Merging of the Two Yemens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After extended conflict involving ideological differences and disputes over borders, North Yemen joined with South Yemen to form one nation.

Summary of Event

Years of turmoil marked relations between the new Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Republic of South Yemen following their independence in 1962 and 1967, respectively. Major political differences divided the two countries, even though both espoused leftist-leaning policies. Yemen;unification North Yemen;union with South Yemen South Yemen;union with North Yemen [kw]Merging of the Two Yemens (May 22, 1990) [kw]Yemens, Merging of the Two (May 22, 1990) Yemen;unification North Yemen;union with South Yemen South Yemen;union with North Yemen [g]Middle East;May 22, 1990: Merging of the Two Yemens[07720] [g]Yemen;May 22, 1990: Merging of the Two Yemens[07720] [c]Government and politics;May 22, 1990: Merging of the Two Yemens[07720] Saleh, Ali Abdullah Muhammad, Ali Nasir Baidh, Ali Salim al-

The Yemen Arab Republic had itself experienced a stormy birth. A civil war began in 1962 that pitted the centuries-old Zaydi imamate against insurrectionary forces led by military officers trained in Egypt with sponsorship from President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The conflict continued until, in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (Six-Day War), Nasser decided to drop his military involvement in Yemen’s civil war. Soon, a republic was declared with its capital in Sanaa.

Although the nascent Yemen Arab Republic prepared itself for socialist-oriented transformations, it did not adopt an openly ideological position. In contrast, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen not only emerged from a very different historical setting but also espoused a radical ideological cause that would contribute to its alignment with the Soviet Union until the final years preceding union with its neighbor.

Until the 1960’s, Britain’s control over the strategic port of Aden (a colony since 1937) precluded any meaningful political identity either for those living in Aden itself or for the undeveloped hinterland zones of the wider Aden protectorate. Even when measures were taken to join the colony and most of the protectorate to form the Federation of South Arabia in 1962, it was impossible to foresee that, when Britain granted independence to the federation in 1967, serious strife would follow. The first period of South Yemen’s independence shifted in June, 1969, when leftist elements of the National Liberation Front carried out a coup, changing the country’s name to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Once a single-party system (the Yemeni Socialist Party) was installed, the new regime adopted a clear revolutionary stance.

For a number of years—indeed, off and on until 1986—tensions and military conflict pitted South Yemen against its North Yemen neighbor. Although political feuding was partly the cause for confrontation, there is no doubt that each country was set on staking claims to zones that might offer important economic development possibilities. This was especially true of areas with potential oil and mineral deposits. As early as the 1970’s, talks were aimed at possible unification. Although such talks suggested that both parties understood the importance of economic considerations, it was not until a nearly disastrous economic crisis hit South Yemen that serious negotiations set in.

Internal conflicts in South Yemen peaked in 1986 with the defeat of President Ali Nasir Muhammad, who had been the first South Yemen leader to meet personally with North Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 1981, to discuss a possible joint constitution. Factions supporting Ali Salim al-Baidh insisted on Muhammad’s exile. Muhammad chose to flee to North Yemen. For a time, his exile only heightened existing tensions, and clashes seemed imminent, not only over claims that Sanaa was arming Muhammad’s supporters but also over rival claims to oil exploration rights along the contries’ border in the Ma’rib-Shabwah region. Deeper confrontations were averted when, in May of 1988, negotiators agreed to set up a joint oil and mineral exploration authority. The two capitals also reopened talks aimed at reexamining proposals to draft a joint constitution and planning for eventual political union.





Surprisingly, a totally new climate emerged almost overnight, opening the way for a unity agreement that seemed to have come from the top down, solving some of the two countries’ political wariness of each other but overlooking many of the basic structural necessities that unification would demand. At a popular level, however, a spirit of cooperation seemed to emerge as the two governments allowed for the first time relatively free passage of their nationals across their border. Joint talks on unification moved rapidly and a plan for legislative approval was produced within two years.

Once the unification decision was ratified by both national assemblies and announced on May 22, 1990, a very serious task lay ahead: forming institutions that would allow the new government to function effectively. At the highest level, things seemed clear enough. President Saleh was to retain presidential functions over a unified Yemen while the South Yemen president assumed tasks as Saleh’s deputy. The two would switch posts after a specified time period. An appointed presidential council was charged with the job of naming a thirty-nine-member cabinet made up of appointees from both Yemens, with necessary attention to avoiding any sense of advantages gained by political groups from either of the two formerly separate countries. Finally, an interim arrangement (pending future elections) provided for joining both existing legislative assemblies into a single Council of Representatives. This body was to be supplemented by the addition of thirty-two appointees to be named by the presidential council.

Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen.


Most commentators on the union alluded to future difficulties that would arise as issues of political representation took on much more complicated form. They also drew attention to less dramatic but essential factors, including practical issues of joining administrative services and education systems and, very important, forging a sense of one national identity that could incorporate diverse cultural and religious traditions that reflected centuries of distinct historical experiences.


In many respects the main impulse behind the unity agreement had to do with South Yemen’s economic failures, combined with withdrawal of aid that, for two decades, had been forthcoming from its Soviet ally. A major turning point occurred near the end of the 1980’s, as the Soviet Union moved toward a policy of glasnost, Glasnost or openness. This new orientation in the international sphere meant that Moscow would loosen the political and economic aid ties that had linked it to ideologically sympathetic regimes such as that of South Yemen. In 1989 and 1990, Soviet and Eastern Bloc personnel who were sent to South Yemen to assist in military, intelligence, and economic matters were repatriated, leaving only a core of technical units attached to what were still contested, nascent oil fields. As a result of the Soviet Union’s distancing itself from Aden, economic conditions worsened, especially for the poorest segments of the population. Several highly placed individuals began to admit that there was a need to change internal policies that had been too closely tied to the Soviet model, which could not fit the particular local conditions of Yemeni society and its economy.

Once union was declared, political obstacles began to loom, hampering agreement concerning the best path to follow in the economic domain. Some of these obstacles stemmed from Yemen’s decision to side with Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Persian Gulf War (1991) Vital economic aid from the United States and anti-Iraq Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, was cut when Yemen most needed it.

Other difficulties emerged as a result of labor strikes in 1991 and 1992, first in the former South Yemen and then in many other regions. Declining economic conditions inevitably led to political splits between the two main parties in the former South Yemen that had lent support to unification in 1990, the General People’s Congress and the Yemeni Socialist Party. Political differences blocked important economic and military reform legislation, leaving the regime in a precarious position both internationally and internally, as army loyalties still reflected former northern and southern command structures. Yemen;unification North Yemen;union with South Yemen South Yemen;union with North Yemen

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Al-Enazy, Askar Halwan. “The International Boundary Treaty Concluded Between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni Republic on June 12, 2000.” American Journal of International Law 96 (January, 2002):161-173. Covers negotiations that finally ended a long historical controversy over disputed territories between the two nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ismael, Tareq, and Jacqueline Ismael. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen: The Politics of Socialist Transformation. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1986. Political history of South Yemen up to the first unity talks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kostiner, Joseph. Yemen: The Tortuous Quest for Unity, 1990-1994. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1996. Very detailed study includes a chapter on the moves toward unification.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mackintosh-Smith, Tim, and Martin Yeoman. Yemen: The Unknown Arabia. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2000. Combines personal observations of Yemeni traditions with factors that have made the country politically and strategically important in the twenty-first century.

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Categories: History