformist tendencies and not by communist dogmas. It is not surprising, therefore, that the United States adopted a policy of "non-intervention" in Yemen--distancing itself and strongly discouraging its Saudi friends from getting involved in a Yemeni power struggle. The genesis of US policy lay in the new approach adopted by Kennedy toward the non-aligned world, particularly toward Nasir's brand of revolutionary Arab nationalism. It was based on developmental and pragmatic needs rather than on ideological considerations. …

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