Yemen - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Yemen Arab Republic: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


Yemen, country in the Middle East, occupying the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula (Arabia). Tall mountains divide Yemen’s coastal stretches from a desolate desert interior. Yemen is sparsely populated—half of the country is uninhabitable—and its Arab people are largely rural. The site of several prosperous civilizations in ancient times, Yemen declined in importance and was a poor and forgotten land for more than a thousand years. The discovery of oil in the area in the late 20th century held out the prospect of economic development and an easier life for the people of Yemen.

The Republic of Yemen was created in 1990 out of the unification of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). The YAR was commonly called North Yemen, and the PDRY was generally referred to as South Yemen, although South Yemen was actually less to the south than to the east and southeast of North Yemen. Sana‘a (Sanaa) is the Republic of Yemen’s capital and largest city.

Yemen is bounded on the west by the Red Sea and on the south by the Gulf of Aden (an arm of the Arabian Sea, which is part of the Indian Ocean), and is separated from Africa by the narrow strait of Bab el Mandeb. To the north and northeast lies Saudi Arabia and to the east is Oman; these two countries are Yemen’s only contiguous neighbors. Yemen covers about 527,970 sq km (about 203,850 sq mi).


Yemen is a largely desert land. There are no permanent rivers in the country, and little natural vegetation besides scrub brush. Yemen possesses several sizable islands, most notably Socotra in the Indian Ocean, Perim in the Bab el Mandeb, and Kamaran and the Ḩānīsh Islands in the Red Sea.

The rectangular Arabian plate, which defines the Arabian Peninsula, is tilted and Yemen constitutes its uppermost corner. The edge of this corner takes the form of a steep, jagged mountain range that separates a low coastal plain (west and south of the mountains) from a high interior plateau (east and north of the mountains).

Natural Regions of Yemen

The Yemeni highlands average about 1,830 m (about 6,000 ft) above sea level and rise at Jabal an Nabī Shu‘ayb to 3,760 m (12,336 ft), the highest peak on the Arabian Peninsula. The highlands in the north are loftier and more extensive than in the south. Since the northern highlands have a generally less forbidding climate and greater rainfall, they support more intensive and extensive agriculture and a larger population.

To the west and south, the highlands drop abruptly to a low, flat coastal desert plain called the Tihāmah. Averaging about 50 km (about 30 mi) in width, this plain parallels the Red Sea the length of northern Yemen, turns abruptly east at the corner of the peninsula, and then runs parallel to the Gulf of Aden for part of the length of southern Yemen. The Tihāmah is hot, humid, and arid, and has little vegetation.

To the east and north, the highlands descend gradually to the interior plateau that holds the vast Arabian desert known as the Rub‘ al Khali (Empty Quarter). The eastern half of Yemen is basically uninhabitable. The exception is the region of Hadhramaut, a large valley running parallel to the Gulf of Aden coast then turning southward to the sea. Here, some fertile valleys allow agriculture and larger settlements.

Climate of Yemen

The Yemeni highlands have a generally semiarid but otherwise temperate climate. By contrast, the coastal plain is hot and humid much of the year, and at times extremely so; summer and winter winds often bring severe sandstorms. Average temperatures for Yemen as a whole vary from about 27°C (80°F) in June to about 14°C (57°F) in January.

Every year during the summer months, monsoon winds blow inland over the water, picking up moisture, and the mountains force the warm air to rise, cool, and condense. The considerable, although erratic, seasonal rainfall allows for intensive cultivation, much of it on stonewalled terraces and in wadis—streambeds that flow with water only during and after the rains. The average rainfall in the highlands varies from 303 to 762 mm (8 to 30 in), whereas on the coast it varies from 76 to 229 mm (3 to 9 in).


