Peninsula Politics and Yemen

F. Gregory Gause III,
Saudi-Yemeni Relations: Domestic Structures and Foreign Influences.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1990,
F. Gregory Gause III
Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States
New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994.

Reviewed by Robert D. Burrowes

Yemen Update 35(1994):40,41

For students of contemporary Yemen, it should come as no surprise that the only book-length effort to come out of Nadav Safran's project other than his own Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security is a study of Saudi-Yemeni relations&emdash; Gregory Gause's Saudi-Yemeni Relations: Domestic Structures and Foreign Influences. To these students, it should be more apparent than to others that the Yemens have been the Saudis’ most enduring security concern over the past sixty years, especially since North Yemen had its revolution in 1962 and South Yemen became independent in 1967. This concern was rivaled but not exceeded by Saudi concern about either Nasser's Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s or Iraq and Iran since 1979, at least not until Iraq invaded Kuwait in1990.

Gause's monograph, published in 1990,concentrates on the period 1962-1982, although relations between Saudi Arabia and the Yemens are brought forward with some material on the intraparty blood bath in Aden in January 1986 and the discovery of oil in the YAR and the PDRY in 1984 and 1986, respectively. Gause conceives his subject of study to be the triangular relationship among Saudi Arabia and the two Yemens and focuses his attention on a comparison of the Saudi-YAR dyad with the Saudi-PDRY dyad. He identified two major Saudi goals in Yemen: (1) to prevent any form of Yemeni unity (presumably to prevent a sizeable non-monarchical Yemen from becoming a threat or challenge to Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula); and (2) to prevent threatening outside powers from establishing bases of influence on the Yemeni corner of the Peninsula. He hypothesizes that the Saudis, regarding these goals, have been more successful in influencing the YAR than the PDRY primarily because of "the different domestic political systems of the two Yemens, specifically ... the respective differences in government structure and in state-society relations" (p. 5).

Of greatest explanatory power is the fact that "the North Yemeni government was more decentralized than its South Yemeni counterpart and able to exert less control over its society. This fact allowed the Saudis more avenues of access in the North Yemeni decision-making process and made Saudi aid a more potent tool for leverage on the North Yemeni state" (p. 8). Only when looked at in the context of each Yemen's domestic political system do other variables such as "power differentials, economic relations [as defined by the dependencia theorists], and ideological affinities... contribute to Saudi Arabia's relatively greater ability to influence decision-making in North Yemen" (p. 13).

The thesis that Gause develops with clarity in Chapter 1 seems quite sound. In chapters 2 and 3, he examines state and society in each of the Yemens and shows convincingly that state structures and state-society relations were as his argument stipulates they would be. Chapters 4 through 8 deal chronologically and in considerable detail with the stages of Saudi policy toward the Yemens, focusing on how the Saudis were more successful in playing on domestic political weaknesses in the case of the YAR than in the case of the PDRY.

In Chapter 9, Gause draws conclusions both about the validity of his hypothesis and about the pattern and dynamics of the triangular relationship between Saudi Arabia and the two Yemens. In addition, he does a postscript on Saudi-Yemeni relations from 1982 to 1986. Had he done the latter in greater depth, and had he been able to see to the end of the 1980s, he would have found much more to support his hypothesis. Under President Ali Abdullah Salih, the YAR government became stronger and the balance in the state-society relations tilted toward the state &emdash; and Saudi Arabia's ability to influence the YAR declined. At the same time, the party-state in the PDRY weakened noticeably, and there at least hints that the PDRY was more open than before to Saudi influence.

This brings us to Gause's more recent book,Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States. Conceived in the wake of the Gulf crisis and war of1990-91, and written over the next two years, this is in most ways every good introduction to the Arab Gulf states and the challenges facing them in the last half decade of the twentieth century and beyond. Focusing on Saudi Arabia and the five small Arab Gulf states that with the Saudis comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),Gause shows how great oil wealth in but a few decades had erected rentier states with their peculiar attributes, eroded the bases of “traditional" politics, and generated questions of representation and participation. These relatively new hereditary monarchies, possessed of limited state capacity and great but finite oil wealth, are subject to demands for distributive justice and something like democracy at the same time that they have to pay heed to the demands of varied Islamic groups, traditional tribal elements, and growing royal families. Gause suggests that these monarchies are firmly in power in the mid-1990s because they have met these challenges with considerable success, and that they are likely to remain in power if they but adapt in an evolutionary way to changing circumstances. This is all to the good, it seems, since "it is in the American interest that domestic change in the Gulf monarchies be gradual and evolutionary" (p. 147).

