Yemen’s rich and complex history was upended by its catastrophic civil war beginning in 2014. A peace agreement could help Yemenis recover the frustrated hopes of the 2011 uprising — if Saudi Arabia stops demanding victory for its allies.

An Interview with Helen Lackner, Jacobin

Over the past few years, Yemen has featured in the news as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The hopes of the protest movement in 2011 gave way to civil war and a brutal Saudi-led invasion.

But the people of Yemen aren’t just the victims of a political tragedy. In its modern history, Yemen has inflicted a humiliating defeat on the British Empire. One part of the country became the only Arab state to adopt Soviet-style Marxism as its ideology. Yemen’s path to its current disastrous condition is a complex and fascinating story that tells us a lot about the modern world system.

Helen Lackner is one of the leading experts on modern Yemen. She spent several years living in the country and has written numerous books and articles about it, including Yemen in Crisis: The Road to War.

This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

A boy kicks a soccer ball in a ruined part of a city in Yemen
Photo by Peter Biro
DF: For the last thirty years, Yemen has been formally united in a single state, although the conflict of the last decade has broken up that political unity in practice. Previously, however, Yemen had been divided into two states. What were the origins of that divide?

HL: Yemen within its current official borders had never existed as a single state in the past, and I think that’s worth remembering when trying to analyze the current situation. Way back, you had a number of different states that covered different parts of the country. More recently, in the nineteenth century, you had Ottoman rule in what were roughly the borders of what became the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), or North Yemen. After the British arrived in 1839, they gradually took control, to a large extent and not necessarily that closely, of what later became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), or South Yemen.

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