Most inhabitants of Yemen are ethnic Arabs, although there exist relatively small communities of Africans, South Asians, and Europeans. People of different regions of Yemen are culturally distinct. Many of the inhabitants of Hadhramaut reflect the cultural and genetic influence of Southeast Asia with which the district has historic commercial ties. Those Yemenis living in the coastal lowlands reflect the racial and cultural influences of nearby Africa. Cosmopolitan Aden, which Britain ruled as part of India from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, still bears traces of the culture of the Indian subcontinent.

A significant minority of the population is organized into tribes, and for many Yemenis tribal identity is of primary importance. This is particularly true in the northern highlands, where the sheikhs of several individual tribes and two large tribal confederations, the Hashid and Bakil, can still mobilize large numbers in defense of tribal interests. Virtually all of the inhabitants of northern Yemen are sedentary, meaning they have fixed homes and do not move from place to place like nomads. A slightly smaller percentage is sedentary in the south. A small number of nomadic pastoralists can be found on the edge of the desert far to the east. Although Yemen has traditionally been characterized by a stratified social system marked by castelike groups at the top and bottom, this structure is breaking down as economic opportunities become available and new social ideas come to prevail.

Population Characteristics of Yemen

The total population of Yemen is 23,822,783 (2009 estimate). The average population density is 45 persons per sq km (117 per sq mi). Although more than one and a half times its size in land area, the former South Yemen had less than one-third the population of the former North Yemen when they merged in 1990. The population of southern Yemen is concentrated in and around its urban areas and the Hadhramaut region. By contrast, the far larger population of northern Yemen is scattered over a great many towns, villages, and hamlets; the combined populations of its principal urban centers comprise just a fraction of the north’s total population.

Principal Cities and Towns in Yemen

Yemen has four major cities. Sana‘a, located in the northern highlands, is Yemen’s political capital and largest city (population, 2003 estimate, 1,469,000). Aden (634,710), on the Gulf of Aden coast 180 km (110 mi) east of the Bab el Mandeb, was the capital of South Yemen and is the unified country’s economic hub and largest port. Al Ḩudaydah (155,110), in the Tihāmah, is the second largest port. Ta‘izz, (178,043), in the highlands above Aden, is an important commercial and light industrial center. Among Yemen’s larger towns are Şa‘dah, far to the north; Dhamār, Yarim, and Ibb, in the middle region; Al Mukallā, on the southern coast; and in Hadhramaut, the towns of Shibām, Say‘ūn, and Tarīm.

Languages spoken in Yemen

Nearly all Yemenis speak Arabic. However, the country’s extremely rugged terrain, widely separated population centers, and less-developed means of transportation and communications have produced several different dialects. The most notable difference exists between the dialect of the northern Yemeni highlands and that of Aden and the southern part of the former North Yemen.

Religion in Yemen

The indigenous people of Yemen are almost all Muslims, with small resident communities of Christians, Jews, and Hindus. The Christian population that existed in Yemen in pre-Islamic times virtually disappeared during the Islamic era, which began in the 7th century AD. All but a few thousand members of the formerly significant Jewish community, which may have resided continuously in Yemen since pre-Islamic times, emigrated to Israel shortly after its creation in 1948. Yemen’s Muslim population has suffered from divisiveness. Through centuries of persecution, the once large and powerful Ismaili Shia community (see Ismailis) was reduced to an insignificant minority residing in the mountains, although this number has increased somewhat in recent years.

A long-standing division remains between Yemen’s two principal religious groups, the Zaydi Shia Muslims and the Shafi’i Sunni Muslims (see Shia Islam; Sunni Islam). The Zaydis of the northern highlands dominated politics and cultural life in northern Yemen for centuries. With the unification of Yemen and the addition of the south’s almost totally Shafi’i population, the numerical balance shifted dramatically away from the Zaydis.

Education in Yemen

Yemen’s constitution grants all citizens the right to an education. Nevertheless, the country’s educational system, probably better in the south than in the north, still fails to reach a large part of the population, especially girls. In 2006 only 65 percent of Yemen’s primary school-age girls attended school, compared to 85.1 percent of primary school-age boys. Just 40 percent of Yemen’s adult female population is literate, while 77 percent of adult men are literate.