This short book on a big topic is well written &emdash; clearly, succinctly, and with felicity. However, I do think the thumbnail sketches of each of the Gulf states are too sketchy to be very useful as introductions to the novice or as reminders to the old hand. The topical organization of the rest of the book requires more detailed pictures of the six countries, both to make learning easier and to allow for critical judgment. I also think that the Saudi case gets disproportionately large treatment, although the topical structure makes this difficult to sustain.

Gause may be a bit too sanguine. His thesis will not anger or worry the ruling families and others of privilege in these monarchies &emdash; nor, for that matter, many in the foreign policy establishment in the United States which has a big stake in the status quo and stability on the Peninsula. But is he a little bit guilty of wishful thinking? If not pulling his punches, is he not drawing back from the implications of his description and analysis of the rentier state? Might it not be merely a soothing distinction without a difference to say that "the goal of ...[reform] should not be 'democracy' in and of itself, but stable political evolution toward more participatory politics" (p.198). He is talking, it seems, about more democracy in places where rulers regard democracy as anathema. Even if he is correct to say that these monarchies would be threatened only by a "concatenation of crises," what grounds are there for assuming that the simultaneous occurence of two or more political and socioeconomic crises is so rare and unlikely? And if such a concatenation occurred in one of the six states, is it not likely that one or more of the others would be seriously threatened? The fact that Fred Halliday was way off target when he predicted an imminent Arabia without sultans is no reason for assuming an Arabia without revolutions.

And this brings me back to Yemen. How could someone with considerable knowledge of Yemen write a book on the domestic and security challenges to the Arab Gulf States without making Yemen a big and growing part of the political environment of these states? There are only eight indexed references to Yemen in this 200-plus-page book, and none of these speak to relations between Yemen and these states or to the relevance of Yemen to them in the last three decades of the twentieth century. In fact two of them refer in passing to the Saudi's stake in the Yemeni civil war in the1960s. The forty-page chapter on "Representation and Participation “does not raise the significance to these states of the three-year old experiment in pluralist, multi-party politics in Yemen that culminated in a relatively free, open election in late April 1993,this despite the fact that people were talking at the time about the new role of Yemen as an example or an exporter of democracy. Even the New York Times, on May 8, 1993, greeted the elections with a rhapsodic editorial titled "Something Wonderful had Happened in Yemen."

The chapter on "Foreign and Defense Policy, “after spelling out the severe limits on self-defense for the Arab Gulf states, individually or through the GCC, focuses on "the regional balancing game, played with Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria"(p. 132). Where is Yemen in this equation? Why no mention of past instances &emdash; and possible precedents for the future &emdash; of the small Arab Gulf states, fearful of Saudi hegemony on the Peninsula, using Yemen as a counterweight to Saudi pressure? Why no mention of, if only to dismiss as unlikely, a GCC bolstered by Yemen manpower?

Finally, the summary chapter on "Challenges” does not reiterate the issue of democratization as a domestic challenge &emdash; and, hence does not mention Yemen as example or exporter of democracy. Nor does Yemen figure in this chapter’s section on regional security challenges. Gause mentions the expulsion of Yemeni workers by Saudi Arabia during the Gulf crisis, but does so without mentioning the rising conflict and hostility between the two most populous states on the Peninsula. Nor does he note the increased focus on Saudi-Yemeni border disputes since that time.

These comments benefit from, but by no means depend upon, hindsight gained from the political revelation afforded by the Yemeni Civil War of 1994. The matters that prompt them were apparent to many, and much talked about, by the end of 1990. Why not by Gause in 1993? The Republic of Yemen is on the Arabian Peninsula, shares borders with two of the six Gulf states, and is an increasingly important actor in this key subregion of the Middle East.

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