Public schools exist in larger towns and cities, and children in most rural areas attend Islamic religious schools. Secondary schools in Yemen funnel many students into Sana‘a University (1970) and the University of Aden (1975).

Way of Life in Yemen

Yemeni tribesmen are known by the jambiyya, or curved dagger, carried in a scabbard on a wide belt at the front of the body. Men often wear one of several types of skirts rather than pants, and a straw hat or headcloth. They also may wear Western styles of clothing. The clothing of Yemeni women, which includes robes, shawls, and veils, varies greatly from region to region; much of it is colorful, striking, and imaginative.

Women in Yemen tend to live secluded from unrelated men, although this is less true under the more relaxed conditions in the countryside and former South Yemen generally. The most distinctive and important Yemeni social institution is the “khat session,” a relaxed but ritualized afternoon gathering at which men and women socialize separately and chew the mildly narcotic leaves of the khat (qat) plant. Most men and many women chew khat at least twice a week.

The Yemeni diet includes rice, bread, vegetables, fish, and lamb. A spicy green stew called salta is one of Yemen’s most popular dishes. Housing in Yemen varies from region to region. In the Tihāmah, near the Red Sea, people live in African-style circular reed huts. Residents of the highlands, many of whom are farmers, sometimes live in stone or mud-brick houses of multiple stories, often intricately decorated with alabaster or stained glass. City dwellers also reside in houses of this type, or else in modern-style houses or flats.

Yemen’s relative isolation and traditionally weak economy have produced a number of long-standing social problems. Because education was until recently unavailable to the majority of Yemenis, the country has traditionally had one of the lowest literacy rates in Asia. This is particularly true for women in Yemen, who have not generally been encouraged to seek schooling. In addition, health care in Yemen is notoriously underdeveloped. Polluted drinking water, inadequate vaccination, and a shortage of medical personnel and facilities have contributed to the quick spread of numerous diseases among Yemenis. These conditions have also given Yemen a high infant mortality rate and a much lower rate of life expectancy than in other countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Since the late 20th century, Yemeni leaders have made greater efforts to provide social welfare for the nation’s inhabitants; with the help of foreign aid, new training and treatment facilities have opened, and new health-care programs are in operation in some rural areas.

Art and Architecture of Yemen

Yemen has a rich and varied tradition of arts and handicrafts. In addition to painting, sculpture, and metalwork, the making of stained glass is a popular art form in Yemen, and the brightly colored glass is often used to decorate public buildings and private homes. Yemenis also have a tradition of oral literature; poetry is often delivered during celebrations and is sometimes broadcast via radio or television.

Although Yemen’s public architecture is undistinguished, the country is graced with spectacular works of domestic architecture, from the stone fortress villages on mountain slopes to the often fancifully decorated, multistoried stone and mud-brick skyscrapers of Sana‘a and Shibām. Other examples of striking architecture include the serpentine mud construction of Şa‘dah in the north and the geometrically decorated mud-brick buildings of Zabīd on the Tihāmah.

Cultural sites in Yemen include the Republican Palace in Sana‘a, where the imam, or Zaydi political ruler, lived. There are important mosques in most of Yemen’s major cities, and dozens in Sana‘a alone; especially notable is the Great Mosque in Sana‘a, an important Zaydi house of worship.


For centuries, Yemen’s economy was based on subsistence agriculture and was largely self-sufficient. However, with the import of cheap goods from abroad, North Yemen moved quickly from self-sufficiency to dependence after 1960, as the south had done decades earlier. During the 1970s and 1980s North Yemen came to rely heavily on Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf states, and to a lesser extent, the western industrial countries for financial and other assistance, while South Yemen became equally dependent on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and other communist countries.

The unification of Yemen in 1990 and the negative effects of the Persian Gulf War the following year caused economic hardship but also spurred a new commitment to economic planning and development in Yemen. Efforts to improve the economy focused on Yemen’s petroleum industry, its considerable agricultural and fishing potential, job training, and infrastructure. By the late 1990s Yemen’s efforts, particularly in developing its petroleum industry, had resulted in a stable, growing economy.

Mining in Yemen

Oil was discovered in Yemen relatively recently, in the 1980s and 1990s. Yemen’s oil production grew from 70 million barrels per year in 1990 to 164 million barrels per year in 2004. Oil consequently came to dominate Yemen’s economy—more than half of government revenue now comes from oil. Yemen also has natural gas fields that remain largely unexploited. Other mines and quarries in Yemen produce rock salt, limestone, marble, and alabaster.

Agriculture and Fishing in Yemen

Yemen’s economy was primarily agricultural until the rise of the petroleum industry. Agriculture remains an important sector, and farming and livestock raising remain the chief livelihood for most of the country’s population. The extremes of topography and climate, especially in the north, permit a wide variety of crops, including grain (particularly sorghum, but also wheat, millet, and barley), fruits and vegetables (most notably tomatoes, potatoes, grapes, watermelons, papayas, and bananas), coffee, and the domestically valuable khat. In most areas of the highlands, crops are grown in terraced fields cut into the hills. Since the 1980s Yemeni farmers have developed various irrigation projects in an effort to turn some of the country’s plentiful desert into workable farmland and to further increase the variety of crops that can be planted. Sheep and goats are widely raised in Yemen, as are some cattle.

Fishing is also important to Yemen’s economy. Tuna, mackerel, cod, and lobster are caught by commercial as well as independent boats; the catch is sold fresh and dried, and canning factories are in operation in some of the country’s coastal areas.

Manufacturing in Yemen

Yemen’s petroleum refineries account for a large share of the country’s industrial output. Other manufactured products include foodstuffs, textiles, farming equipment, cement, and cigarettes. Oil-fueled electrical power plants produce all of Yemen’s electricity. Many products in Yemen continue to be made by hand and sold locally. Woven fabrics, glass and leatherwork, pottery, and jewelry are made by craftspeople who sell their work in the suqs (bazaars) held in many of Yemen’s cities, towns, and villages.

Currency in Yemen

Yemen’s unit of currency is the riyal (199 riyals equal U.S.$1, 2007). The riyal consists of 100 fils.

Foreign Trade in Yemen

Oil dominates Yemen’s export trade, and the rise of the petroleum industry has allowed the country to turn from large trade deficits in the mid-1990s to large trade surpluses in the early 21st century. In 2007 Yemen’s exports totaled $8.10 billion, and its imports $6.79billion. Petroleum products account for more than 95 percent of export earnings. Other exports include textiles, hides and skins, and coffee. Yemen’s chief imported products are food, manufactured consumer goods, machinery, transportation equipment, and chemicals. Leading purchasers of Yemen’s exports are India, Thailand, South Korea, China, and Singapore; chief sources of imports are the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, India, Kuwait, and the United States.

Transportation and Communications in Yemen

Yemen has international airports in Sana‘a, Aden, Ta‘izz, and Al Ḩudaydah, and a good domestic air system. The ports at Aden and Al Ḩudaydah provide access to major sea routes. A network of paved roads is replacing old dirt tracks, a process that began in the 1960s. Trucks and cars are widely used for land transportation, although some Yemenis still use donkeys and camels. Since unification in 1990 the government has worked to extend utilities such as electricity, water, and sewage disposal to all Yemenis, and to make telephone service, radio, and television more widely available. A state-run broadcasting corporation operates several radio and television stations. Several daily newspapers are published in Yemen.


Yemen is governed under a constitution adopted in 1991, and subsequently amended. The amended constitution states that Yemen is a democratic, Islamic republic, and that Sharia (Islamic law) is the basis of all Yemeni legislation.

Before unification, North Yemen was governed by a benign authoritarian regime dominated by the military, and South Yemen functioned as a centralized socialist party-state. Politics opened up with the creation of the Republic of Yemen in 1990, and the number of freely functioning parties, lobbying groups, and communications outlets multiplied. The 1993 election was the first multiparty election on the Arabian Peninsula, and the first in which women could vote. The vast majority of Yemenis participated.


Yemen’s head of state is a president, who is popularly elected to a seven-year term. The president appoints a vice president, prime minister, and cabinet of ministers.


Yemen has a bicameral (two-chambered) legislature. The 111 members of the upper house, called the Shura Council, are appointed by the president. The 301 members of the lower house, called the House of Representatives, are popularly elected to six-year terms.

Political Parties

The General People’s Congress (GPC), the former ruling party of North Yemen, has held a dominant position in the government since the first elections in unified Yemen, in 1993. The main opposition parties are the conservative Islamic Reform Grouping (al-Islah) and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), the former ruling party of South Yemen.


With the rise of the great ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and along the Mediterranean Sea, historic Yemen became an important overland trade link between these civilizations and the highly prized luxury goods of South Arabia and points east and south. As a result, several pre-Islamic trading kingdoms grew up astride an incense trading route that ran northwest between the foothills and the edge of the desert. First, there was the Minaean kingdom, which lasted from about 1200 to 650 BC, and whose prosperity was due mainly to the trade of frankincense and spices. The large and prosperous kingdom of Saba’ (Sheba), founded in the 10th century BC and ruled by Bilqis, the queen of Sheba, among others, was known for its efficient farming and extensive irrigation system built around a large dam constructed at Ma‘rib. Farther south and east, in the region that would later become South Yemen, were the Qataban and Hadhramaut kingdoms, which also participated in the incense trade. The last of the great pre-Islamic kingdoms was that of Himyar, which lasted from about the 1st century BC until the AD 500s (see Himyarites). At their heights, the Sabaean and Himyarite kingdoms encompassed most of historic Yemen.

Because of their prominence and prosperity, the states and societies of ancient Yemen were collectively called Arabia Felix in Latin, meaning “Happy Arabia.” However, when the Romans occupied Egypt in the 1st century BC they made the Red Sea their primary avenue of commerce. With the decline of the caravan routes, the kingdoms of southern Arabia lost much of their wealth and fell into obscurity. Red Sea traffic sailed past Yemen, and what seaborne commerce Yemen engaged in had little impact on the country’s interior. The Tihāmah region, which was hot, humid, swept by sandstorms, and clouded in haze, isolated the comparatively well-watered and populous highlands. The weakened Yemeni regimes that followed the trading kingdoms were unable to prevent the occupation of Yemen by the Christian Abyssinian kingdom (modern Ethiopia) in the 4th and early 6th centuries AD and by the Sassanids of Persia in the later 6th century, just before the rise of Islam.

Rise of Islam in Yemen

The Islamic era, which began in the 7th century, contains many events critical to the formation of Yemen and the Yemeni people. The force with which Islam spread from its origins in Mecca and Medina in the nearby region of Al Ḩijāz (the Hejaz) led to Yemen’s rapid and thorough conversion to Islam. Yemenis were well-represented among the first soldiers of Islam who marched north, west, and east of Arabia to expand Muslim territory.

Yemen was ruled by a series of Muslim caliphs, beginning with the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from Damascus in the latter part of the 7th century; Umayyad rule was followed by the Abbasid caliphs in the early 8th century (see Caliphate). The founding of a local Yemeni dynasty in the 9th century effectively ended both Abbasid rule from Baghdād and the authority of the Arab caliphate. This allowed Yemen to develop its own variant of Arab-Islamic culture and society in relative isolation. In the 10th century, the establishment of the Zaydi imamate, essentially a theocracy, in the far north of Yemen forged a deep, lasting link between the towns and tribes of the northern highlands and the Zaydi Shia sect of Islam. By contrast, the two-century-long rule of the Rasulids, beginning in the 1200s and initially based in Aden, identified the coastal regions and the southern uplands with Shafi’i Islam. The Rasulids, one of the major dynasties in the history of Yemen, broke from the Egyptian Ayyubid dynasty to rule independently. Their capital, later located at Ta‘izz, was famous for its diverse artistic and intellectual achievements.

Ottoman Rule in Yemen

In the early 16th century Portuguese merchants came to Arabia and took over the Red Sea trade routes between Egypt and India. The Portuguese annexed the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, and from that vantage point tried unsuccessfully to take control of Aden. Following the Portuguese, the Egyptian Mamluks attempted to take power in Yemen, successfully capturing Sana‘a but failing to take Aden. Armies of the Ottoman Empire conquered Egypt in 1517, and in 1538 brought most of Yemen under their control. The Ottomans were expelled nearly a century later, after a long struggle led by the Zaydi imamate that united and strengthened Yemeni identity and ushered in a long period of Zaydi rule.

Yemen developed an extensive coffee trade under Ottoman rule, with the coastal town of Mocha (Al Mukhā) becoming a coffee port of international importance. Despite this, the highlands of Yemen remained economically and culturally isolated from the outside world from the mid-17th century to nearly the mid-19th century, a period during which Western Europe was greatly influenced by modern thought and technology.

Divided Yemen

The process by which Yemen and the Yemeni people were divided into two countries began with the British seizure of Aden in 1839 and the reoccupation of North Yemen by the Ottomans in 1849. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, both the Ottomans and the British expanded their control of Yemeni lands. In the early 20th century, the two powers drew a border between their territories, which came to be called North and South Yemen, respectively. This boundary remained intact for most of the 20th century.

North Yemen in the 20th Century

In North Yemen, Ottoman rule met with significant opposition during the early 1900s. Under the leadership of the Zaydi imam, Yemenis staged many uprisings. After years of rebellion, in 1911 the Ottomans finally granted the imam autonomy over much of North Yemen. Defeat in World War I (1914-1918) forced the Ottomans to evacuate Yemen in 1918.

For the next 44 years North Yemen was ruled by two powerful imams. Imam Yahya ibn Muhammad and his son Ahmad created a king-state there much as the kings of England and France had done centuries earlier. The two imams strengthened the state and secured its borders. They used the imamate to insulate Yemen and revitalize its Islamic culture and society at a time when traditional societies around the world were declining under imperial rule. While Yemen under the two imams seemed almost frozen in time, a small but increasing number of Yemenis became aware of the contrast between an autocratic society they saw as stagnant and the political and economic modernization occurring in other parts of the world. This produced an important chain of events: the birth of the nationalist Free Yemeni Movement in the mid-1940s, an aborted 1948 revolution in which Imam Yahya was killed, a failed 1955 coup against Imam Ahmad, and finally, the 1962 revolution in which the imam was deposed by a group of nationalist officers and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was proclaimed under the leadership of Abdullah al-Sallal.

The first five years of President al-Sallal’s rule, from 1962 to 1967, comprised the first chapter in the history of North Yemen. Marked by the revolution that began it, this period witnessed a lengthy civil war between Yemeni republican forces, based in the cities and supported by Egypt, and the royalist supporters of the deposed imam, backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In 1965 Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser met with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to consider a possible settlement to the civil war. The meeting resulted in an agreement whereby both countries pledged to end their involvement and allow the people of North Yemen to choose their own government. Subsequent peace conferences were ineffectual, however, and fighting flared up again in 1966.

By 1967 the war had reached a stalemate, and the republicans had split into opposing factions concerning relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In late 1967 al-Sallal’s government was overthrown and he was replaced as president by Abdul Rahman al-Iryani. Fighting continued until 1970, when Saudi Arabia halted its aid to royalists and established diplomatic ties with North Yemen. Al-Iryani effected the long-sought truce between republican and royalist forces, and presided over the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1970.

In June 1974 military officers led by Colonel Ibrahim al-Hamdi staged a bloodless coup, claiming that the government of al-Iryani had become ineffective. The constitution was suspended, and executive power was vested in a command council, dominated by the military. Al-Hamdi chaired the council and attempted to strengthen and restructure politics in North Yemen. Al-Hamdi was assassinated in 1977, and his successor, former Chief of Staff Ahmed Hussein al-Ghashmi, was killed in June 1978. The lengthy tenure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 until it merged with South Yemen in 1990, proved more stable. Saleh strengthened the political system, while an influx of foreign aid and the discovery of oil in North Yemen held out the prospect of economic expansion and development.

South Yemen in the 20th Century

The history of South Yemen after the British occupation of Aden in 1839 was quite different. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Aden became a vitally important port along the sea lanes to India. In order to protect Aden from Ottoman takeover, the British signed treaties with tribal leaders in the interior, promising military protection and subsidies in exchange for loyalty; gradually British authority was extended to other mainland areas to the east of Aden. In 1937 the area was designated the Aden Protectorate. In 1958 six small states within the protectorate formed a British-sponsored federation. This federation was later expanded to include Aden and the remaining states of the region, and was renamed the Federation of South Arabia in 1965.

During the 1960s British colonial policy as a whole came under increasing challenge from a nationalist movement centered primarily in Aden. Britain finally withdrew from the area in 1967, when the dominant opposition group, the National Liberation Front (NLF), forced the collapse of the federation and assumed political control. South Yemen became independent as the People’s Republic of South Yemen in November of that year. The NLF became the only recognized political party and its leader, Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi, was installed as president. In 1969 al-Shaabi was ousted and replaced by Salem Ali Rubayi; until 1978, South Yemen was governed under the co-leadership of Rubayi and his rival, Abdel Fattah Ismail, both of whom made efforts to organize the country according to their versions of Marxism. In 1970 the country was renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Foreign-owned properties were nationalized, and close ties were established with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Rubayi was deposed and executed in 1978; under the prevailing authority of Ismail, Soviet influence intensified in South Yemen. Ismail was replaced by Ali Nasser Muhammad al-Hasani in 1980. In 1986 a civil war erupted within the government of South Yemen; the war ended after 12 days, and al-Hasani fled into exile. Former premier Haydar Bakr al-Attas was elected president in October.

Unified Republic

Relations between North Yemen and South Yemen grew increasingly conciliatory after 1980. Border wars between the two countries in 1972 and 1979 both had ended surprisingly with agreements for Yemeni unification, although in each case the agreement was quickly shelved. During the 1980s the two countries cooperated increasingly in economic and administrative matters. In December 1989 their respective leaders met and prepared a final unification agreement. On May 22, 1990, North and South Yemen officially merged to become the Republic of Yemen. Ali Abdullah Saleh, then leader of North Yemen, became president of unified Yemen, while Ali Salem al-Beidh and Haydar Bakr al-Attas of South Yemen became vice president and prime minister, respectively. Sana‘a was declared the political capital of the Republic of Yemen, and Aden the economic capital. By the summer of 1990 more than 30 new political parties had formed in Yemen. Rising oil revenues and financial assistance from many foreign countries, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, brought hope that Yemen could begin to strengthen and expand its economy.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent Persian Gulf War took a serious toll on Yemen’s economy and newfound political stability. Yemen’s critical response to the presence of foreign military forces massed in Saudi Arabia led the Saudi government to expel 850,000 Yemeni workers. The return of the workers and the loss of remittance payments produced widespread unemployment and economic upheaval, which led in turn to domestic political unrest. Bomb attacks, political killings, and violent demonstrations occurred throughout 1991 and 1992, and in December 1992 a rise in consumer prices precipitated riots in several of Yemen’s major cities. Concern arose that declining economic and social conditions would give rise to Islamic fundamentalist activities in Yemen. Political turmoil forced the government to postpone general elections, which were finally held on April 27, 1993, completing the Yemeni unification process begun three years earlier. The General People’s Congress (GPC), the former ruling party in North Yemen, won 121 seats in parliament; the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), the former ruling party of South Yemen, won 56 seats; a new Islamic coalition party, al-Islah, won 62 seats; and the remaining 62 seats were won by minor parties and independents. The president and prime minister remained in office after the election, and the three major parties formed a legislative coalition.

Civil War

The successful elections quickly gave way to political turmoil. In August 1993 Vice President al-Beidh withdrew from Sana‘a to Aden and ceased to participate in the political process. This followed his visit to the United States, where he had held talks with Vice President Al Gore, apparently without the consent of President Saleh. From his base at Aden, al-Beidh issued a list of conditions for his return to Sana‘a; the conditions centered on the security of the YSP, which, according to the vice president, had been subject to northern-instigated political violence since unification. Al-Beidh also protested what he considered the increasing economic marginalization of the south.

Clashes between northern and southern forces broke out in early 1994 and Yemen exploded into full-scale civil war in early May. Both sides carried out missile attacks in and around Sana‘a and Aden. On May 21 al-Beidh announced the secession of the South from the Republic of Yemen and the formation of a new southern state, the Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY). The DRY assembled a political structure similar to that of unified Yemen, and al-Beidh was elected president by a five-member Presidential Council. Meanwhile, Saleh dismissed a number of YSP party members from Yemen’s government in an attempt to remove the influence of al-Beidh.

Fighting continued throughout June 1994, much of it centered around the port cities of Aden and Al Mukallā. Both sides launched attacks on oil installations, and a great deal of infrastructure—particularly in and around Aden—was damaged or destroyed. Following the failure of a Russian cease-fire agreement, Saleh’s northern forces launched a final drive on Aden and Al Mukallā in early July, ultimately defeating the DRY army. By mid-July all of the former South Yemen was under Saleh’s control.

After the collapse of the DRY, Saleh’s government was faced with the task of rebuilding Yemen’s economy and government. In September 1994 the Yemeni legislature approved a number of major reforms to the country’s 1991 unification constitution. Saleh was formally reelected president by the legislature in October, and he appointed Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi as his new vice president. In an attempt to revive the country’s economy, Yemeni leaders made efforts to devise and implement an economic austerity program called for by several international economic agencies; this was achieved with a great deal of difficulty in the spring of 1995.

Territorial Disputes

In February 1995 the governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia agreed to negotiate a settlement to their long-standing dispute over their shared border. The agreement to negotiate defused a potentially explosive situation, as Yemen and Saudi Arabia had skirmished in the region only a few months before. Five years later, in June 2000, the two countries announced an agreement settling the disputed boundary.

In December 1995 Eritrea, which lies across the Red Sea from Yemen, seized Ḩānīsh al Kabīr (Greater Ḩānīsh Island), strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea, from Yemeni troops stationed there. At least 12 people were killed in the fighting. Both Yemen and Eritrea claimed the Ḩānīsh Islands; Yemeni plans for a resort on Ḩānīsh al Kabīr reportedly sparked the attack. By May 1996 the two countries had reached a truce and agreed to submit the question of sovereignty over the islands to arbitration. In October 1998 the arbitration tribunal ruled that the Ḩānīsh Islands belonged to Yemen, and Eritrea withdrew its forces. Both countries accepted the ruling and moved to normalize relations.

Recent Developments

In April 1997 President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) was returned to power in the first parliamentary elections since the 1994 civil war. Many members of the opposition boycotted the elections, alleging unfair tactics by the GPC. International election monitors, however, reported that the elections were mostly fair. In September 1999 Saleh was elected president in the country’s first direct presidential elections. Opposition parties took part in 2003 parliamentary elections but the GPC retained its dominant majority.

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